Sunday, May 06, 2007

Saluting the Great Opening Credits Sequences

The opening credits sequence is becoming a lost art in modern cinema. All too often, filmmakers, wary perhaps of audiences getting bored, opt to skip out and place the contractually required opening credits at the end. (This results in a number of redundancies, such as the repeated cast list that first time around doesn't even tell you who played whom.) And, to be sure, they're not strictly necessary. But they have a function. David Cronenberg has referred to the opening titles sequence as a "vestibule" for the film; it's a way to set the tone for what's to come and get the audience in the proper frame of mind after ads and trailers and the visit to the concessions stand and so on. It's not the only way this can be done- the STAR WARS movies have their opening crawl, for example- but I can name a number of films that, in just jumping right to the first scene, get off to an awkward start.

Until such a time as things change, let's celebrate this grand tradition by looking at the great opening titles sequences- ones where the simple listing of cast and crew was turned into part of the experience. (My one major criterion for this was that it had to seem like a sequence specifically created as the opening credits sequence, and not just the opening scenes with titles playing over them.)

15. BARBARELLA (1968)- Say what you will about Jane Fonda, if you need a woman to take her clothes off in zero gravity, she's your girl. Add in some strategically placed flying letters (though not too strategic, thank God) and a classically dopey theme tune and you've got a great bit of cheesy eroticism that the rest of the film never quite lives up to.

14. THE ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW (1975)- A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, God said, "Let there be lips!" And there were. And they were good. The opening song's lyrics combine B-movie references and cheap innuendo in a way that tells you right out whether this movie is for you, and the blood-red titles have become rather iconic.

13. CRASH (1996)- Minimalist electric guitar chords ring out while backlit metallic titles relentlessly cruise towards the camera. It's beautiful, sterile, and disturbing, the perfect opening for a David Cronenberg film based on a J. G. Ballard novel about car crash fetishists.

12. BEAVIS AND BUTTHEAD DO AMERICA (1996)- As little as it has to do with the story of the film, this parody of 70s cop shows is pure genius, right down to Isaac Hayes singing the theme tune. The final freeze-frame is particularly great.

11. SCARFACE (1983)- Brian De Palma's brash update of the Howard Hawks crime drama is mostly remembered for the lead character's cartoonish excess, but it starts off by rooting him in very real and recent history. It's a reasonably simple sequence, intercutting the credits with news footage of boats arriving from Cuba, but the pacing, set by Giorgio Moroder's completely Eighties theme tune (sadly not available in its proper form on CD), gives it a driving intensity and the feel of an epic early on.

10. MONTY PYTHON AND THE HOLY GRAIL (1975)- Mock Swedish subtitles turn into first a tourist pitch, then a story about mooses, then- suffice it to say the actual point of having credits is completely forgotten, to the point that the directors' names are buried at the bottom of a list of llamas. One of those great Python bits that seems to have had no conceivable origin.

9. THE AVENGERS (1998)- Even amidst the uniformly negative reviews there was praise for the film's opening titles. My thoughts on the movie itself are a matter of record, and its flowing, surrealistic opener captures its retro-modern phantasmagoria quite beautifully.

8. NORTH BY NORTHWEST (1959)- It may be possible to create an entire list just from Saul Bass' work, so I'm going to limit myself ever so slightly. Here, we also have Bernard Hermann's dizzying theme tune (one of his best) working with some nicely skewed titles to evoke both anxiety and a sense of playfulness, which is just the right combination for what follows.

7. AUSTIN POWERS: INTERNATIONAL MAN OF MYSTERY (1997)- I knew this spoof's heart was in the right place when this gloriously kitsch dance number started up. 60s cliche piles upon 60s cliche, from dopey disguises to swinging policemen, leading to a grand parade, backed by George S. Clinton's brilliant theme tune. A grand and affectionate salute to all that was groovy.

6. DEAD RINGERS (1988)- It's hard to set the right tone for a drama about drug-addicted twin gynecologists with identity issues, but I think this comes close. A delicate but vaguely pompous theme tune by Howard Shore plays over classical illustrations of birth and antique gynecology, all against a blood red background. Strangely beautiful in its way.

5. GOLDFINGER (1964)- I decided to limit myself to one Bond movie; otherwise we'd be here all night. There's a unique alchemy to the series' trademark compositions of mostly-naked women and action imagery, and sometimes it can stray into the realm of unintentional amusement (or just looking to see how carefully the dancers have been covered up), but the mixture here is just right- scenes of action and danger projected onto the golden form of model Margaret Nolan, accompanied, of course, by the most fondly remembered of James Bond theme songs.

4. VERTIGO (1958)- Another great work by Bass for Hitchcock. This is one is vaguely disturbing throughout, from the extreme close-up of a woman's face to the sudden blasts of music. It has an ethereal, supernatural quality, putting you off-guard from the start.

3. ED WOOD (1994)- Some cheesy-but-not-too-cheesy special effects make up a fun assembly of visual icons from the title character's films, creating a great fringe Hollywood atmosphere set to crazed bongo/theremin music (Shore again.)

2. SUPERMAN: THE MOVIE (1978)- When in doubt, you can't go wrong with names flying at the camera against a starfield. I'm not quite sure if this was the first of its breed, but it says "epic" like nothing else.

1. FLASH GORDON (1980)- No point going into detail.

Honorable Mentions: Touch of Evil, Se7en, Alien, Dune


Piper said...

Great Post

I don't think it's a lost art. I still think there are a lot of movies doing great opening sequences.

Seven is a good example of setting the tone. I wanted to run out of the theater before the movie began.

Panic Room is also excellent, albeit very much like North By Northwest.

Catch me if you can has a really good opening credits.

And although they are at the end, the credits for 300 were much cooler than the movie.

On a simpler note, I felt that the opening credits to Carpenter's The Thing is very ominous and helps set the dread of that movie.

And the credits of Goodfellas, where they zoom across the screen helps set the dizzying tone for that movie.

Evan Waters said...


The Austin Powers theme is actually by Quincy Jones, and is a pre-existing piece called "Soul Bossa Nova" that's popped up elsewhere.