Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Top 10 Movie Character Introductions


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.

10. The Ringo Kid in Stagecoach (1939)


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 three 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? No…

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?

Who, indeed.

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)

36 comments:

  1. You come up with some of the best ideas for lists. Love your description of Travis Bickle.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks! And... thanks! Glad you like the list.

      Delete
  2. Great choices all around! I really like the inclusion of The Joker, while I prefer TDKR to TDK, TDK definetly wins in terms of the prologue.

    From recent movies I really adore the introducion of Selina Kyle and Lisbeth Salander, very memorable scenes.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks! Selina was a bitchin' intro, and for Lisbeth... you mean Rooney, right? Although both her and Rapace had strong openings.

      Delete
  3. Great list! I have to single out Harry Lime though. When he made his entrance that just that film into the stratosphere for me.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks! Oh, same. I was waiting and waiting and waiting and BAM. It just works so perfectly.

      Delete
  4. Love this list. I have been thinking of making one actually, ever since I read a post on the number 4 entry. Number 6 is all sorts of awesome :)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks! Really enjoyed your list as well. The intro to Boogie is all sorts of awesome In.Deed.

      Delete
  5. That is awesome. For me, among my all-time favorite characters are Alex from A Clockwork Orange, Morvern from Morvern Callar, Bob Harris in Lost in Translation, and many others. Plus the entire cast of Boogie Nights and Frank from Once Upon a Time in the West.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks dude. Great picks. Alex from Clockwork is right up there for me. Perfect intro.

      Delete
  6. Niiice !! Love 3 and 6 and 9 and 4 and 8 and 2 and...did I miss something. Oh yes..1 off course. :)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Ha, you're awesome. Glad you liked the list man!

      Delete
  7. I love 9,8,7,3,and I might move them closer to the top. Harry Lime entrance is definitely me favorite here.Terrific list,Alex,I have been wanting to do this for a long time.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks David! Glad you like the picks. Harry Lime's intro will be forever iconic.

      Delete
  8. Awesome how much Scorsese figures in this list. The following quotes from The Third Man have become recurring jokes between me and my friends;

    "Fella called Lime."
    "I've got a car here."
    "Good chap, tried his best."
    And just about anything in Reed's opening monologue.

    It's all in the delivery.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Ha nice, I love inside movie quote jokes between friends. Definitely all in the delivery.

      Delete
  9. This is an epic list! Especially love 7 and 8, but they're all great picks. I'd also include Death in The Seventh Seal and Colonel Kurtz in Apocalypse Now.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks man! You know, upon reading your comment, I'm actually kind of stunned that I failed to include Death. He'd be in the Top 10, no question. Bergman brain fart right there.

      Delete
  10. Haven't seen 8 and 10 but can vouch for the others making this an outstanding list. I think I'd put Renton and the gang from Trainspotting in too with that whole Choose Life monologue and Lust for Life on the soundtrack!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks dude! Renton's Trainspotting intro was really close to making the cut. That scene works every time. Just perfect.

      Delete
  11. Alex, these are all great picks. The first two that came to mind for me were Harry Lime and Ringo from Stagecoach. For John Wayne, the way that Ford shoots him played a big role in identifying him as the Western hero. The Joker's first appearance in The Dark Knight is also inspired and sets him up just right. Looking at your honorable mentions, I'm glad to see Dr. No on there. I see a lot of similarities in his late appearance to the way Javier Bardem appeared in Skyfall.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks so much, Dan! Glad Ringo is getting some love here - couldn't agree more with what you said about that introduction. Also love your Dr. No - Silva correlation. Great stuff.

      Delete
  12. Would definitely put Alex Delarge's introduction in Clockwork Orange up there, 'Mother' from Psycho, Man with no name's introduction in the Good the bad and the Ugly and the kidnapper from High and Low all would be up there. Great idea and good choices for the list.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Damn man, solid picks right there. Like Death from The Seventh Seal, I'm shocked I didn't include Psycho's Mother. Oh well!

      High and Low kidnapper... now there's a great pick.

      Delete
  13. A great topic for a top ten, no doubt inspired by Javier Bardem in Skyfall, which I only saw last night (Australian time).

    No place for him in the top ten or honourable mentions? Bardem's entrance and introductory scene must count among the high points of this cinematic year.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I actually made this list before I saw Skyfall, but on second thought, that is an iconic, masterful intro that definitely deserves specific mention. Great work from Bardem, Mendes, Deakins and CO.

      Delete
  14. I know you're not a big fan of hers, but I must say Marilyn Monroe's entrance in Some Like It Hot would definitely make my top 10 list. That's how you make an entrance!
    Oh, and Orson Welles' entrance is definitely my favorite from your list, followed closely by the Goodfellas, the Boogie Night characters and of course Sir Hannibal Lecter. However, my ultimate favorite cinematic entrance is that of Death in The Seventh Seal. Just perfect, eerie and flawless.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hey man, good to hear from you!

      You're right, Monroe's entrance is great in Some Like it Hot. Can't argue that.

      Glad you like the picks, and, again, I can't believe I forgot about Death. Shame shame shame.

      Delete
  15. Comprehensive, impossible to argue with list. I mean, Lime, Frank, Johnny Boy, I'd put the whole gang in "Boogie Nights" ahead of the "Goodfellas" but that's just a totally personally call. I'd add Marion in "Raiders of the Lost Ark" too.

    The character introduction......such a crucial, sacred thing.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Wow, thanks Nick! It is a crucial, sacred thing, isn't it? A good character intro just make or break a performance... I truly believe that.

      Glad you dug the list!

      Delete
  16. Oh man, this is great. Really glad you included Boogie Nights. Just gave that another watch a few days ago and could not get over that opening. Amazing film.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Nice, glad to hear you're a fan of that opening. In his commentary, PTA says one of the reasons he shot the opening that way was so the studio couldn't cut it up. He got so fucked on Hard Eight, that he wanted to do whatever he could to perserve his next baby. Love it.

      Delete
  17. Cannot get enough of no.8. Sends chills down my spine every time that music kicks in.
    What a film, and what a performance.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. That pan reveal is everything. Good god.

      Delete
  18. "Voilà! In view, a humble vaudevillian veteran cast vicariously as both victim and villain by the vicissitudes of Fate. This visage, no mere veneer of vanity, is a vestige of the vox populi, now vacant, vanished. However, this valourous visitation of a bygone vexation stands vivified and has vowed to vanquish these venal and virulent vermin vanguarding vice and vouchsafing the violently vicious and voracious violation of volition! The only verdict is vengeance; a vendetta held as a votive, not in vain, for the value and veracity of such shall one day vindicate the vigilant and the virtuous. Verily, this vichyssoise of verbiage veers most verbose, so let me simply add that it's my very good honour to meet you and you may call me V"

    ReplyDelete