Whether by way of a memorable line of dialogue, a scene that we can’t forget or simply because they create a stunning image, introductions in films – the first impressions – can be as lasting as when we last see or hear from/of our beloved film characters. I absolutely love when a character grabs me, draws me in to his/her world from the get-go so that I can’t help but stay undisturbed until the journey is over. Those instant connections we make that often last a lifetime make all the difference. With them in mind it occurred to me that this might be a great way to start the new year on this blog – considering film first impressions. So to welcome 2014 I listed my fourteen favorite character introductions in film, first impressions that have remained true.
“As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a gangster.” – Opening line, Martin Scorsese’s, Goodfellas (1990)
(These are in no particular order.)
1. The Floater
It’s Joe Gillis, “The poor dope – he always wanted a pool. Well, in the end, he got himself a pool.”
It occurs to me that I’ve probably commented on Billy Wilder‘s, Sunset Blvd. (1950) more than I have on any other film, but what makes a masterpiece more than continuous consideration of its merits? Well, that’s my story and I’m sticking to it in any case. I just love this film.
With one of the greatest openings in film history, Wilder sets the stage for a story of legend gone mad and introduces the protagonist floating face down, dead in a pool. The director had to work hard to get the shot after a labor-intensive rewriting of the film’s opening, the detils of which you can read in a previous post I dedicated to the film here. But for our purposes today suffice it to say this masterpiece is created from that very first shot of that poor dope lying face down in that pool – the dead man who tells a hell of a story. The first impression of Joe Gillis – tell me more!
True to form I begin this list with a cheat mention. Norma Desmond was big. The biggest. And even before we meet her in Sunset Blvd. we have been introduced to her world, laid waste and stale now in remnants of old glory. A truly unique introduction of this character in this film comes by way of Gillis’ description of that world in narration. The atmosphere with which Desmond surrounds herself, a decrepit, old mansion that was once the epitome of Hollywood glamor mirrors the woman herself. And when Norma Desmond first makes her appearance in the film she doesn’t disappoint. Norma Desmond had a face! and deserves at least a mention because she remains one of the truly remarkable characters in film – unforgettable from that very first shot. In the turban and wearing those dark glasses, her appearance and affectation are more eccentric than even her surroundings. “You’re Norma Desmond. You used to be in silent pictures. You used to be big,” Joe Gillis tells her. “I am big. It’s the pictures that got small.” First impression of Norma – crazy fabulous!
2. Harry Lime
Like all things Orson Welles, the shot is all about Orson Welles in this character introduction from The Third Man (1949), a film directed by Carol Reed. In truth, The Third Man is one memorable shot after another with those famous, severe dutch angles and deep shadows. But the enigma that is Harry Lime is served perfectly in his initial appearance on-screen. The shadowy character appears casting a large shadow in a doorway, where he is clearly wary about being seen in public yet has a smirk that makes that initial sighting so perfect. My impression here – WOW.
I feel an obligation to at least mention the following shot lest some of the film gods cast a permanent shadow on me…
Impressive. A simple word and extreme close-up introducing the driving force behind what many consider the greatest film of all time.
3. Dr. Lecter, I presume
A wonderful script ensures we are forewarned. Do not let this man inside your head! But by the time we meet him as FBI newbie, Clarice Starling does when she interviews him for the first time it’s too late.
As Starling approaches his cell, the last at the end of a dark corridor that houses the worst of society, the criminally deranged, we move along with her, her footsteps echoing through the chamber. Already our worst nightmare standing there motionless in that blue uniform behind the thick glass, Lector is a chilling sight. With a superior intellect he is polite, controlled and controlling. And I will never forget this introduction from Jonathan Demme‘s outstanding, The Silence of the Lambs (1991). My first impression – in-the-marrow haunting.
Hannibal Lector is played by Anthony Hopkins.
4. “I’m not bad. I’m just drawn that way.”
Bob Hoskins as Eddie Valiant can’t believe the stacked Jessica Rabbit is married to the zany Roger. She may be just a toon but she’s got all the guys in the room with their mouths agape as she performs her steamy rendition of “Why Don’t You Do Right?” in Robert Zemeckis‘ entertaining, Who Framed Roger Rabbit? from 1988. I remember the first time I saw this introduction and being shocked at the contrast – the voluptious Jessica paired with Roger. It’s a hoot as most, I think, would expect a lady rabbit, but before our eyes appears this beautifully animated femme fatale with the memorable voice. My first impression – va va voom clever!
5. Two Femmes
Jessica is not an easy act to follow, so I must make note of two other femme fatales for the price of one to counter.
