First Impressions

"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 shot.

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.

Adam Spector
July 24, 2002

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