Darkest Hour stands apart from more routine historical dramas.
An empty landscape, an endless, desolate (and TechniScope-horizontal) landscape...
... suddenly replaced by another enormous sun-baked landscape, and the long shot is instantaneously transformed into a close-up of...
... a human face, staring into the camera -- and, by extension, into the distance off-camera. It's a variation on the signature Leone shot, and for him these faces (Clint Eastwood, Lee Van Cleef, Eli Wallach -- and in other movies Henry Fonda, Charles Bronson, Jack Elam, Woody Strode...) were landscapes, and landmarks, as characteristic of his stylistic world as the buttes of Monument Valley were for John Ford. -- JE
We've had several excellent appreciations of how the opening shot of Sergio Leone's "The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly" works, each with its own unique angle, if you will. Here are a few -- beginning with Roger Ebert's 2003 Great Movies review:
A vast empty Western landscape. The camera pans across it. Then the shot slides onto a sunburned, desperate face. The long shot has become a closeup without a cut, revealing that the landscape was not empty but occupied by a desperado very close to us. In these opening frames, Sergio Leone established a rule that he follows throughout "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly." The rule is that the ability to see is limited by the sides of the frame. At important moments in the film, what the camera cannot see, the characters cannot see, and that gives Leone the freedom to surprise us with entrances that cannot be explained by the practical geography of his shots. There is a moment, for example, when men do not notice a vast encampment of the Union Army until they stumble upon it. And a moment in a cemetery when a man materializes out of thin air even though he should have been visible for a mile. And the way men walk down a street in full view and nobody is able to shoot them, maybe because they are not in the same frame with them. Leone cares not at all about the practical or the plausible, and builds his great film on the rubbish of Western movie clichés, using style to elevate dreck into art. When the movie opened in America in late 1967, not long after its predecessors "A Fistful of Dollars" (1964) and "For a Few Dollars More" (1965), audiences knew they liked it, but did they know why?
From Dennis Cozzalio, Sergio Leone and the Infield Fly Rule, Glendale, CA:
When Jim invited me to participate in this survey, I accepted with enthusiasm and then immediately began to worry. Every example of a great opening shot that was coming to mind ("Touch of Evil," "The Player," "Shadow of a Doubt") had already been pawed over and written about to such a degree that I certainly didn’t think I would have anything more to add to the discussion that hadn’t already been said, and far more eloquently than I would be able to say it. And as I continued to drag my feet, I saw some of the off-the-chart top choices I had come up with ("Dazed and Confused," "Kiss Me Deadly") get snapped up and written about, again, quite eloquently, by others. Now, after digging through my DVD and laserdisc collection, I’ve finally come up with what I think are some great ones, and as usual I haven’t the discipline to hold myself to just one.
UPDATED WITH FRAME GRABS (07/14/06) JE: Dennis, the owner and proprietor of Sergio Leone and the Infield Fly Rule, of one of my favorite movie blogs, has contributed several great shots and analyses. I'm going to spread 'em out over the next few weeks or so -- and try to get frame grabs for 'em. I hadn't seen "Thieves Like Us" since I showed it in the ASUW student film series at the University of Washington in about 1980, and it isn't available on US Region 1 NTSC DVD -- but I found a German Region 2 PAL version through an Amazon.com z-shop importer, DaaVeeDee.
"Thieves Like Us " (Robert Altman, 1974; photographed by Jean Boffety) Robert Altman has had more than one rich, visually stunning opening shot in his long career. From the Panavision image of helicopters racking into focus to kick off "M*A*S*H," to Rene Auberjoinois’ mysterious lecturer announcing a series of avian themes and questions while surrounded by bird skeletons and other classroom at the beginning of "Brewster McCloud"; from Elliot Gould’s Philip Marlowe stretched out on a bed, counteracting the proactive image of Raymond Chandler’s private eye to the strains of “Hooray for Hollywood��? [and "The Long Goodbye" -- ed] to open "The Long Goodbye," to the K-Tel-esque record commercial that serves as the opening credits of "Nashville," to the raising of the flag by bugle call leading into the staged massacre that opens "Buffalo Bill and the Indians, or Sitting Bull’s History Lesson" (proclaimed on-screen with satiric bombast as “Robert Altman’s Absolutely Unique and Heroic Enterprise of Inimitable Lustre!��?), Altman knows how to kick off a movie.
One of his most beautiful opening shots, however, occurs at the beginning of "Thieves Like Us," a shot that artfully prepares us for the somber mood, the deliberate, unhurried pace of the film as a whole, and its naturalistic attitude toward the story it intends to tell, that of the doomed relationship between a young escaped convict and the naпve young woman with whom he falls in love.
View image: The crawl recedes...
View image; The camera tilts down.
View image; The surface of a planet spans the lower part of the frame as a ship passes through the top.
