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Movies... Arriving in style: the greatest film entrances


The iconic opening scene of Lawrence of Arabia

The iconic opening scene of Lawrence of Arabia

The iconic opening scene of Lawrence of Arabia

When Lawrence of Arabia was restored in the late 1980s, director David Lean was interviewed about its making, and lamented his loss of nerve during perhaps its most famous scene. It's the moment when English lieutenant and scholar TE Lawrence (Peter O'Toole) is taking a drink with his Bedouin guide at a remote well in the heart of the desert.

A tiny dot appears through the heat shimmer on the horizon, and as Lawrence and his guide watch with mounting unease, the dot grows slowly bigger till it's distinguishable as a man in black aboard a trotting camel. The guide panics, and reaches for his gun, but is shot dead before he can use it. Then the figure approaches, the camel kneels and the man descends, striding gracefully to drink from his tribe's exclusive well. It's Omar Sharif, announcing himself in some style to an international audience.

This extraordinary scene lasts two full minutes, unfolding in silence and a growing tension that reaches an almost unbearable crescendo, but in retrospect Lean felt he should have held the camera on the approaching Sharif for even longer, as much as an extra minute in fact, testing his audience's patience, and nerve.

I know what he means, but I'm not sure the scene could actually be improved on. It's one of the great screen entrances, and is sure to feature prominently in a poll currently being conducted by the Radio Times.

The magazine has asked its online readers to vote on a chosen shortlist of 20 unforgettable entrances, from Sean Connery's Bond, and Brando in Apocalypse Now to the shark in Jaws, the monster in Alien and Marilyn Monroe in Some Like It Hot. It's a decent list, and you can look at it, and even vote, by visiting www.radiotimes.com.

But I thought we'd compile our own list of the great movie entrances, a top 10 in no particular order, plus my favourite given pride of place in the panel. See what you think.

Frankenstein (1931)

James Whale's visionary horror film took the bare bones of Mary Shelley's 19th century gothic fantasy and gave it a nightmarish and very modern quality. Unknown English actor Boris Karloff was cast as the monster, and gave a chillingly dead-eyed performance which began with an unforgettable entrance. A door in Doctor Frankenstein's castle swings slowly open, and a huge, hulking silhouette appears. It begins to move, with halting steps, and only when the light hits it do we realise that the creature is backing into the room. Then, it slowly turns around, and we're given a load of that hideous face, scars, bolts, lifeless eyes and everything.

Duck Soup (1933)

The Marx Brothers had no respect for anything, and in their inspired 1933 satire Duck Soup, they turned the idea of the dramatic movie entrance into a joke. As the film opens, the great and the good of the tiny kingdom of Freedonia have assembled to celebrate the inauguration of their new ruler, Rufus T Firefly (Grouch), a bellicose lunatic. But as the trumpets blare and the assembled sing, Firefly is nowhere to be found. We then cut to his bed, where he awakes suddenly, removes his nightshirt to reveal a suit, slides down a fireman's pole and emerges among his guests and asks one of his guards "are you expecting somebody?"

Laura (1944)

Otto Preminger's dark and dreamlike thriller starred Dana Andrews as a New York cop called McPherson who investigates the murder of a beautiful ad executive called Laura Hunt. She was shot in the face in her apartment doorway, and as McPherson digs deeper, he begins to fall in love with the dead woman. One night he falls asleep in her apartment, and is awakened by an intruder, who turns on a light and is revealed as Laura (played by the luminous Irish-American actress Gene Tierney). She has been away in the country, and had no idea she's supposed to be dead.

Gilda (1946)

Charles Vidor's romantic thriller is a collection of great moments rather than a truly great film, but does include an absolutely unforgettable entrance. Glenn Ford's American gambler Johnny Farrell has landed himself in hot water cheating at craps in a Buenos Aires casino, but then charms his way into the owner's affections. When he's taken to meet the owner's wife, we enter a hotel room and are greeted by the sight of a fabulous, satin-clad woman miming along to a record. It's Gilda (Rita Hayworth), who laughs and throws back her magnificent mane of hair when she sees Johnny, whom she clearly knows.

