The way in which a film character is introduced can make or break a performance. More often than not, little attention is given to the opportunity filmmakers have by completely stunning the audience from the onset. Here is a list of my personal favorite character introductions in film history. Some come in with a bang, others come in with a smile, and some come in yielding a very large kitchen knife. No matter the entry, they’ve all left their mark.
Shortly after a band of misfits board a stagecoach in John Ford’s classic, the conversation drifts toward the elusive Ringo Kid. The Marshal along for the ride wants nothing more than the capture the Kid, who is on the run from the law. Nearly 20 minutes into the film, a gunshot is heard and we cut to The Ringo Kid twirling his rifle, demanding the stagecoach come to a halt. The camera cuts to Ringo from afar then infamously pushes in tighter and tighter and tighter to reveal a fresh-faced John Wayne.
What better way to showcase the birth of an American icon?
9. Hannibal Lecter in Silence of the Lambs (1991)
It’s all about the stance. As Jodie Foster’s Clarice slowly turns the corner to Lecter’s plate-glass cell, we see that he’s just… standing there, waiting. In the middle of his tiny cell, proper and perfectly postured. His obvious eagerness to meet someone new is evident, and the way Howard Shore’s music so expertly underscores the moment only adds to the scene’s effectiveness.
Whether you’ve seen the movie once or 100 times, this moment is never not creepy. It always sends chills down my spine.
8. Frank in Once Upon a Time in the West (1968)
Early in Sergio Leone’s epic deconstructed western, a family is senselessly mowed down by faraway henchmen. One child remains as the killers move in closer. The camera pans around to reveal the leader of gang, and then we see it. We see Henry Fonda’s bright, blue, kind eyes. Frank was Fonda’s only villainous role, and I can think of no better introduction to bestow upon him.
7. Harry Lime in The Third Man (1949)
Arguably the most discussed and analyzed character introduction in cinema history is the moment a light casts Harry Lime out of the shadows in The Third Man.
By this point in the film, Lime is the man everyone in the film is looking for. So when he not-so-secretly sneaks up on Holly Martins on the side streets of Vienna, Martins demands that the unknown figure “Step out in the light.” Light soon beams from a window and voilà, Orson Welles in all his glory. A forever-iconic introduction.
6. Everyone in Boogie Nights (1997)
Oh God, what’s not to love here? In a bravado piece of filmmaking, director Paul Thomas Anderson thought it’d be best to introduce most of the major characters from his porn pop masterpiece in the first scene. Just to, you know, get it out of the way. To add to the ingenuity, he elected to do it in one shot. One breathless, magnificent, seamless shot.
The Emotions’ “Best of My Love” blasts as we glide down from a title card marquee to the street, slowly making our way inside the Hot Traxx club. Club owner Maurice schmoozes Jack Horner and Amber Waves, Reed Rothchild boogies with Buck Swope and Becky Barnett, Rollergirl skates on then skates off, and Jack spots his new, big, fat, bold, fresh talent. It’s just… perfect.
5. Francis Xavier Slaughtery in 25th Hour (2002)
When we meet Francis Slaugherty in Spike Lee’s 25th Hour, he is sitting red-eyed and Red Bull-fueled, anxiously waiting for the stock market to release the unemployment numbers. He has “100 fuckin’ million” riding on the fact that the number will be low. If it's low, he’s rich(er), if it’s high, he’s fucked.
Now, what does that all mean? Hell if I know. But whether you have a full grasp of the American market or not, it is impossible to deny the energy of this scene. Slaugherty, as played to animalistic perfection by Barry Pepper (seriously, this is one of the most criminally overlooked performances of the ‘00s), is belittled by his boss and made fun of by coworkers, all while flexing his Brooklyn confidence. When he knows, he knows, and he knows. Throw some expert cinematography by Rodrigo Prieto in the mix, and we have a character begging to be explored.
4. Johnny Boy in Mean Streets (1973)
A young man innocently walks up to a post office mailbox. He slips something inside, then begins to walk away. He turns back to look at the box, walks, turns, runs, BOOM, the box explodes onto New York City’s mean streets as the man excitedly runs away.
This is Robert De Niro. This is Johnny Boy. This is Martin Scorsese at his most raw. Why exactly did Johnny Boy blow the box up? Why not? Exactly.
3. The Joker in The Dark Knight (2008)
I can’t even lie, I was damn fooled the first time I saw this film. I had no idea Heath Ledger’s The Joker lurked among the bank robbers picking each other off one by one in the first scene of The Dark Knight. Rewatching it now, it’s so clear which one Ledger is – his snake-like movements, his exaggerated mannerisms – but that first time… that first time, I hadn’t a clue.
And right when that masked man said, “No, I kill the bus…driver,” I literally gasped out loud, stunned by the film’s deceit. He gracefully strolls over to William Finchter’s injured bank manager, flawlessly delivers THAT LINE, then removes his mocking clown mask to reveal the mocking clown underneath, right as Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard’s score crescendos.
That’s how you win an Oscar.
2. Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver (1976)
Late in the game of Scorsese’s pulp crime masterpiece, Taxi Driver, we idly attend a rally for Senator Charles Palantine. We gently gloss over the crowd, panning the torsos of several spectators, before resting on the man. The man dressed in tight jeans and a faded military jacket, reaching into his jacket pocket for a pill. And right as he brings the pill to his mouth, the camera ingenious pans up to reveal a very recently mohawked Travis Bickle. We’ve met Travis before, but now, for the first time, we are meeting him since fully crossing into a world of internal mayhem.
Here is a man who would not take it anymore. A man who stood up against the scum, the cunts, the dogs, the filth, the shit. Here is a man who stood up. Here is.
1. The GoodFellas in GoodFellas (1990)
My favorite movie opening of all time begins with
four dudes in a car. Ray Liotta hazily behind the wheel, Robert De Niro passed
out in the front seat, and Joe Pesci silently staring out the back window. They
hear a subtle bang, then a louder one, then a louder one. Road kill? A flat?
They pull over, De Niro draws a gun, Pesci draws a giant kitchen knife, and Liotta pops the trunk, revealing a poor son of a bitch bruised and beaten to shit, begging for his life. Without hesitating, Pesci stabs in him one, two, 12 times, De Niro empties his gun, Liotta slams the trunk, and we’re off.
Our jaws drop, our air escapes us. What the hell just happened? Who the hell was that? Who ARE these people?
10 Honorable Mentions
Norma Desmond in Sunset Blvd. (1950)
James Bond in Dr. No (1962)
Lolita in Lolita (1962)
Willy Wonka in Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory (1971)
Jaws in Jaws (1975)
Harold Shand in The Long Good Friday (1980)
Hans Gruber in Die Hard (1988)
Col. Nathan R. Jessup in A Few Good Men (1992)
Winston Wolf in Pulp Fiction (1994)
Pablo Escobar in Blow (2001)