"Star Wars" has, not surprisingly, been the popular favorite among Opening Shots contributions. Here's how several of you saw it:
From Barry Toffoli:
"Star Wars" opens with a shot of space and the soft sound of John Williams score, then the shot shifts to a planet. So right away we know we’re in for adventure on foreign soil, in outer space no less. Then a small vessel comes from the top of the screen. This is quickly followed by a series of blasts as the score turns into that famous booming on sound, akin to Gustav Holst’s ‘Mars’ [from "The Planets"]. This is all quickly followed by the enormously famous and copied shot of a behemoth star cruiser coming in from the top of the screen and going on forever. It doesn’t take long to figure out that this story is a tale of good versus evil, the little guy getting bullied by the big guy. Even the planet in the shot plays into the theme, representing a new undiscovered world a new hope for freedom and life. But we know the journey will be hard as the star cruiser looms over everything from the rebel ship to the planet below to the audience watching it in the theatre.
And long before the death star ever shows up we fear this massive beast could blow up the planet below just as easily as it could blow up the tiny ship, setting the stage for one of the greatest adventures in film history.
View image: It starts here...
View image ... and ends here. And nearly everything that happens, except for a slow movement in on the house, happens off-screen.
From Richard T. Jameson, Editor, Movietone News, 1971-81; Editor, Film Comment, 1990-2000:
The opening shot of Joseph Losey's "Accident" (1966) begins under the main-title credits and runs for a minute or so after they have concluded. We're looking at the front of a good-sized but hardly palatial house in the English countryside -- the home, as it happens, of an Oxford don whose academic career has been less than stellar. It's nighttime, tangibly well into the wee hours. No lights are burning, no activity within is apparent. The credits roll without musical accompaniment. On the soundtrack we detect an airplane passing overhead; onscreen, a slight alteration of perspective on the surrounding tree boughs makes us aware that the camera is slowly nudging closer to the house. After a moment, there is the sound of an automobile approaching. The noise grows loud; the engine is racing. Then, a screech of tires and the sound of impact and shattering glass, abruptly cut off. There is a further pause. Then the front door of the house opens, only a hint of light glimmering in the interior. Hesitantly, a man steps out, then begins advancing into the night. Cut to several murky shots impressionistically marking his progress as he moves toward the scene of the titular accident.
The shot, though plain as, uh, day, is remarkable for several reasons. One, of scant concern to most of us, is that with it the director and his first-time cinematographer Gerry Fisher achieved their goal of shooting a color scene that actually looks like what it's supposed to be: a nighttime exterior as seen by moonlight, rather than a day-for-night fakeroo or some other conventional attempt to imitate nighttime via filters and technical trickery. Losey and Fisher went to extreme pains with the film lab to get the shot to look exactly as they wanted it -- even though, as Losey ruefully observed in interview, they knew most theaters would bathe the screen with mauve houselights for the benefit of late-arriving seat-takers, and in any event a few passes in front of the projector's carbon arc would soon alter the image on the emulsion.
So, technically, a real, if effectively unnoticed and ephemeral, coup.
View image: From synapses deep inside the brain...
View image: ... out through a sweaty pore...
From Robert Humanick, a film odyssey:
I'm not sure if this applies to the "opening shot" rules, in that it is included as part of the opening credits, as well as the fact that it was digitally rendered (some people are picky about such things). But having already read (and agreed with) many of the other submitted choices (particularly "Aguirre," my personal favorite), I felt this one needed a voice of its own.
"Fight Club" opens from remote darkness into unrestrained chaos, the camera pulling back at near-breakneak speed out of an unknown quarter through various layers of strangely textured substances, the frantic nature compounded by the Dust Brothers' pulse-techno soundtrack. Ultimately, the microscopic journey reveals itself to have been taking place within the brain of the film's unnamed main character (Edward Norton). The point-of-view shot exits his body through a pore on his face (a bead of sweat rolling down from it just as the camera retracts from the skin), pulling further back over more differing terrains to ultimately reveal a hazy human figure. Just as the picture comes into focus, revealing the figure to be at the mercy of the film's quasi-villian (who has a gun shoved mercilessly into his mouth), the recurring voiceover begins: "People are always asking me if I know Tyler Durden."
