Our favorite opening titles and sequences, in commentary and video
The opening to a film is like finally getting to meet someone you’ve only heard about, someone you know only through hearsay or reputation. You get the suspense of your own first impression and a hint of something to follow, even if you’re not sure what that something means or what it will become. If you’re seeing a film for the first time, one you’ve waited with anticipation – or dread – there’s also sometimes a sense of getting to the top of a roller coaster, the adrenaline rush of getting close to the exhilaration of what’s about to happen.
The best films recognize that their openings, like the openings to great novels, set the tone and lay the groundwork for the stories that follow. Some seek to dazzle us with style and attitude; others beat down our expectations or resistance, compelling us into their worlds. The following films represent some of our favorite movie and television openings, both title sequences and otherwise. Each one achieves something different, but each one puts forward a central idea of its film.
1. Seven Days In May (1964) – John Frankenheimer’s Cold War thriller centered around a rogue Joint Chief of Staff (Burt Lancaster) attempting a military coup of the federal government and the pacifist U.S. President (Fredric March) and breakaway Pentagon official (Kirk Douglas) attempting to stop him. Legendary title sequence designer Saul Bass puts the very U.S. Constitution under siege by the interconnected days, the hands of a clock becoming lightning bolts on the nation’s seal, and the White House shut off by nuclear missiles. It’s the film’s core struggle encased in a symbolic smart bomb, made more effective by Jerry Goldsmith’s martial score:
2. Crime Story (1986) – Michael Mann executive produced this NBC series starring Denis Farina (Law & Order) and Stephen Lang (Avatar) as 1960′s lawmen in perpetual struggle against a rising crimelord (Anthony Denison.) Halfway through the first season the show shifted locales from Chicago to Las Vegas, and the second season opening credits celebrated both the show’s edgy violence and Vegas’ neon-noir allure, all set to a souped-up version of Del Shannon’s classic “Runaway.” The rooftop fistfight image always bowls us over.
3. Taxi Driver (1976) – The beginning to Martin Scorcese’s dissection of mid-1970s alienation and violence drops the audience straight down into anti-protagonist Travis Bickle’s (Robert DeNiro) lonely world, a world of rainy gutters, dirty smoke, and fleeting images of humanity. The city around him shifts to streaking, muddled primary colors and back as the soulful interlude in Bernard Hermann’s otherwise menacing score almost mocks Bickle’s loneliness. Even the credits themselves are fleeting, with the cast’s names rising and falling into the steam clouds swallowing the cab.
4. Bullitt (1968) – the legendary, game-rewriting car chase sequence has overshadowed much of the rest of this sleek thriller by director Peter Yates. Yet the enthralling opening heist, highlighted by Pablo Ferro’s title design, seems to move in a half-dozen directions at once, thanks in part to Lalo Schifrin’s swinging score. For a film about shifting morality and individual sel-reliance, the sequence both cements the viewer’s own perspective while at the same time preparing them for the swirl of events and motivations to come. And – and! – it just looks so damn cool, besides.
5. Repo Man (1984) – Alex Cox’s snarly saga about a Los Angeles teen (Emilio Estevez) who falls into possession of a 1964 Chevy Malibu with extraterrestrial corpses in its trunk is quintessential punk rock cinema from a time before “punk” was merely a marketing brand. The opening credits, with typically belligerent music from Iggy Pop, lights up a series of road maps in radioactive greens, taking the viewer on the road to nuclear Hell.
The credits use (for their time) state of the art wipe edits and pixellated effects to show movement across the Southwestern United States, giving the largely L.A.-centered film a road movie sense of urgency. Still, they seem proudly low-budget and deliberately cool, which is exactly the mood the film wants to strike.
6. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (2005) – An affectionate but undaunted homage and satire of film noir tropes (the script wears its Raymond Chandler influences on its sleeve), Shane Black’s dark comedy thriller was adored mostly by critics who got the knowing references but yet failed to draw much attention or box office among the public. Still, it was the start of Robert Downey, Jr.’s comeback, while also featuring an unfairly overlooked turn by Val Kilmer as a gay private investigator and a winning performance by Michelle Monaghan as an actress shifting between femme fatale and girl next door at whim.
Title designer Danny Yount based the breezy, colorful opening sequence on Saul Bass’ 1960′s work, matching the images to the music and keeping the tone playful and smart. In some ways it’s much lighter in tone than the film that follows, but it’s nevertheless perfectly fun to watch for pure enjoyment all on its own.
7. Trainspotting (1996) – A film that captured counter-cultural disgust with the mainstream in the 1990s much like Repo Man did for the 80s, Danny Boyle’s ensemble story of working class Edinburgh heroin addicts and assorted desperate souls (based on Irvine Welsh’s novel) briefly made the mantra “Choose life. Choose a job. Choose a career.” a sardonic catchphrase for anti-commercialism. The film also launched the careers of several of its stars, including Ewan McGregor, Kelly MacDonald, Kevin McKidd, Johnny Lee Miller, and Robert Carlyle.
The short, breathless opening sequence explains the characters’ whole lives, guided by McGregor’s flawless narration (which, by the way, is NSFW for several reasons.)
Some films that would surely have made this list, had their credits been available for embedding, include: We Own The Night, Fight Club, Fahrenheit 451, Where the Sidewalk Ends, and Sherlock Holmes. If this list were longer, it would also include Spartacus, The Conversation, Cutter’s Way, To Live and Die In L.A., and The Man With The Golden Arm.
- Michael Kabel