Great Movie Openings: Touch of Evil

maxresdefault-1Greetings, readers! Sorry to have been MIA. I was on vacation. But I’m back and ready to resume writing about great movie openings. This week I’m writing about the best film made by Orson Welles. No, it’s not Citizen Kane. That title for me belongs to the noir classic Touch of Evil. Anyone that has seen the film knows why it’s opening is on the most highly regarded sequences ever put in a movie.

The opening of Touch of Evil contains one of the earliest tracking shots. And at 3 1/2 minutes, it’s also one of the longest. In addition to being technically impressive, the opening of Touch of Evil does an amazing job of establishing mood and establishing the plot. As the film opens, the camera pans through a seedy border town, We see a bomb being put into a car trunk and its driver being unaware as he drives off. And then we see more and more of the city with its bars and dark alleys. This is the perfect setting for a noir film.

What’s fascinating too is that there is almost no dialogue in the whole opening. It isn’t until Charleton Heston’s narcotics officer and his wife (played by Janet Leigh) are introduced that we have any meaningful dialogue. Well, there is the driver of the car with the bomb in it whose wife tells him about a ticking noise. But the way the tracking shot is done absolutely sucks you in. What is this place? Why the car bomb? What is the narcotics officer up to?

One of the keys to a noir film is an ability to grab you in the opening but still maintain suspense throughout. Knowing there’s a bomb in that car from the word go already has the viewer on the edge of their seat. We wonder when it’s going to explode. When it does, shortly after we’re introduced to two of our principal characters, it’s game on. As a viewer you’re scrambling to piece the puzzle together immediately, just like the lead characters.

Touch of Evil‘s opening sequence takes its sweet old time, and the film is all the better for it. We know just from the lighting and the bits of the town that we see that it’s a sketchy place with lots of secrets. Adding to the atmosphere is a score by the legendary composer Henry Mancini. Rarely have jazz bongo drums been more effective. All of this is a masterclass in how to establish mood and character without spelling things out with blunt dialogue and quickly cut action sequences. Citizen Kane may be Welles’ masterpiece to many. But, as far as I’m concerned, it’s Touch of Evil. There was just something about noir that fit Welles like a glove. While all of Touch of Evil is a masterpiece, it’s opening is one of the most incredible things ever put on film.

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Great Movie Openings: The Lion King

Greetings, readers! For the month of April I’m going to be writing about my favorite movie opening sequences. The first one I have chosen is The Lion King. It was the first Disney movie I was obsessed with as a kid, Bless my parents for enduring listening to the soundtrack on repeat.

There are so many reasons this is a great movie opening. First, there’s that great opening shot of the sunrise in the Serengeti. It’s perfectly juxtaposed by the Swahili chant that opens the song Circle of Life, one of the greatest of all Disney songs. The opening of The Lion King introduces us to some of the most striking animation ever put on film. The colors are vibrant and the detail in the drawing of the animals is absolutely magnificent. That’s no surprise given the lengths Disney went to for authenticity. As IMDB notes,

Several Disney animators went to Africa to study animal behavior and interaction in the wild. A grown lion and a cub were also brought into the animation studio as models for anatomy and musculature.–IMDB

One of the things that really makes The Lion King‘s opening so epic, is the perfect marriage of animation and music. As Circle of Life slowly builds tempo at the beginning, one by one we’re introduced to the majestic animals. We see giraffes, zebra, gazelles, birds, and even ants, slowly making their way to Pride Rock to see the future king of the Pride Lands be introduced. There are so many striking images. I love the birds flying over the waterfall, the gazelles leaping through grass in the fog, the overhead shot of the birds flying, and even the ants crawling up the tree branches as the zebras come galloping through. There’s even that sweet image of the baby giraffe getting its first glimpse of sunlight as it makes its trek to Pride Rock. The way the whole sequence is put together is downright gorgeous.

The artistry on display in every frame of The Lion King is staggering. As IMDB notes, it took a boatload of talented animators to bring the film to life.

