This week’s Q&A tackles an important cinematic question:
What’s your favorite opening-credits sequence in a movie?
Philip Kaufman’s 1978 remake of Invasion Of The Body Snatchers is an all-time favorite of mine: an epic of pure paranoia, masterfully unfolding across two-plus hours of undulating dread. (Seriously, if this movie doesn’t give you the willies, you’re a pod person yourself.) Kaufman gets down to business immediately with the film’s ambitious and visually expository title sequence. As a low rumble of cosmic wind sets the tone, he fades in on the surface of an alien world, zooming in on a cluster of strange spores as they begin their insidious trip across the galaxy. (The effects are still excellent, in their pre-digital way.) Part of what makes this Body Snatchers so terrific is its juggling of genres, and for a moment, as Denny Zeitlin’s score swells with Star Trek-ian wonder, we could be watching a stirring space odyssey. Then the camera rushes into our big blue marble, lands in then-contemporary San Francisco, and locks in close on the local flora, undergoing a secret transformation to the eerie skitter of strings. Going from the macro to the micro in one three-minute scene, and from sci-fi to something much closer to blooming horror, this opening quietly and masterfully sets the stage. The invasion has already begun.
Like my answer to “favorite movie poster” a while back, I could probably fill this one with nothing but Saul Bass’ work—or just dump this entire hour-long compilation of all his great title sequences, from Anatomy Of A Murder to Goodfellas. I love Saul Bass, and I will take every opportunity to finally give this much-revered man his due down here in the blurbs of a weekly question-and-answer feature. But if I’m limited, once again, to just talking about one, it has to be Psycho. Using a limited palette of stark gray lines angling in from different parts of the screen, which bring in the names before cutting dramatic distortions across them, Bass creates a symbolic prelude to the violent schisms of identity we’re about to explore, while also telegraphing that this film will be about reading between the lines. When combined with Bernard Herrman’s anxious score, it’s an opening that immediately sets you on edge, even though it is, essentially, just a really ominous bar graph. There are few opening credits I can think of that are so instantly effective at capturing their films, except for all those other brilliant Saul Bass sequences I’m sure I’ll get around to eventually.
This seems like cheating, since these opening credits pause for a tense police chase, but very few movies have hooked me as immediately as Drive. Starting with the production companies and the name of director Nicolas Winding Refn in a stylish pink font, the sequence cuts right to Ryan Gosling laying out the terms of his gig as a wheelman, setting him up as a no-nonsense professional who is good at doing bad stuff. From there, the heist and the getaway go exactly as planned, even if it never seems that way right up until the moment Gosling swings his car into a busy parking garage and casually steps out to hide in plain sight (flipping his iconic scorpion jacket inside-out for extra camouflage). Then the credits resume, back in that stylish font and timed to Kavinsky’s “Nightcall” as Gosling drives around Los Angeles. It’s like a declaration of the style-over-substance approach that the rest of the movie gleefully embraces, and it’s just cool as hell.
There’s nothing fancy about R/Greenberg Associates’ title sequence for Alien, and that’s precisely why I like it so much. It’s just pure, nauseatingly ominous atmosphere. Jerry Goldsmith’s unsettling score does a lot of the heavy lifting, at once conjuring the terrifying vastness of space and the nerve-rending claustrophobia that powers much of the film. It drones and simmers and scratches while the camera pans over the silhouette of a planet and the credits, in an unassuming serif font and perfectly centered, gently fade in and out. Above it all, the film’s title is slowly, uncomfortably unfolding across the screen, building out from the middle (it would be a stretch to call it bursting, but I think the symbolism applies) until that horrible word is finally complete. And it just hangs there over a nearly empty frame for what feels like an eternity, the straight lines of its stark sans serif font projecting more dread than most movies can muster in their entire runtime. It’s radical in its simplicity and utterly smothering.
Wes Anderson masterfully conveys a lot of information in his opening credit sequence of Moonrise Kingdom, but I really just like it because it’s charming as fuck. A lot of the appeal comes from Benjamin Britten’s The Young Person’s Guide To The Orchestra, combining the precocious children that frequent Anderson’s films with the stirring orchestral arrangements that score the pans around Suzy’s New Penzance house. Anderson had used opening credits in similar ways in previous films: each character getting ready for their day in Royal Tenenbaums elegantly and quickly tells the audience a lot about who these people are, while The Life Aquatic’s opener sets the tone by inking the credits into the worn books being paged through. But he masters the form with Moonrise Kingdom, and the combination of the music, the warm textures of the house, and the foggy exteriors of the island make for a bewitching opening.
