Ricky Church on the best character introductions in cinema history…
Sometimes a character’s introduction in a movie makes a lasting impression that becomes an integral part of the film’s legacy. Whether its through their swagger, high-stakes danger or a one-liner, their introduction not only sets up their role in the film, but can make quite an impact in pop culture with fans endlessly quoting their lines or spawning countless parodies. In this piece, we’ll be breaking down some of the most memorable and compelling character introductions in cinema and why they have remained so legendary through the years.
10. McCauley, Hanna and their crews – Heat
Every good heist film needs a good group of cops and robbers and Michael Mann’s Heat sets a pretty great template on how to introduce them. The opening minutes intercut seemingly random individuals doing regular things: Robert De Niro picking up an ambulance, Val Kilmer buying construction equipment or Al Pacino making love to his wife in the morning. None of them or the other characters introduced after seem to connect.
It all becomes clear when De Niro’s crew converge on an armoured security car filled with money as each of them had a specific task preparing for the heist. In these short couple of minutes, you get a sense of how they operate with De Niro’s cold and professional Neil McCauley as the group’s leader. They’re obviously not afraid to use violence, but they avoid the loss of life if possible. However, if things go south they do not hesitate to take down security in their way – including the surviving guard who was cooperating, but as Al Pacino later says, “By that time what’s the point? Why leave a living witness?”
And then enter Pacino’s Lt. Vincent Hanna as he surveys the crime scene and deduces the group’s experience based on how quick they were in and out and their disposition to violence. His own crew of detectives are quite competent themselves, creating the first of many parallels between McCauley and Hanna that is explored throughout the film. Each of their introductions sets up the crux of Heat‘s themes in a great manner, paving the way for one of the most interesting and captivating onscreen rivalries with these two legendary actors.
9. T-Rex – Jurassic Park
This one may not be a person, but it can still be regarded as one of the best ‘characters’ of the Jurassic Park franchise: the fearsome Tyrannosaurus Rex. Throughout Jurassic Park, the T-Rex is spoken of with excitement from Alan Grant, Ellie Sattler and John Hammond. Sam Neil’s Grant is probably the most excited to see a real live T-Rex, evident in his disappointment at not seeing one during their tour and how Hammond doesn’t seem to understand the T-Rex’s natural instincts. His excitement changes pretty quickly in one of the most iconic moments of film history.
The tour group gets unfortunately stranded next to the T-Rex pen in the middle of the a storm while a goat, the T-Rex’s meal, keeps bleating outside. Then the youngest kid feels a shake on the ground, followed by another as he looks at the water glass and sees it vibrate with each boom. All of a sudden, the goat is missing… until a piece of its leg falls on the roof of their jeep and the T-Rex rises out from the trees. What follows is one of the most intense moments ever for a ‘family’ film as the T-Rex give them a very up close experience. It is shown as a force of nature at the top of the food chain and nigh unstoppable to the group of survivors as well as other dinosaurs, velociraptors included.
8. Vito Corleone – The Godfather
Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather has one of the most compelling openings in all of cinema as a man speaks with an unseen figure, telling him he “believes in America”, but recounts a story where his daughter was assaulted and the system he believed in failed his family. The man he’s speaking with is Don Vito Corleone, the most powerful mob don in New York who is so respected and feared he’s been given the nickname ‘The Godfather’.
Vito Corleone, played to perfection by Marlon Brando, is a wise, calm and collected man and his introductory scene displays this quite well. He doesn’t immediately offer retaliation, but instead questions the man more, particularly why after so many years of ‘friendship’ he’s never once shown any interest in being a real friend to Corleone and his family due to their illegal lifestyle. Even when he’s asked to kill the men as revenge, Vito points out how that is not fair retribution since his daughter is still alive. Unlike his hotheaded son, Vito is rational and uses common sense to run his family’s business. He even instructs to make sure the men given the job would not be prone to taking the assault too far. It’s a powerful scene that shows how Vito Corleone is almost unlike any other mobster in the film.