Sunset Boulevard (1950)

You could argue that Billy Wilder's gothic masterpiece contains not one but two great entrances. In the first, hack Hollywood writer Joe Gillis (William Holden) is floating face down in a swimming pool while his disembodied voice proceeds to tell us how he got there. A few months previously he'd pulled into a ramshackle mansion on Sunset Boulevard to avoid repo men, when a strange voice began calling him from the doorway. A woman wearing black pyjamas with a leopard-skin scarf in her hair beckons him in. Then Joe recognises her as the silent film star Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson). "You used to be big," he says. "I am big," she snaps. "It's the pictures that got small."

Night of the Hunter (1955)

The great English actor Charles Laughton only directed one film, but it was a guignol masterpiece. Night of the Hunter starred Robert Mitchum as a deranged killer who poses as a preacher and preys on vulnerable widows. When we first meet him he's puttering down a country road in a Model T, away from his latest crime, and regularly throws his eyes heavenward as he talks to the Almighty. "Well, now, what's it to be Lord," he asks. "Another widow? How many has it been? Six? 12?" Only slowly do you realise what he's talking about.

Some Like It Hot (1959)

It's that masterful impresario Billy Wilder again. His classic comedy starred Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis as two Chicago jazz musicians who must flee the city in a hurry when they witness the Valentine's Day Massacre. They pose as women and join an all-girl touring band, and are at a train station when they first see Sugar Kane Kowalczyk (Marilyn Monroe). She walks past them down the platform, in high heels with hips swaying, then jumps aside to avoid a jet of steam. "Look at how she moves," says Lemmon admiringly. "That's just like Jell-O on springs!"

Jaws (1975)

Like Sunset Boulevard, Steven Spielberg's classic thriller boasts two unforgettable entrances. Robert Shaw's salty shark hunter Quint introduces himself by scraping his nails down a blackboard to interrupt the squabbling burghers of Amity Island before telling them they must hire him to catch their giant shark. It's a full hour and 20 minutes into Jaws before you actually get to see that beast, and poor Chief Brody (Roy Scheider) is shovelling chum into the ocean off the back of Quint's tub when a monstrous head emerges from the water and takes a snap at him. As the colour drains from his face, Brody backs into the cabin and mutters, "you're gonna need a bigger boat".

Saturday Night Fever (1977)

Dismissed by some as populist nonsense, Saturday Night Fever is actually a dark and earthy drama with elements of social realism. John Travolta is Tony Manero, a 19-year-old Italian-American who's stuck in a dead-end job and lives with his parents in Brooklyn. He lives for the weekends, when he boogies his nights away at a local disco club. We first meet him in the film's brilliant opening sequence as he walks down a busy street in flairs, high-heeled shoes and leather jacket. He's carrying a can of paint but struts like a king, and his attitude tells you everything you need to know about him.

Silence of the Lambs (1991)

Everyone remembers Anthony Hopkins' note-perfect portrayal of serial killer psychiatrist Dr Hannibal Lecter in Jonathan Demme's 1991 box office hit, and he made the most perfect entrance. Novice FBI agent Clarice Starling has come to a high-security prison to ask Lecter's advice in the hunt for a killer called 'Buffalo Bill'. When she arrives at his cell, Lecter is standing stiffly to attention, arms by his sides, smiling slightly and staring intensely with his cold blue eyes. When she produces her ID, he urges her to draw near, hissing "Closer please, clo-ser."

Harry Lime in 'The Third Man'

We talked about Carol Reed's masterpiece a few months back, and apart from its many other virtues it contains, for me, the greatest film entrance of them all. Joseph Cotten's clueless writer Holly Martens has come to post-war Vienna to catch up with his old childhood friend, Harry Lime. When he gets there, he finds out Harry has just died in a freak road accident, and all Holly can do is attend his friend's funeral.

But when Martens starts to ask around, he begins to smell a rat. Everyone's account of the accident seems to be different, and the American is horrified when a British army investigator tells him Harry diluted penicillin and sold it on the black market, leading to much misery and death. One night, Martens is walking back to the street when he sees a dark figure standing in a doorway as a purring cat plays at its feet. He assumes he's being followed by cops and drunkenly shouts at the shadow to "show yourself". Then a light comes on in an upstairs window and Holly sees the face of Harry Lime (Orson Welles). Lime smiles at him, slyly, warmly, eyes twinkling, then the light goes out, he disappears and Holly hears his footsteps beating a hasty retreat. It's a magical moment.

Indo Review