So the story goes…
Newly hired handyman/attendant, Frank Chambers (John Garfield) sits on a bar stool in the Twin Oaks Diner with his new boss. The old man hurries out to mind the gas station and Frank says, “I’ll look after the burger.” Suddenly Frank looks down as a lipstick rolls into the room toward him. His gaze raises toward the door of the room where the lipstick’s owner stands. It’s Cora Smith (Lana Turner), the well-put-together wife of old man Smith. She’s clad in a turban and shorts ensemble. Frank is clearly intrigued and smitten from the first site of her as his face, and the dramatic music indicates. He steps over, picks up the lipstick and asks her if she dropped it. She replies, “mmm-mmm” and puts out her hand without taking a step. She wants him to approach her but he doesn’t. Instead, he leans on the counter right where he is with lipstick in hand – she has to come to him. She does, somewhat defiantly, allowing him plenty of opportunity to gawk and she approaches and retreats slowly and purposefully. She certainly has that feminine mystique, the alluring mystery that leaves him bewildered. And she is as intrigued as he is. The loser in the scene is the burger, now charred on the grill. My first impression – this egg wants some salt (the literal translation from a Spanish saying, which in this case means Cora ain’t no staisfied housewife.)
Tay Garnett’s, The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946).
But wait because there’s another dame whose introduction is equally as murderously memorable!
Insurance salesman Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray) rings the doorbell at the Dietrichson house in Billy Wilder’s, Double Indemnity (1944). He only rings once, in case you were wondering, and asks the maid who answers if Mr. Dietrichson is in. As the maid explains that the man of the house is not in Mrs. Dietrichson makes an appearance. And what an appearance it is.
Clad in a towel because she’s been sunbathing, Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck) asks “is there anything I can do?” And that’s that. From the top of the stairs, dressed in a manner that might render most women vulnerable in the presence of a handsome stranger, Phyllis takes complete control as she looks down from a position of power she never relinquishes. My first impression – now that’s a dame!
Both of these introductions are excerpts from a post I did comparing Cora Smith and Phyllis Dietrichson in “DUELING DIVAS À l’ombre du noir,” wherein I compare many aspects of these women. You can access it here if interested.
6. The Monster
I never truly appreciated this introduction until I saw it on the big screen. Then I gasped imagining what the sight of him must have been like for audiences more than eight decades ago. I’m referring to Frankenstein’s Monster played by Boris Karloff in James Whale‘s 1931 classic, Frankenstein and a first sighting that demonstrates how beautifully Karloff depicted this pained creature. As I wrote the night I saw him on the big screen, “The way he walks in backwards, turns ever so slowly and then raises his head – a “WOW” moment.” My first impression – My goodness!
7. From atop a grand staircase
As Terence Fisher‘s Horror of Dracula (1958) opens we hear the voice of Jonathan Harker (John Van Eysson) reading from his diary. We see him arriving at Castle Dracula, stepping into the vast foyer/dining room to find a note on a table. The note is from Dracula who offers his regrets for being unable to greet his guest, but urges him to eat well and make himself comfortable. Harker obliges his host. Then as he finishes his dinner a woman appears out of nowhere. She approaches and asks Harker to save her, saying she’s being held hostage by him. Harker remains impassive, but then suddenly the woman runs off and we see him as the loud, shrill music plays. Atop a grand staircase, the dark, tall figure of a man draped in a black cape stands immobile. It’s Christopher Lee as Dracula. It’s an unforgettable sight. My first impression – this Dracula means business. Chilling!
8. Il Capo di tutti capi
Bonasera the undertaker opens this film with “I believe in America” as he recounts how his daughter has been disgraced by her boyfriend and his thug friends. Looking at him from behind a desk in a dimly lit room is a man whose hand waves in a slight, but effective command, a casual order to another man in the room to give the weeping father something to drink. Bonasera has come to Don Corleone for justice, to avenge those who have hurt his daughter. The Don listens to this man’s plea in silence, playing with a cat who lies on his lap until an insult comes by way of fear. Without ever raising his voice Corleone stands and speaks casually, indignant, making clear he demands proper respect. Bonasera obliges by bowing his head and kissing the hand of the Godfather. First impression – absolute awe.
9. Hello handsome
It’s the evening of April 24, 1946 in Miami, Florida. Alicia Huberman is having a party even though she’d attended a trial earlier that day in which her father had been found guilty of treason. In any case, Alicia is a gracious hostess, clearly enjoying her party, which is attended by several people who are celebrating her father’s ill fortune. Most are vocal about the results of the trial but one man stays quiet, a party crasher whose back remains to the camera and while we can see the other players and the room clearly, he is in the dark, face unseen for the duration of the scene. Soon time elapses represented by a quick fade out and in to almost the same shot of the back of the man’s head. The other partygoers are gone now, the atmosphere is warm and intimate and as the camera slowly pans around we see him. For the first time. It’s Cary Grant as Devlin, the spy who loves Ingrid Bergman in Alfred Hitchcock‘s, Notorious (1946).
Hitchcock’s introduction of Devlin here adds mystery to both the story and character in one of the director’s best films. Who is he? Friend or foe? And what is he to her? It’s beautifully done. Yet another inspired moment in a Hitchcock film. My first impression – Ooh! Over and over again.