Nearly twenty minutes of the film were animated at the Disney-MGM Studios. Ultimately, more than 600 artists, animators and technicians contributed to The Lion King over its lengthy production schedule. More than one million drawings were created for the film, including 1,197 hand-painted backgrounds and 119,058 individually colored frames of film,–IMDB

I love PIXAR. Don’t get me wrong. But hand drawn animation has a timeless quality to it. I’ve felt that way since I saw Fantasia for the first time. If done correctly, the results are downright magical. Every detail from the splashing of water beneath a zebra’s hoof to the scope of the wildebeest stampede has more impact because of the tireless work of the animators who worked on The Lion King.

The other reason The Lion King‘s opening stands out, is the way it all comes to¬† crescendo at the end. The animals part the way for Rafiki to climb Pride Rock, there’s a great overhead shot of all the animals as Zazu comes flying in to meet Mufasa, and it culminates with the music swelling as Rafiki raises Simba up in the air while the animals all cheer the future king’s introduction. I have watched The Lion King multiple times. The opening never stops giving me chills.

The opening of The Lion King is a perfect mixture of music and the art of animation. It gives us a glimpse of the vast African world we will be immersed in for the duration of the film. The music is stirring, the animation is majestic, and it perfectly kicks off one of DIsney’s finest animated features.

Badass Women In Cinema: Madame Curie

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Greetings, readers! This is the last week of my spotlight on badass women in cinema in honor of Women’s History Month. My final cinematic badass didn’t carry a sword. But she did help pave the way for women today in the STEM fields. My final badass is Marie Curie from Madame Curie. Brilliantly played by the amazing Greer Garson, this film should be shown to women aspiring to go into the sciences, along with the recent Hidden Figures,

Madame Curie tells the story of Marie Sklodowska (Greer Garson). At the beginning, she is a poor and idealistic student studying at Sorbonne in Paris. One day in class she faints after neglecting her health. Her tutor, Professor Perot (Albert Bassermann), is sympathetic. He finds she has no friends or family in the city. He then invites her to a small part he and his wife are throwing for some of the university’s professors and their wives. Among the guests is Pierre Curie (Walter Pidgeon), a shy and absentminded man devoted to his work. Pierre eventually lets Marie share his lab and learns she is a gifted scientist. Pierre is appalled that Marie plans to return to Poland and teach after graduation instead of continuing scientific research. Well, he talks her into meeting his family. They eventually get married and team up to discover the element of radium.

Marie was fascinated by a demonstration she saw as an undergraduate of a pitchblende rock. It generated enough energy that you could take small pictures. Marie decides to make the rock’s energy source the subject of her doctoral study. After much study, she realizes there must be a third radioactive element in the rock (it is already know that two are present). The Sorbonne physics department doesn’t see enough evidence of the third element to grant Marie and Pierre funding for the research. However, they are given a dilapidated shed across the courtyard from the physics building. Despite the poor working conditions, Marie and Pierre persist. They manage to get eight tons of pitchblende ore and eventually figure out a tedious crystallization process to get to the element that will eventually be known as radium.

Marie Curie is a badass woman for being a woman in the field of physics at a time when that sort of thing simply wasn’t done. She’s also a badass for being the first woman to win the Nobel Prize. But there are a few other reasons I chose her. Marie Curie wasn’t afraid to do her own thing, even if it meant being a lone wolf. She persists in her studies even when it means she doesn’t have friends like most college students do.

I also like that Marie Curie is persistent in her doctoral work, even when confronted with obstacles. The university won’t fund her work and gives her a crummy space to keep chipping away at discovering that elusive element. But what’s great is that she just keeps digging and never whines about the conditions she’s forced to work in. I also appreciate that Marie and Pierre first become attracted to each other because of their brains rather than their looks. And their relationship is an equal partnership, something not entirely common in movies of the 1940s.

Marie Curie is one of the most involving biopics I have ever seen. It hinges on a performance by Greer Garson that is simply brilliant. It was also the fourth of nine films Garson made with Walter Pidgeon. Their onscreen chemistry is a joy to watch.For breaking gender barriers in the sciences, Marie Curie belongs in the pantheon of badass women in cinema.