Top of the World: 15 Opening Scenes in Films Noir for #Noirvember

I’ve decided this year to invest myself more into the #Noirvember movement which was created by Marya E. Gates. For example, I’ll try to watch as many new noirs as possible. So far, since the beginning of the month, I’ve watched Sorry, Wrong Number, Too Late for Tears, and The Killing. I was not disappointed by any of them, especially not Sorry, Wrong Number which might have become my favourite Barbara Stanwyck’s film. I also saw The Secret of Convict Lake, which can sort of be considered to be a western noir like High Noon.

I also thought it would be fun to publish a few posts related to films noir on my blog all along November. Sunday, on my The Wonderful World of Cinema’s Facebook page, I asked people what was their favourite opening scene in films noir. I thought it would be fun to present you my personal choices. I chose to do a top 15 because, honestly, there are so many great ones.

One thing is sure, one of the main quality of films noir are their strong openings. A film noir rarely beings in a banal way.

Before continuing:

This list is very subjective, meaning that these are my personal choices, so I ask you to respect them (anyway, I don’t think any of them are really bad ones).

If an opening scene you like is not on this list, there are a few reasons to it: Maybe I haven’t seen the film. Maybe I saw it but a too long time ago, so I don’t remember the beginning (which isn’t necessarily a good sign). Maybe it’s just not a personal favourite of mine, etc. And also it’s a top 15. And I’ve seen more than 15 film noirs!

Also, I’ve decided not to include neo-noirs or noir western, noir comedies, or other things like that. Of course, there are some movies we can argue if they are noirs or not, especially since film noir is a movement and not a genre, but I basically decided to use this list as a guide. So, the films on my list go from 1940 to 1958.

I tried as much as possible to provide clips from these openings. If you haven’t seen these films, maybe it will make you want to watch them!

Ok, let’s go!

15. Mildred Pierce (Michael Curtiz, 1945)

Like in many noirs, Mildred Pierce starts with furious gunshots. The victim (Zachary Scott)’s last words are “Mildred… Mildred” and it’s a long flashback that helps us understand what happened. It’s in a sad and noirish setting that the famous Mildred (Joan Crawford) is introduced to us.

14. Ministry of Fear (Fritz Lang, 1944)

When we look at Fritz Lang’s noirs, Ministry of Fear is not as often cited as Scarlet Street or The Big Heat, but it belongs to some of his very best films. A man (Ray Milland) waits patiently for the clock to strike the hour. It’s a very calm opening in comparison to Mildred Pierce. When he finally hears the gong, he knows he’s a free man.  Not much is said and he seems to be in a pretty “normal place”, not in a jail anyway, even if the man he’s talking to suggests him not to get involved with the police anymore. It’s only when he goes out that we realize he is free from the asylum. The rest is a film full of peripeties.

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13. Sorry, Wrong Number (Anatole Litvak, 1948)

In this chilling opening scene, a woman learns that a murder is about to be committed. As an invalid, she can’t do much except making phone calls. Barbara Stanwyck’s reaction to what she heard is perfectly performed which makes us understand why she received an Oscar nomination.

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12. I Confess (Alfred Hitchcock, 1953)

Here, Alfred Hitchcock shows us Quebec city in its most mysterious way. After committing a murder, a man (O.E Hasse) confesses it to a priest (Montgomery Clift), who has for duty to keep the confession secret. This opening scene puts him in a pretty bad position, especially since he becomes a suspect…

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11. The Killers (Robert Siodmak, 1946)

I have a confession to make: I’ve only seen The Killers once and that was quite a long time ago, so I don’t remember much about it. BUT when my teacher showed us the opening scenes in my film noir class, it really made me want to see it again. Mysterious and unsympathetic men have come to do a job: kill Ole Andreson (Burt Lancaster). The scene is full of suspense until the fatal moment. Burt Lancaster’s first minutes in the movie industry surely weren’t about to be forgotten.

10. The Letter (William Wyler, 1940)

The greatness of this scene is all in Bette Davis eyes (see what I did there)? The look on her face after killing a man with as many shots as possible sets the dark tone of the film as much as the cloud hiding the moon in the seconds following it.