10. Too perfect
Because he loved her most of all and his camera shows it. It’s Grace Kelly‘s introduction as Lisa Fremont in Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window (1954). To this point in the film we’d heard L. B. Jeffries complain that Lisa, his girlfriend, is just too perfect. Hitchcock merely shows perfection with his camera in his signature way with a gorgeous, if simple shot of Lisa as she bends down to give Jeffries a kiss hello. It starts as a shadow rises to cover the face of a sleeping Jeff. The quick hint of danger turns out to be Grace Kelly approaching him (us) as if in a dream, a fantasy. She then kisses Jeff softly and wakes him. The two exchange a few witty words that end with him asking her, “who are you?” and of course we want to know as well. Turns out it is she. Perfection. The Hitchcock ideal never represented more plainly than by way of this character introduction. My first impression – he loved her and it shows.
11. Nails on a chalkboard
The residents and officials of Amity Island are panicking. A huge shark has made the waters around Amity a deathtrap that threatens the existence of the popular summer vacation destination. On this particular day everyone has gathered in a classroom to discuss a quick solution, but no one is in agreement. The voices swell as they all talk at once, panic is clear in most of the voices. Suddenly everyone goes silent as the awful sound of nails on a chalkboard fills the room. The culprit is Quint, a fisherman with experience in catching sharks who offers to end the menace surrounding Amity for a substantial fee.
Robert Shaw plays Quint in Steven Spielberg‘s, Jaws (1975) and gives a memorable performance. Quint is a caricature of sorts of the crusty, seafaring old man who’s lived and worked hard and this introduction is, as with the others, a wonderful scene in which the character is nearly fully realized in just a few moments. The no-nonsense Quint lays the cards on the table with his proposition, one as it turns out no one can refuse. My first impression – he’ll eat the shark. Alive.
12. A mirage
From David Lean‘s sweeping, historical epic, Lawrence of Arabia (1962) the introduction of Sherif Ali played by Omar Sharif. Two men stop in the middle of the desert to take a drink from a well when from afar, we see a figure approach ever slowly on camelback (is that a word?). In truth this introduction doesn’t make much of an impression on me character-wise because it is about that place and time. Not to mention that by the time Ali arrives I am mesmerized. Just look for yourself. My first impression – Mon Dieu!
13. Flat on her face
The movie begins and we meet all sorts of shady characters – cheats, swindlers, murderers likely. Then we meet her husband as he gives a riveted audience lessons in mixing drinks, his specialty, “Always have rhythm in your shaking – a Manhattan you shake to fox trots and a dry martini to waltzes.” A few minutes later she enters. There’s a shot, from her point of view, of the beast that’s pulling her along, making her lose control. As we follow them along the corridor that leads to the main dining room of the popular restaurant she’s entering, we see several people trying to stop the woman. “You cannot take a dog inside” warns the maitre d, “I’m not taking him, he’s taking me!” the exasperated woman responds just before she enters the main room and falls flat on her face scattering all the boxes she’d been carrying across the floor.
So we are introduced to Nora Charles of Nick and Nora fame from W. S. Van Dyke’s, The Thin Man (1934). Nora is played by Myrna Loy one of those classic talents who could do everything from break your heart to make your stomach hurt from laughter. This scene is among her funniest and make us fall in love with her instantly. A huge fall, perfectly executed from which she stands as stylish as ever delivering quip after quip as she joins her equally funny husband, Nick, played by William Powell. Then a wonderful exchange takes place as we learn the dynamic between these two. My first impression – I love this woman and want to be exactly like her. This just never gets old.
“Hey look, it’s Ringo” is all that’s said right before we get a look at John Wayne in John Ford‘s 1939 masterpiece, Stagecoach. But there’s nothing nonchalant about the way Ringo is introduced. It’s so spectacular, in fact, that I don’t have much to say about it. I can’t even pretend to know how an artist has such a vision. But this shot – from wide to close-up – a quick pan toward John Wayne as he flings his rifle with the grand, old West behind him is nothing short of a miracle. It’s as if John Ford creates the legend of Wayne with one shot. That’s not to say Duke Wayne himself wasn’t responsible for his impressive on-screen presence. But I’ve no doubt this helped.
Stagecoach is not my favorite John Ford film, but if I’d had the opportunity to ask a director a question it would be in reference to this introduction. A simple, WHY? My first impression – OH MY! Power and innocence. Or is it powerful innocence?
There you have fourteen (more or less) character introductions, film first impressions that ring like echos in my mind. I’d venture to say you may well agree on some of these but know there are many, many others worthy of mention. In fact, I struggle not to include a list of honorable mentions so please feel free to chime in and note your two cents in the comments. I’d love to hear them.
With this I begin 2014 on Once Upon a Screen. Here’s to a great year.