Shane Carruth's ingenious "Primer" (2004) offers a textbook example, if you will, of a "What are we looking at?" opening shot. Linear and rectangular or trapezoidal patterns of light dot the dark screen. Then the irregular, vaguely chevron-shaped object at the top of the frame flickers, illuminates, and... we see we're inside a residential garage, near the ceiling, looking at the door, which begins to lift to the accompaniment of odd, but still somewhat familiar, electronic and metallic/mechanical sounds. Even once we know what it is, something about it feels like science fiction -- as though this door were opening up to a new dimension or something. The next shot orients us: a more conventional exterior establishing shot, showing the grinding, squealing door from the outside and four young men walking into the space. This is the (twisted, inside-out) story of these garage-based tech entrepreneurs, and they won't understand what they're seeing, either, when they accidentally invent and/or discover something incredible in that unassuming structure. Or, maybe, they already have... -- JE
From John Hartl, film critic for MSNBC, Seattle, WA:
“Nights of Cabiria��? (1957)
The opening scene in Federico Fellini’s greatest film presents a pattern that will be repeated in the story of Cabiria, a shrimpish streetwalker who is as feisty as she is gullible. She and her boyfriend of the moment, Giorgio, scamper across a vacant field in front of some appallingly character-less Roman apartments. She’s happy and uninhibited, but he seems impatient and calculating. As they approach a canal, he grabs her purse, shoves her in the water and runs away. A small boy hears her cries, and he and his friends rescue her just as she’s about to drown. Several adults join the rescue party, gracelessly turning her upside down as they expell the water she’s swallowed, and finally she starts breathing again. Offended and embarrassed by the kindness of strangers, she walks off in a huff.
Life rarely gets better for Cabiria, who doesn’t have much more luck in her dealings with celebrities, religion or a theatrical hypnosis session in which she bares her soul for an audience of still more strangers. Played with tremendous spirit by Fellini’s wife, Giulietta Masina, she has a habit of falling for traitorous losers, throwing money at them, then waking up to find herself surrounded by people she's never met. The opening scene is almost a prophecy, yet it's never depressing because Cabiria doesn't know how to give in to despair. In the end, she achieves a state of grace in the midst of her most ruinous folly.
From Ali Arikan, Istanbul, Turkey:
The first shot of "Withnail and I" is deceptive in its simplicity. As the camera opens on the eponymous "I" of the title, obviously depressed and downtrodden, we see a 30-something-man at the end of his tether, drowning in angst; both literally and figuratively, trying to breathe. A desk lamp, the single light source, and the books and notepads scattered over a desk in front of him betray the possibility that he is a writer. The rest of the furniture has that all-too-familiar aura of the maudlin British middle class. All this, combined with the sluggish zoom of the camera and the melancholy use of the last ever King Curtis live performance of "A Whiter Shade of Pale" by Procol Harum, presents the audience with an irrevocable feeling of denoument. Almost as if this is the final shot of a film and not its first.
View image: To sleep, perchance to dream...
View image: The dreamer awakes.
View image: Meanwhile, on the other side of the world... (From the opening shot of "Lost in Translation.")
Does this shot look uncannily familiar? A man asleep, or almost asleep, with his head against a window as the twilight world outside floats by. This one's from Richard Linklater's "Slacker," but we've also featured a similar opening shot from Sophia Coppola's "Lost in Translation."
I love the way the window, besides being a frame within a frame (suggesting a slightly fuzzy, abstracted reality in the background that's distinct from, but related to, what we're seeing in the foreground), is almost like a cartoon dialogue bubble, but instead of words it's filled with images. A dream, perhaps? It certainly has a dreamlike quality. And, of course, the sleeper/dreamer in this shot is the filmmaker himself, Richard Linklater. And the movie we're about to see is filled with stream-of-consciousness monologues and long, winding shots that drift from one character to another until the very end when some kids throw the camera itself off a cliff. Linklater (unlike Bill Murray in Coppola's movie) is on the right of the frame, with the window images moving from left to right. Linklater's face is on the strong axis, in terms of traditional composition, and the flow of motion seems natural and unforced, kind of like the path-of-least-resistance flow of the whole movie. Murray, on the left with the images moving right to left (against the way we Westerners read) seems to be swimming upstream in an Eastern world. (Speaking of upstream: You rarely see images of spawning salmon leaping left to right; upstream always seems to be right to left. See "My Own Private Idaho.")
View image: The kind of thing that can ruin a childhood.
From Robert Daniel, Birmingham, AL:
"Deep Red" (Dario Argento, 1975): The scene opens a floor-level shot. We hear a stabbing sound and a loud scream. The knife falls in from the left and the child's feet rush in from the right. Then the screen goes black for the credits. I guess I counted this as an opening shot because the camera does not move, nor isthere ever a cut. It is one short, continuous take.
The whole giallo is based on this event. It is the murder of a parent in front of the child (whose legs we see). Most of the film happens 15 or so years later, with the child as an adult. The string of brutal and creative murder set-pieces all relate back to what happened in this shot.
The shot is made more effective by the fact that a very eerie child's nursery rhyme is playing in the background. Rumor has it that the nursery rhyme music was played before in an episode of "Davey and Goliath"!
JE: Thanks, Robert -- and thanks for sending in the frame grab, too. I can't believe I haven't seen this major Argento (one of those embarrassing gaps for me), but it's been in my Netflix queue for a long time. I'm gonna have to bump it up to the top now.