Getting Things Started: 15 Amazing Opening Scenes In Movies

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.

The Player (1992)

Robert Altman's career was not at its strongest before The Player; films like Nashville and M*A*S*H were well behind him. The Player brought him back into the mainstream, gaining a further critical appreciation up to his passing in 2006. The film, based on screenwriter Michael Tolkan's novel, is a savage satire of Hollywood, focusing on an industry executive attempting to avoid being murdered by a mysterious and vengeful screenwriter he wronged in the past. The 8-minute opening happens in a single take, establishing a number of characters (including Tim Robbins' protagonist) and the shallow world of the studio lot. The stunt is even more impressive because of how Altman calls attention to it; listen to co-star Fred Ward blithely extol the virtues of the opening of Touch of Evil to a cohort. The Player is generally one of Altman's stronger pictures, starting at a high point with a typically dry take on the industry.

Get Shorty (1995)

Get Shorty is best known as an inside-baseball satire of Hollywood, depicted through a film-loving loan shark, a sleazy B-movie producer, an A-lister, and his old flame. But the lead, Chili Palmer, has to get to Hollywood first, and the pre-title sequence establishes how that happens. What happens in the opening sequence, so instantly slick and clever, is calmly laid out, with detail-laden dialogue (via Scott Frank's script) that feels cool and deadpan in the right ways. (When Chili discovers his nemesis Ray Barboni stole his leather jacket, he demands the price of the jacket, and specifies that it was a Christmas present from his ex-wife, without feeling exposition-heavy.) A large part of why the opening works so well, aside from its efficient pacing, is Travolta, who's in rare form as Chili. From the first, he fits perfectly as a cinephile working for an old-school gangster – at least, until that gangster dies and his future isn't so safe.

The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1996)

Outside of Fantasia, Disney's most ambitious animated film is this dark, tragicomic tale. A decade before, Disney was struggling after the failure of The Black Cauldron; now, they were adapting a novel by the writer of Les Miserables, from the directors of the studio's Best Picture nominee, Beauty and the Beast. On the whole, The Hunchback of Notre Dame is flawed; one minute, we get a great, complex villain song in "Hellfire", and the next, Quasimodo gets advice from a farting gargoyle. But its opening scene sets a magnificent, operatic tone, set to "The Bells of Notre Dame." Here, we see how Quasimodo, as a baby, was saved because the Archdeacon of Notre Dame Cathedral stopped the evil Judge Frollo from drowning him. Though many Disney Renaissance-era films have great opening sequences – The Lion King being the obvious choice – this film's mix of striking animation, harrowing story, and swelling music makes it stand above the others.

Scream (1996)

There are memorable opening scenes in horror films – think of the POV shot in Halloween – and then there's this. Scream is a fine horror movie, but it never gets better than the extended opening sequence where a killer wearing a mask inspired by Edvard Munch's painting "The Scream" attacks and brutally murders a pretty blonde girl (Drew Barrymore) after quizzing her about her favorite scary movies. Scream's sequels have notable opening scenes as well, like in the second film where Jada Pinkett Smith and Omar Epps are separately attacked by the Ghostface killer or in the fourth film, which has a Russian-nesting-doll style to its opening with a movie-within-a-movie-within-a-movie reveal tied to Ghostface piling up more murders. But the mix of wry humor in the outset of the first film's opening, along with the grimness that director Wes Craven adds once the killer gets serious and cruel, is what will always make it the franchise's most iconic element.

Magnolia (1999)

Paul Thomas Anderson is arguably the best filmmaker under 50, and Magnolia is his most sprawling film. In many ways, the film is also his messiest (in a good way). Nowhere is it clearer than in the 13-minute opening sequence, bridged by the title card appearing over Aimee Mann's cover of "One". The first part, narrated by Ricky Jay, describes three coincidences: a man murdered by vagrants whose names match the location of the murder, a blackjack dealer (Patton Oswalt) dying in a freak accident caused by the alcoholic pilot who assaulted him at a casino, and a young man inadvertently being killed by his mother as he attempts to commit suicide. The second part introduces us to the film's massive cast, from a misogynistic motivational speaker to his dying father to a genius child, and so on. Magnolia is clearly massive; the opening sequence is as sharp, breathlessly paced, and emotionally direct as what follows. Anderson's films all open strong, but Magnolia goes wonderfully big with its time-jumping opening.

