"The Thunderbolt"-- that's the term used by Michael Corleone's
companions in The Godfather. Michael had just seen the ravishing Appolonia
and was simply overwhelmed. Some films give audiences "the thunderbolt"
with certain characters. Now I'm not talking about striking beauty, although
that's sometimes the case. I mean clever ways of introducing a character
that have an immediate impact. These entrances can set a tone for a character,
a film, or possibly a whole career. The "how" part for these
introductions varies, but they all instantly become etched in our minds.
So I went back and picked out some of the most memorable ones. Now I don't
have enough audacity to say they're the greatest. But here, in chronological
order, are my favorite first impressions:
Stagecoach -- The
Ringo Kid (John Wayne)
It was the shot that launched a movie icon. A band of travelers rolls
along in their stagecoach, when an unmistakable off-screen voice bellows
"Hold it!" Director John Ford cuts to Wayne standing with
a rifle on his shoulder centrally posed against the majestic Monument
Valley landscape. He then zooms into Wayne's rugged determined classic
American face. Wayne's introduction is in part a triumph of framing.
His cowboy getup set against that background establishes him as a Western
hero. But remember that a camera zoom-in was highly unusual for 1939.
Ford's unorthodox use of that move draws our attention beyond the story,
even beyond the Western genre. The shot establishes a connection with
Wayne's character and the traits he embodies. It draws us into what
would become the classic John Wayne persona for the next 37 years.
Citizen Kane -- Charles
Foster Kane (Orson Welles)
I admit I'm cheating here. Technically, the first time we fully see
Welles as Kane is in the "News on the March" prologue. But
I'm talking about the first time we see him once the story is really
underway. Welles the director cleverly sets up his entrance with the
uptight Mr. Thatcher reading a succession of headlines from Kane's newspaper,
The Inquirer. Each headline attacks big business, and each headline
makes Thatcher madder than the last. After he reads each headline Thatcher
moves the newspaper away from his face. After the last headline, Kane
unexpectedly appears, turning around in his chair. This introduction
works due to Welles's skills as both an actor and a director. He uses
surprise, making us go along with the montage and not figure that Kane
would suddenly be there. Kane's turn toward the camera adds some dramatic
flair. Finally though it is Welles the performer. Right away we see
the charisma and confidence that define the younger Charlie Kane. We
also see the famous Welles smirk, that look of playful amusement. His
first line seals the deal. After Thatcher states that this is no way
to run a newspaper Kane replies "I don't know how to run a newspaper,
I just try everything I can think of." Just perfect.
The Third Man -- Harry
Lime (Orson Welles)
Who else but Welles could appear twice on this list? Harry Lime has
perhaps the most famous entrance in film history. Let's try to put ourselves
in the position of an audience seeing The Third Man for
the first time back in 1949. Welles is supposedly the star, but we don't
see him for well over half the film. The characters we do see always
talk about Harry Lime, but he's supposed to be dead. So while the anticipation
builds we're not quite sure for what. Meanwhile, there's clearly some
sort of conspiracy. In fact, there's someone following our protagonist,
Holly Martins (Joseph Cotten). Holly yells at his follower, demanding
that he reveal himself. But all we see is a cat brushing up against
the mystery man's pant leg. Then the light goes on in a nearby window,
which becomes a spotlight. In a flash the stranger's revealed: It's
Harry. Holly is stunned, and we would be too. Lime's entrance somehow
blends anticipation with surprise. Director Carol Reed shrouds Lime
in darkness, making it all the more striking when Harry is suddenly
bathed in light. He then gives us just a brief close-up of Lime's face,
so we can see Welles's cheeky amused look -- not too different from
the one he had in the early Citizen Kane scenes. Lime
is just tickled at how he surprised Holly, just as Welles must have
delighted in startling audiences. An impeccable blend of the story,
the direction and the right star.
Rear Window -- Lisa
Carol Fremont (Grace Kelly)
Lisa is present before she appears on screen. Her boyfriend Jeff (James
Stewart) and his nurse discuss Lisa in the early scenes, with Jeff complaining
that she's "too perfect." As Reed did with Lime, director
Alfred Hitchcock gives us pieces of information and different perspectives
on the character before the entrance. This builds anticipation by prompting
us to each form our own pictures of Lisa. How close will the real thing
be to our pictures? Hitchcock does not make us wait long to find out.
As Jeff sleeps we quickly see a shadow envelop him. Hitchcock then places
us in Jeff's point of view as he slowly awakens to see Lisa's gorgeous
face before him. She's a vision; a waking dream. Of course it helps
that Grace Kelly plays Lisa. Her glamour, her beauty and her sheer screen
presence captivate the audience as much as Jeff. Who wouldn't want to
wake up to see her? Kelly was Hitchcock's favorite actress and we can
see why, as her talents completely match with Hitch's innate ability
to use them.
Dr. No -- James Bond (Sean Connery)
Agent 007 has become such an institution that it's hard to comprehend
that many people had never heard of him in 1962. Director Terrence Young
introduces us to Bond slowly before we actually see him. We hear someone
say he's looking for James Bond and follow this man as he walks around
a casino. The camera moves with him and we see another man's hands dealing
cards. We hear this new man's deep voice as he wins again and again
at the card game. His opponent, a pretty woman, grows more and more
frustrated as she continues to lose. But she carries on. The man playfully
taunts her with "I admire your courage Miss . . ." "Trench,
Sylvia Trench," she replies, as the man reaches into his cigarette
case. "And I admire your luck Mister . . ." Now we see him,
full with smooth machismo, lighting the cigarette dangling from his
mouth. "Bond, James Bond." Between the "Bond" and
the "James Bond," 007 clicks the cigarette lighter for that
extra emphasis. Young lets us anticipate Bond through showing his success
and the woman's reaction to him first. We expect to see a confident
and virile man and Connery fills the bill immediately. He is strong,
cool, calculating, self-assured and a magnet for women. He also looks
terrific in a tuxedo. That introduction scene sets so much of that character
for the next 40 years, and establishes a tone not just for a film, but
for a franchise.