7. Jack Sparrow – Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl
Pirates made a bit of a comeback in the early 00s thanks to the massive success of Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl. While the first Pirates film has a lot to enjoy, perhaps the biggest reason for the film’s success is due to Johnny Depp’s performance as *Captain* Jack Sparrow.
Jack’s introduction sets up an epic, almost heroic entrance. The theme music swells as we get our first glimpse of Jack Sparrow, standing atop a crow’s nest of a ship as the sun shines behind him. He’s got a determined look on his face and you think he’s getting ready to launch an attack when he jumps down from the crow’s nest… into what is actually a small, slowly sinking dinghy as he scrambles to bail out the water. The next moment he barely makes it into port as his boat completely sinks save for the tiny crow’s nest. Not only is it very funny and subverting of the typical hero entrance, it set the tone for Jack’s outlandish, eccentric and often underdog character who tries very hard not to be a hero.
6. The Joker – The Dark Knight
While Jack Nicholson’s portrayal as The Joker in Tim Burton’s Batman is rightly considered a classic, Heath Ledger’s turn in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight is an equally classic take on Batman’s arch-nemesis. Though Ledger’s casting as Joker was initially controversial among some fans, doubters were quickly proven wrong with Joker’s introduction as he ran a quick yet complex bank robbery.
A small team of six thieves in clown masks hit a Gotham City bank containing much of the mob’s money. They’re all seemingly pros, but refer to the guy who hired them as ‘The Joker’ and trade stories about him. It was going pretty smoothly until they started getting picked off one-by-one by each other. One of the clowns is pretty silent until the very end of the robbery when he’s the last man standing and reveals he’s The Joker himself. The opening establishes this version of Joker is very cunning, conniving and ruthless.
If that wasn’t enough of an intro, Joker’s meeting with the mob also establishes how dangerous he is with a ‘magic trick’ pencil that John Wick would be proud of. These two scenes set the tone for The Dark Knight along with what fans were to expect from Ledger’s Joker – a performance that is not only still hailed as one of the best in the genre, but earned Ledger a posthumous Academy Award.
5. Darth Vader – Star Wars: A New Hope
In science fiction, what villain is as iconic as Darth Vader? The hulking black-clad mix of man and machine is one of the most well known villains in pop culture and though his introduction may be rather subdued next to some of his other moments in the Star Wars franchise, it is still nonetheless quite memorable.
After the Imperial Stormtroopers attack the Tantive IV to regain the stolen Death Star plans, a tall, black-clad figure strolls through the doorway and the Stormtroopers nearby immediately snap to attention. With his iconic breathing sound, Darth Vader quickly surveys the aftermath and continues on, later interrogating a Rebel captain about the plans. If his stroll onto the ship wasn’t enough to make you afraid of this guy, the fact he’s choking the life out of the Rebel by lifting him fully off the ground and effortlessly throws his corpse to the wall speaks volumes. It’s one of the few moments in the Star Wars saga we see Vader truly lose his cool as he yells at his Stormtroopers. This moment sets the stage for what to expect from Vader as he gets progressively more evil and deceptive.
4.Batman – Batman (1989)
Though Batman had already received a feature film and a television series, Tim Burton’s Batman was like a recreation of the character for a new age. Everyone in the mainstream audience viewed Batman as the campy figure Adam West popularized, but the 1989 film returned the Dark Knight back to his roots.
Two thugs who just robbed a family sit on a rooftop counting the money and trading rumours. One is worried about a dark creature people say has been preying on criminals while the other shrugs those stories off as something silly. Unknown to them, something slowly glides down in the fog behind them. They hear a noise, turn around – a giant bat-like being unfurls its wings. They shoot it and it goes down only to get up again, unfazed from getting shot. After giving the two a beating and telling the formerly skeptical thug to tell everyone about him he delivers these immortal words: “I’m Batman.”
