Not having any particular “theme” for the week, just something that I’m always perpetually thinking about, and I hope it’s interesting enough to share: what makes for a good introduction to a movie character?
NB: I was going to include YouTube videos, but only about half of the entries had them, and it just seemed weird to do it that way.
Top 10 Character Intros
10. Hans Beckert (Peter Lorre), M
Introducing a character solely through his voice: that’s the sort of thing you can only do in a sound film, but we all know that Fritz Lang’s 1931 thriller did more to advance the use of sound in cinema than anything else ever has. We know that there’s a child killer on the loose, thanks to a WANTED poster; it’s a clever, though not terribly imaginative conceit to have the killer’s shadow block our image of that same poster. But it’s his reedy voice, telling a little girl that she has a nice ball, that really starts to get freaky; and a moment later, when we see him (but not his face!) buying that little girl a balloon, it’s his harsh whistling (dubbed in by Lang himself) that stays with us more than anything, just about guaranteeing that nobody who’s seen this film will be able to associate “The Halls of the Mountain King” with anything else than serial killers.
9. Frank (Henry Fonda), Once Upon a Time in the West
Does exactly what a great intro for a great villain should do: it grabs you by the most delicate feature of your gender’s anatomy, and twists. Hard. There’s this farm, see, and the people living there are nice, American homesteaders, and then this man in black comes and kills them all. When the little kid in the family runs for help, the man blasts him square in the back. Then he turns around, and it’s Henry Fonda. Henry Fonda just shot a kid in the back! Anybody can tweak a star persona; it takes a Sergio Leone to violate a persona with quite that much rapacious aplomb.
8. Jean Harrington (Barbara Stanwyck), The Lady Eve
The least fancy intro on this list; but it perfectly nails all of the important details of one of the great screwball heroines of all time. Everyone on a boat from South America to the U.S. is buzzing about Charlie Pike (Henry Fonda), the extremely wealthy young man they’ve just picked up. Jean and her “dad” have slightly different concerns than mere gossip, as revealed by her very first words: “Gee, I hope he’s rich. I hope he thinks he’s a wizard at cards.” The next few lines demonstrate the depths of her mercenary interest, culminating in her dropping an apple on his head as he mounts the ship, just to see if she can. So begins the most breathlessly hilarious con job ever filmed.
7. Guido Anselmi (Marcello Mastroianni), 8½
Trust a filmmaker to have dream sequences that look like Surrealist shorts. In Federico Fellini’s masterpiece about the inner mind of a creatively stuck movie director, there’s no real difference between “character” and “imagery”, which is what makes the film’s justly-famous opening scene all the greater. Guido is stuck in a traffic jam; trying to get out, he finds himself flying over the city and then over an empty beach, where he cannot keep himself from flying away into nothingness. Reading a description can hardly to justice to the thing; so watch it here, and be amazed once more at the thematic richness and psychological insight and plain ol’ moviemaking awesomeness of the best opening scene ever.
6. Lina Lamont (Jean Hagen), Singin’ in the Rain
A perfect slow-boil reveal of an absolutely vacuous woman’s lack of character: first, in the lengthy flashback delivered by Lina’s co-star Don Lockwood (Gene Kelly), we see her shown to be an image-obsessed snob. So skillful is Hagen’s pantomime, and so perfect the film’s comic timing, we barely even notice that Lina hasn’t said a word until well into the movie, when for some reason, Don won’t let her have a turn at the microphone. “Some reason” is quickly explained, in a moment that should be forever studied by students of how to use pacing in a movie comedy: at this point, we’re completely fascinated by this vain, silent floozy, when she finally gets to burst forth with one of the best-timed and contextually funniest first lines ever: “Fer heaven’s sake, whats the big idea?”, delivered in a shrieking voice that could make a dog scratch its own ears off.
5. Scarlett O’Hara (Vivien Leigh), Gone with the Wind
The most gloriously lumbering and over-stuffed epic in history begins with a surprisingly fleet moment: the camera races up to the front porch of an old plantation, to hear two young Southern gents talking excitedly about the impending Civil War. They back away to reveal Scarlett, a beautiful young lady in a fine dress, whose first lines perfectly sum up the incredibly solipsism that will drive her for the next four hours and leave her with one of the most defiantly tragic endings in cinema: “Fiddle-dee-dee. War, war, war. This war talk’s spoiling all the fun at every party this spring.”
4. Harry Lime (Orson Welles), The Third Man
To be fair, we’ve been well more than introduced to Harry, long before we see him in the flesh; there’s probably not another off-screen character in the movies about whom we have such a complete picture. But when the moment finally arrives, rather late in the film, when we find that he’s not quite as dead as we were told, it’s so iconic that I’d feel like an idiot to leave it out. His best friend Holly (Joseph Cotten) is having the latest in a string of absolutely awful days in Vienna, and is shouting drunkenly at the dark figure in the alley that’s been following him. A woman opens her window, casting light right on Harry’s face, wearing a perfectly characteristic grin that as much as says, “Oops! Well, how you doing, Holly, you old bastard?” In just one shot, the film goes from a great post-war mystery to one of the best motion pictures of all time.
3. Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson), Sunset Blvd.
Joe Gillis (William Holden) has been wandering around a decaying old mansion on the outskirts of Hollywood, wondering just what kind of a person could live in such a place, surrounding herself with the musty relics of a bygone age, an imperious Germanic butler, and a dead monkey lying in state, waiting for its funeral. He doesn’t have long to find out: a haughty, disembodied voice is found to belong to a woman with a crazy mess of tangled hair and an ostentatious dressing gown. Even in her ratty state, Joe recognises her as a silent film star who used to be a pretty big thing, back before this apparent madness took her. Norma’s eyes close slightly, and her voice drops down somewhere halfway between defiant and threatening: “I am big. It’s the pictures that got small.” Amen to that, lady.
2. Rick Blaine (Humphrey Bogart), Casablanca
“One hears a great deal about Rick in Casablanaca”, someone laters notes. Ay, you do, and what we hear in the first few minutes of this classic example of the studio system firing on all cylinders is enough to give us quite the mythological idea of just who and what Rick might be. Some kind of mortal god, directing the fates of all those who set foot into his café out of caprice or whim? An exceptionally savvy businessman? An anti-social workaholic? Suffice it to say, we have quite a lot invested when we finally get to meet him, as a hand that signs, “OK – Rick” on an IOU. Then the camera pans up from that hand to Bogie’s tired face, taking a drag on a cigarette, and our expectations are fulfilled as well as they could possibly have been.
1. The Ringo Kid (John Wayne), Stagecoach
A shot rings out, stopping the coach that we’ve been following for some ten minutes. The driver recognises the shooter as the notorious Ringo Kid, and that’s when the shot cuts to a wide shot of a Western character actor, loosely holding a gun to one side. The camera then dollys in to see him better, so quickly (with so much enthusiasm, one might say) that it actually goes out of focus for a few frames. And that is how America’s finest director, John Ford, saw fit to give us our first proper glimpse of America’s most prolific leading man: a shot that practically screams, “this Wayne fella, he is going to be one hell of a movie star.”