Edgar Wright has created no small number of potential entries for this category—hey there, Baby Driver—but I’ve always had a fondness for the title sequence that accompanies his first big international release, Shaun Of The Dead. Short, sweet, and set to the bouncy rhythms of I Monster’s “The Blue Wrath,” the sequence lays out the underlying satirical bite of Wright’s big debut—that there’s really not that much difference between undead, brainless monsters, and the rest of us just trying to drag our feet through the regular waking world—in a few quick, lively shots. More impressive, though, is the way the credits subtly play into the clever repetitions that dot Wright’s film, giving us glimpses at some of the movie’s more notable we’re-not-saying-the-zed-words in their human lives—the kind of subtle details that make Shaun Of The Dead such an excellent re-watch.
I’m not the best with slow-moving films, but my absolute favorite title sequence is slow as molasses: Once Upon A Time In The West’s nearly silent, 12-minute introduction. You’re three minutes in before the first text appears on-screen—“A SERGIO LEONE FILM”—after which subtle onscreen actions seem to pull the rest of the credits briefly into view. Leone uses the indulgent runtime not to introduce characters, but to introduce a mood, a uniquely meditative pace in which the fate of a fly, buzzing around a gunman’s head, becomes as mythic and important as the grand Western landscape around them. As ever with the director, we’re getting a feel for the space in which the action is to occur, ratcheting up tension until the train arrives, and with it the scene’s climax. It’s no coincidence that the train carrying the final gunman also bears us the final credit (“Directed by Sergio Leone”). The scene has taught us that, with Leone, patience pays off.
I love how the opening credits of Harold And Maude perfectly set up the beyond-dark comedy that’s in store. We see a considerably well-off young man as he writes a note and arranges furniture in an opulent room, backed by Cat Stevens, whose songs throughout are as vital to the success of the movie as Ruth Gordon’s effervescent performance. His “Don’t Be Shy” urges the young man we will soon know as Harold, “Just lift your head, and let your feelings out instead.” Harold ends the song by doing so, putting his head in a noose and kicking out a chair in the most surprising possible ending to the cheery song. When I first saw this movie, I absolutely gasped, then was confounded when Harold’s mother walked in and was not horrified but annoyed by this typical Harold prank. By the end of the scene, I was actually laughing, immediately sucked into this romantic black comedy like no other.
Although the combination of a Nine Inch Nails remix and 1995 release date had me wondering if it’d feel dated, my “first answer best answer” is Se7en. That movie profoundly affected me when I saw it in the theater (on a first date), and I always think of it whenever this topic comes up. I haven’t watched it in a while, but revisiting the credits now, I still find them compelling. Trent Reznor’s ominous music—a prelude to when he’d score Fincher films two decades later—plays against a montage of Se7en’s killer making his macabre notebooks, punctuated by black screens with stylized text and handwritten names of the film’s stars. The credits perfectly set up what follows, though nothing prepared me for that sloth scene.
While I was tempted to go with a more recent personal favorite—the bleak satirical bite of the credits for Alexandre Aja’s remake of The Hills Have Eyes—in the end, I can’t deny a classic. Michael Powell’s 1960 masterpiece Peeping Tom is one of the best films about film ever made, and the opening credits perfectly outline the horror movie that’s about to follow, in barely a minute’s time. The blue-hued credits stand out in bold relief in front of the event unfolding behind them, and for a while, it’s not entirely clear what we’re seeing. But as a woman continually glances back at the camera, we realize we’re watching a first-person perspective play out, until suddenly Powell cuts to reveal yet another layer of reality, as the man we quickly learn is a killer watches his handiwork unfold upon the screen. The intensity rises as the credits continually pop around the edges of the film-within-a-film’s frame, until the woman onscreen emits a silent, terrified scream, and the denouement arrives. By the time Powell’s name appears—superimposed over the projector and film within the movie, of course—one of the all-time great setups to a movie has run its course, just as the celluloid inside the scene has done the same.
As a movie-minutia-obsessed kid who grew up to write film criticism for a living, I have a lifetime’s worth of sentimental favorites in this category. But the one that probably mattered the most is the opening credits sequence from Jean-Luc Godard’s New Wave classic Band Of Outsiders. Its simplicity and punk attitude blew my teenage mind. Michel Legrand’s madcap piano theme scores rapidly cut close-ups of the three main characters while the letters of the title appear one at a time in one of Godard’s distinctive ’60s typefaces. (His work from the period is a goldmine for anyone interested in text layouts and especially type, as he used mostly custom letterforms for his on-screen-text-heavy films; Band Of Outsiders is one of the few not to use the distinctive Godardian dotted upper-case i.) Then, a cut to handheld shot of a bleak intersection, followed by teasing, eccentrically laid out credits: “actresses” and “actors” listed in separate blocks, a title card that identifies the score as Legrand’s last (it wasn’t), etc. And then there’s the notorious title that credits the director himself for “cinema,” often misread as “JeanLuc [sic] Cinéma Godard.” His self-designed title sequences are probably second only to the work of Saul Bass when it comes to being ripped off and riffed on by later filmmakers; this one is my personal favorite.