Lawrence of Arabia -- Sheik Ali Ibn El
Kharish (Omar Sharif)
Director David Lean made great use of the desert landscape throughout
Lawrence of Arabia, but never more so than with Sheik
Ali's entrance. As Lawrence and his guide stop at a well, Lean shows
us the vast empty horizon. Eventually a little dot appears in the distant
haze. This dot is so small it might as well be a mirage. Lean keeps
cutting back and forth from Lawrence and his guide to the horizon as
the dot grows larger. It becomes a man riding a camel as we hear footsteps
growing louder. "Who is he?" Lawrence asks. He doesn't know,
the guide doesn't know and we don't know -- the man is shrouded in mystery.
Then the guide starts to suspect something, grabs his gun and prepares
to fire at the stranger. But he's too late as the stranger shoots him
first. Then finally we see the man majestically descend from his camel.
Although he introduces himself to a frightened and angry Lawrence, we
still don't know much about him. What we do see are the contrasts. Lawrence
and his guide are tired and dirty. Sheik Ali is clean and polished.
Lawrence and his guide are dressed in light clothes, matching the desert.
Sheik Ali is clad entirely in black. Sheik Ali and Lawrence will become
friends and allies but we don't know that yet. His introduction presents
him as a wild card -- a man not to be messed with, and the first indication
that Lawrence's journey will not go as planned.
A Clockwork Orange
-- Alex (Malcolm McDowell)
Alex's entrance succeeds for reasons completely different from others
I described. Lawrence of Arabia and Dr. No
build anticipation before revealing the character. There's no anticipation
with A Clockwork Orange; Alex's appearance is the very
first shot after the credit sequence. With Stagecoach,
John Ford shows the Ringo Kid set against his background and then zooms
in. A Clockwork Orange is the exact opposite. Director
Stanley Kubrick begins with a close-up and gradually pulls back to reveal
Alex's background. And what a stunning close-up it is. Alex, with his
head tilted down, looking up at the camera with that "Kubrickian"
stare. He has that menacing, dangerous look. He has that one false eyelash.
As the camera slowly moves back and the narration begins, we get a sense
of the environment: the Droogs on either side, the "milk"
bar. But Alex stays in the center of the frame. Even without the narration
we learn so much about Alex from that opening shot, which firmly establishes
his character for the film's first half.
Star Wars -- Darth Vader (David Prowse)
Sometimes the simplest entrances work best. Director George Lucas shows
us a rebel spaceship with a white hallway. Imperial stormtroopers in
their white armor burst through a portal and engage the rebels in a
brief battle. Shortly afterwards the white stormtroopers stand in the
white hallway, when a new figure enters from the smoky portal. He has
a black suit, a black mask, a black helmet and tops it off with a black
cape. This man towers over the stormtroopers. For the first time we
hear heavy ominous breathing as the dark figure stands with his hands
at his sides, quickly surveys the damage and strides away. He has not
said a word, and no one has called him Darth Vader, Lord Vader or anything
else. But does it matter? He's a vision of black, a vision of evil.
The breathing sounds and the body language play an important part in
establishing Vader from the get-go. But mostly it's the basic black/white
contrast that proves so effective.
Raging Bull -- Jake LaMotta (Robert De Niro)
Martin Scorsese described the opening of Raging Bull as
the signature shot for his whole career. As the credits roll, Jake La
Motta shadow boxes in slow motion on the left side of a boxing ring.
It's a long shot (in both distance and time), we see La Motta through
the ropes form the outside of the ring as the Intermezzo from "Cavalleria
Rusticana" (an opera by Pietro Mascagni) plays. We can interpret
this shot any number of ways. La Motta during the rest of the film is
cruel and vulgar, but here he is graceful and elegant. The shot is beautiful
and poetic, while La Motta's other boxing scenes are brutal and vicious.
So this shot differs from the rest, but not without reason. Scorsese
presents La Motta in his element, completely belonging. We later see
how La Motta's rage and savagery outside the ring destroy his life.
But those same qualities make him a champion boxer even without the
natural ability of his peers. The opening shot presents him at home
in the ring; he's at home nowhere else. Here's another angle -- La Motta
is shadow boxing alone. Fighting his shadow . . . fighting himself.
La Motta's true enemy throughout Raging Bull is not any
boxing foe, but his own demons and insecurities. So much from just one
Moulin Rouge -- Satine (Nicole Kidman)
Director Baz Luhrmann not only had to introduce Satine, he had to show
how the young writer Christian (Ewan McGregor) could instantly fall
for her. Luhrmann gradually builds toward Satine's entrance. We know
who she is right away when we see Christian pining for her after her
death. Once the flashback begins, we hear Lautrec (John Leguizamo) and
his team talk about her. Soon after, we experience the dazzling Moulin
Rouge can-can scene, a frenzied array of color and music. The scene
is invigorating in its own right, but it's really a setup for Satine.
We go from vibrant colors to darkness, and from the blasting song medley
to silence. Then, after some diamond-like sparkles, Satine descends
from above on a glittering swing. She's like an angel visiting the mortals
from heaven. We also have another color contrast. The can-can sequence
had such warm reddish hues, but Luhrmann bathes Satine in cool blue
light. Not only does this add to her otherworldly glow, it also heightens
her red lips. Like Grace Kelly, Nicole Kidman is a vision of beauty,
and how could Christian not fall for her instantly? Luhrmann uses sound,
color and light to create an entrance for the ages.
July 24, 2002
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