guardians of the galaxy opening scene

How a film opens says a lot about its style and tone, and can turn people off or make them sit forward in their seats with curiosity. This week’s big new release, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, has a hard act to follow; its 2014 predecessor had a memorable opening in which hero Peter Quill/Star-Lord dances through an alien world, blasting “Come and Get Your Love” on his old Walkman. As we wait to see if Vol. 2 lives up to the original, let’s look at 15 of the best opening scenes in movies.

A caveat before we begin: due to the availability (or lack thereof) of scenes on YouTube, some movies didn’t make the cut. Four examples that deserve a brief mention are as follows. First, The Fugitive, with a breathless 15-minute sequence starting with the discovery of Dr. Richard Kimble’s dead wife and ending with Kimble on a prison bus about to be destroyed by an oncoming train. Second, Raising Arizona, with a delirious pre-title sequence that ends with H.I. and Ed McDunnough, married, deciding to kidnap a baby. Third, WALL-E, whose first, lengthy sequence depicts the eponymous robot’s day of work in a trash-heavy future. Finally, The Rescuers Down Under, which starts with its most thrilling scene, an extended setpiece where a boy runs through the Australian Outback, climbs a cliff, saves a rare eagle, and gets kidnapped by a poacher. (Just a normal day.) With those out of the way, let’s get to the list.

Touch of Evil (1958)

The opening scene of Orson Welles’ noir Touch of Evil is a master class of suspense, as Alfred Hitchcock would have defined it: we see a mysterious person place a literal time bomb on a car just before its driver and passenger enter, then wait tensely for the bomb to blow up. The tension rises for two other reasons: the scene, beginning with the bomb’s placement and ending with its explosion, unfolds in a single take, and the lead characters (played by Charlton Heston and Janet Leigh) walk by the car multiple times, inadvertently endangering their own lives. Unlike other single-take shots, there’s far less technical trickery here; you can all but feel the camera moving up, down, and sideways, adding to its brilliance. Touch of Evil is, in general, a solid noir though not quite as memorable as its opening. But an opening this tense can’t be ignored.

Vertigo (1958)

There isn’t as much to the opening scene of Vertigo, like some of the other entries on this list. The Alfred Hitchcock classic has an equally memorable series of opening credits, as colorfully hallucinatory as some sequences of the film. But the opening, in which we see Jimmy Stewart’s lead character Scottie fail to keep up with one of his fellow San Francisco cops in catching a criminal, sets the stage for the key conflict of the film. His failure (which can easily be read as his impotence) to save the cop due to his vertigo is strikingly visualized, with a dolly-zoom effect that was popularized thanks to this film. The guilt that weighs on Scottie is something that he can’t shake, and something that will be repeated more than once before the final, tragic shot. Vertigo’s opening scene is brief, but no less powerful or important.

Once Upon a Time in the West (1968)

Sergio Leone’s Spaghetti Westerns thrive on recognizable aspects: widescreen camerawork of dusty desert vistas, intense close-ups of the outlaws at the center of the stories, seemingly endless tension, and outbursts of violence. Once Upon a Time in the West begins with those elements colliding together in a masterful sequence. Three killers lie in wait at a desolate train station for their quarry, Harmonica (Charles Bronson). Harmonica doesn’t so much take them by surprise as he simply lays them all flat by way of the gun. What makes this so memorable is less the mechanics of what happens, and more about how Leone builds tension through sound design – an impossibly creaky windmill, for one – as well as constant cuts between the men waiting to murder Harmonica. The longer the scene takes, the more unbearable the tension becomes; it’s a stylistic choice that inspired films like Inglourious Basterds, and yet, nothing’s as good as the original.

Manhattan (1979)

Like Annie Hall, Woody Allen’s Manhattan is able to balance melancholic drama and wry comedy very well. Like Annie Hall, the opening scene of Manhattan is hard to forget. However, this one’s a lot better than the mini stand-up set that starts the 1977 film. The entire film is shot in lush black-and-white by one of the great cinematographers, Gordon Willis; the combination of that photography, Allen’s fast-paced and witty narration, and the music of George Gershwin blasting on the soundtrack makes for a soaring, swelling first five minutes that culminate in literal fireworks. Manhattan plays on many similar themes within the entirety of Allen’s filmography, his neuroses blending with failed romances as per usual. But the decisions to lean on Gershwin on the soundtrack and feature black-and-white camerawork give the opening a deliberately, cheerfully old-fashioned sensibility that pays off wonderfully from the start.

Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)

There are few heroes in cinema greater than Indiana Jones, and few films greater than Raiders of the Lost Ark. On one hand, this is an unsurprising choice – the image of Harrison Ford outrunning a boulder is one of the most iconic in his or Steven Spielberg’s filmographies. But this scene is just so damn fun. The action unfolds perfectly, as Indy faces test after test, up to escaping an attack from natives, and coming face to face with a snake. Before that, we have one of the great character introductions in movie history; Ford cuts a dashing image in spite of being undercut by failures throughout. (It’s not as if he gets away with the idol, after escaping the imploding cave in which it was housed.) This sequence stands the test of time, over 35 years later; as wonderful as the Indiana Jones series can be, they haven’t ever topped the exciting pinnacle of the first film’s opening 15 minutes.

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