9. 14 Hours (Henry Hathaway, 1951)

14 Hours was not only Grace Kelly’s first film;  it was also one of the most stressful films ever made. It’s not one of those narratively complicated plot we can sometimes find in films noir, but the situation in which all the characters find themselves is… complex. The films start quietly. New York city is almost deserted. The only people who seem awake, a policeman and a butler are quietly doing their jobs. But when the butler discovers a man standing on the edge of the building where he’s working, this quiet morning becomes a thing of the past. This is particularly marked by a terrified woman’s scream. During the rest of the films, several characters will tempt to convince Robert Cosick not to jump to his death.

8. Strangers On a Train (Alfred Hitchcock, 1951)

Strangers On A Train is simply a question of faith and that’s what illustrates the beginning of the film. Two men arriving at a train station are film alternatively (we don’t see their faces) and find themselves sat in the same train compartment. Guy Haines (Farley Granger)’s encounter with Bruno Anthony (Robert Walker) will completely change his life. Think about it, none of what happens next would have had have happened if they had never met. The introduction of Strangers On A Train is brilliantly filmed.

7. Vertigo (Alfred Hitchcock, 1958)

Yes, Hitchcock again! Well, the opening scene of Vertigo, this chase on the roof of San Francisco, surely is a strong way to begin a film where the characters constantly have to flirt with physical and psychological danger. Plus, Bernard Herrmann’s music is everything here.

6. The Naked City (Jules Dassin, 1948)

The Naked City is New York as it is. A narration explains us how the film was shot (on location) who worked on it and, most of all, how New York is a city that never sleeps. We then witness a murder which sets the intrigue of the film (because we’re surely not only going to look at aerial shots of the city). We now know that The Naked City is a tour de force, and a step forward in the history of cinema. Unfortunately, it is not enough mentioned.

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5. Sunset Boulevard (Billy Wilder, 1950)

“Yes, this is Sunset Boulevard, Los Angeles, California.” I could continue. Did I ever tell you that I thought Sunset Boulevard was the perfect film? I love Joe Gillis (William Holden) narration here. It effectively takes us to the scene of a crime where a man was found “floating in the pool of her mansion”. Who’s mansion? The one of a big movie star named Norma Desmond.

4. Rebecca (Alfred Hitchcock, 1940)

We can argue if Rebecca is a noir or not. It might not be in the traditional sense of the words, but the opening scene is too good not to be included in this top. Have you ever heard a most poetic narration than the one recited by Joan Fontaine? Well, Daphné Du Maurier’s words “Last night, I dreamt I went to Manderley again” surely left their trace in the English literature. What is shown to us on the screen, the “desolated shell” that is now Manderley, fits perfectly the sad poetry of this narration, and the way the camera gives us the impression to float among the growing nature is simply magic.

3. The Spiral Staircase (Robert Siodmak, 1946)

Just like Rebecca, The Spiral Staircase could be qualified as a “gothic noir”. It takes place during the early 20th century. It begins in a theatre where a silent film is shown. One of the spectators, Helen (Dorothy McGuire), looks at the film with an impressive attention. Then, we move to one of the apartments above the theatre. A disabled woman is in her room, she opens her closet, and then, the camera zooms on a terrifying eye spying on her. The music changes and the woman is then seen from the eye’s point of view. She’s murdered We don’t see who did it, but this sets the mystery of the film. She is not the first disabled woman to be killed and Helen, who can’t speak due to a traumatism, will have to be very careful herself.

2. Touch of Evil (Orson Welles, 1958)

Well, Touch of Evil‘s opening scene’s greatness simply resides in the fact that it is presented to us as one of the most impressive long shots in film history. And because a bomb was put in the car we’re following, there’s surely an exciting suspense. I don’t really need to say more. Just watch:

  1. Kiss Me Deadly (Robert Aldrich, 1955)

We finally arrive at what is my personal favourite opening scene in a film noir: the one in Kiss Me Deadly. I just LOVE this film. It starts in such a shocking and impressive way. A woman (Cloris Leachman) runs on the street, barefoot, and desperately tries to stop a car. This shot of her standing in the middle of the street to stop Mike Hammer (Ralph Meeker)’s car is one of the most poignant in film noir history. Once again, the main character’s destiny is settled thanks to a “hazardous” encounter. The film starts and ends both in strong ways. But I won’t tell you more because it’s really one of these films that deserve not to be spoiled.

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Of course, there are many other films noir with great opening scenes, but I feel I’ve written enough for today. Please, feel free to write what are YOUR favourites in the comment section.

Happy Noirvember!

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