If audiences had thought Batman would be a corny film, those thoughts probably flew right out the window with this opening scene. This Batman is one that is fully formed and not fooling around as he doles out punishment on these criminals. What makes this scene great is how we’re seeing Batman from the criminal’s perspective: a towering creature who shrugs off bullets and disappears in the night as if he wasn’t there. It really speaks to how great a job Tim Burton and Michael Keaton adapted Batman for a new age.
3. Hans Landa – Inglorious Basterds
When you’re dealing with a film about World War II and specifically Nazis the standard introduction for a Nazi on film is one that shows their depravity and cruelty. That’s what makes the beginning of Quentin Tarintino’s Inglorious Basterds so unique as it introduces Hans Landa, an SS officer who actually seems like a fairly pleasant fellow when he wants to be.
Landa arrives at a French farm to inquire about their Jewish neighbours who disappeared some time ago. Landa is quite civil and pleasant, praising to the family on their fine farm, asking permission to smoke in their house or to speak English. He even turns down a glass wine for a glass of milk of all things instead. His questions seem pretty straight-forward too as he asks for basic information on the family he’s looking for. Then halfway through it takes a slow turn as he lays out his Nazi philosophy and seeming pride in being called the ‘Jew Hunter’. What follows shows his intelligence as nearly everything preceding was a mere mask as he deduces the whereabouts of the Jewish family and coldly has all but one executed. It’s a fantastic scene that raises the tension as the tenor of their conversation slowly turns for the worst. It’s elevated by Christoph Waltz’s great performance, solidifying Landa as a highly formidable and complex villain.
2. Indiana Jones – Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark
Adventurers are nothing new in cinema, but there is something about Harrison Ford’s Indiana Jones that screams epic, classic and legendary all in one. It’s likely because Indy’s intro became one of the most exciting and well known openings of all time, one that has not only influenced other adventure films but been parodied several times.
We meet Indy as he’s travelling through a jungle to a mysterious temple. After stopping a couple of his companions from betraying him with a crack of his iconic whip, Indy and his last partner enter the temple, navigate through a series of traps to a golden idol. What happens next is cinema gold as Indy inadvertently sets off all the traps, outruns a giant boulder and a vengeful tribe all as John Williams’ iconic score kicks in. Indy’s intro completely set the tone for what Steven Spielberg and George Lucas had in mind while Ford sells Indy as the determined, intelligent, deadly and underdog hero he is.
1. Hannibal Lecter – The Silence of the Lambs
This is not only the best character introduction, but ironically the best character entrance ever as audiences are introduced to Anthony Hopkins’ legendary and creepy Hannibal Lecter, better known as Hannibal the Cannibal.
Clarice Starling visits the Baltimore Psychiatric Hospital on what seems like an insignificant assignment to question Hannibal for a study. After being told what he’s capable of, she walks down a dark, dank hallway and passes by several cells with inmates either sitting quietly or bouncing off the walls, even suffering through a vulgar slur. Once she reaches Hannibal’s cell she finds it is actually brightly lit with artistic drawings covering the walls and then there he is, standing completely still and immaculate in the centre of the room as he greets her with a courteous “Good morning.”
It’s ironically the best movie entrance ever since he’s standing still with only his eyes moving as he watches her approach. From then on, the discussion between Clarice and Hannibal is tense as he is able to tell what skin cream she’s wearing or dissects her past and motivations just based off a few clues. Unlike the other inmates, Hannibal is incredibly well-spoken and highly intelligent, enough so that the head psychiatrist at the facility can’t break him. Director Jonathan Demme’s decision to shoot the scene with extreme close-ups on Hopkins and Jodie Foster raises that tension, but makes it feel like Hannibal is not only seeing through Clarice but you as well.
What are some of your favourite film introductions? Let us know below or on Twitter at @flickeringmyth…
Ricky Church – Follow me on Twitter for more movie news and nerd talk