Lord of War (2005)

Lord of War is arguably the weakest film on this list. However, its opening credits sequence is an eye-popping, show-offy bit of technical flair from writer/director Andrew Niccol. The concept is simple: we watch the life and death of a bullet, from its "birth" in a factory to the moment it winds up in the center of the forehead of a boy in the middle of war-torn Africa. What makes the scene stand out, aside from the moral and social implications, is that it's all done in one take. Of course, there's a fair (and obvious) amount of special-effects wizardry making this happen, whether in showing how a soldier picks up a bullet to put it back into a box or when the bullet comes sailing out of an assault rifle before landing in its target's brain. The scene is scored to Buffalo Springfield's "For What It's Worth," a ubiquitous protest-era song, underscoring the casual cruelty of the gun trade that forms the backbone of the film.

Casino Royale (2006)

The James Bond franchise has always offered memorable – or hopefully memorable – opening pre-title sequences. The Daniel Craig-era Bond films are no different: Skyfall opens with a propulsive action sequence climaxing in 007 being shot and falling off the top of a train in Istanbul, and Spectre opens with a single-take action scene set amidst Dia de Los Muertos celebrations in Mexico. But for Craig's first go-round as Bond, the opening was as stripped-down as the new, back-to-basics Bond was. The short scene doesn't feature any wild pyrotechnics, outrageous stunts, or the like: it's shot in black-and-white and shows us how Bond acquired his 00 status, by killing a treacherous MI6 agent and his contact, the latter of whom puts up a nasty fight in a bleached-white bathroom. Martin Campbell, who also directed GoldenEye, isn't as stylish a filmmaker as Sam Mendes, but the unflinching, genuinely gritty style of this opening helps it stand out among modern Bond entries.

Mission: Impossible III (2006)

Each Mission: Impossible film starts memorably, from Tom Cruise climbing a massive cliff face to escaping from a prison to hanging onto an airplane wing. But the opening scene of the third film, J.J. Abrams' directing debut, is the best because of its quickly escalating suspense. Starting in medias res, the movie opens with Cruise's Ethan Hunt waking up strapped into a chair by Philip Seymour Hoffman's baddie, and staring at his newlywed, bound-and-gagged wife (Michelle Monaghan). The stakes are simple: Hunt has to deliver something called the Rabbit's Foot, or Hoffman's character will kill his wife after he counts to ten. Hunt tries his best to dissuade his captor, especially since he believes he already delivered the Rabbit's Foot. But he's apparently wrong, Hoffman counts to ten, the gun fires, and we cut to credits. The movie that follows is only a solid action film, but it starts incredibly well.

The Dark Knight (2008)

The best film of Christopher Nolan's trilogy, The Dark Knight has many great setpieces, from the Joker and Batman's first face-off at a swanky party in the Wayne penthouse to the extended sequence that begins with the Joker attacking a SWAT truck holding Harvey Dent, includes a semi-truck flipping end over end, and culminates in Batman viciously interrogating the Joker in the Gotham City PD. The opening sequence is a fantastic statement of purpose, and a clear homage to Michael Mann's classic crime drama Heat. In the IMAX-filmed sequence, the Joker (hiding behind a clown mask) and a group of thugs rob a bank and fend off an attack from the mobbed-up bank manager. The hallmarks of the series are all present in the five-minute setpiece: Hans Zimmer's blaring soundtrack; gunfire without gore; simmering suspense; and an authenticity rooted more in crime dramas than comic books. It signals the brilliance to come, even if it's not the high point.

The Social Network (2010)

The marriage of visionary director David Fincher, idealistic writer Aaron Sorkin, and the story of Facebook may seem destined to fail. But from the pre-title sequence of The Social Network, it's clear that these disparate elements will come together beautifully. It's hard to believe the first scene, a date gone sour between Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg) and Erica Albright (Rooney Mara), lasts only five minutes. Mark and Erica spend that time talking – arguing, really – at a ridiculous speed. Erica only appears briefly after the opening, but within the structure of Sorkin's adaptation, her decision to break up with Mark is pivotal. He treats her callously, suggesting that they're in a bar because she slept with the bouncer or that the caliber of person she'd meet through him is better than anyone she could meet on her own. But in context of that breathless opening – punctuated by bar-crowd noise on the soundtrack and Fincher's choice of a muted brown color palette – it makes sense that Zuckerberg holds onto the memory of Erica all the way to the end of the film.