Call me old-fashioned, but I like to be wooed. However much I want to see a given movie, however much I've anticipated it (I'm looking at you, Fantastic Beasts), I still want to be convinced that this movie is going to be worth my time. The opening title sequence is a way to do just that: grab my interest, dart my curiosity, sweep me off my feet.
Many contemporary movies forego the possibility of an elaborate opening title sequence and replace it by merely superimposing titles over a first exposition scene. The action (or dialogue, usually) being all about exposition, and your attention going back and forth between the written words and a not-too-useful moment: I don't find myself so hooked. I'm not one to to claim that everything was better before, yet I have to acknowledge that the opening title sequence is something that the classics did splendidly -and far better than today, in no small part because they did it and we don't anymore. So I caught myself wondering, when many just begin their movie, what are the virtues of the opening title sequence.
1) Establishing the Point Of View
Narratives usually follow a given point of view and don't move far from it for the length of the movie. Whose point of view does "Juno" follow? Juno's... That was easy, but you get my point. And the opening title sequence does that, but also does #3 incredibly well, so we'll go back to that film.
Hitchcock is famous for his incredible ability to make anything both visual and visually striking. (He also had a very strong opinion about actors, and it's not pretty.) The opening credits of his many films often are works of art in and of themselves, most notably those created by frequent collaborator Saul Bass. However, this one, from Rear Window, was not directed by Bass, and is one of the least elaborate in Hitchcock's oeuvre, yet probably the most effective, as it shows the point of view of the film from which we won't move at all for the entire length of the movie: inside James Stewart's apartment. What follows contains no dialogue, yet introduces, the world of the story, the point of view, the main character and his situation. That's a film school.
Establishing character (Travis Bickle and his taxicab), setting (murky New York streets) and point of view (Travis Bickle's eyes) and tone (creepy!) within the first two minutes of the film, Martin Scorsese must have established some kind of record with the opening of Taxi Driver. Clearly establishing the point of view so early on is also incredibly useful when following an antihero like Robert De Niro's character in this film. Not to mention Bernard Herrman's all-brass score which helps set an ominous atmosphere from the very beginning.
2) Exposing Theme
Films are usually about something. Even if it's just hinted at or more or less clearly stated, there's got to be some theme in any work. Francis Ford Coppola finds a couple of words he can use throughout the film and that will give him the key to a scene he was struggling with. The late, great Mike Nichols found concepts to wrap characters and story around. The opening title sequence is just about the best moment to immerse the audience and expose them to theme of your movie.
Hitchcock, being the consummate professional that he was, had a deep sense of story, character and theme, which is pervasive when you watch any of his movies. All the more so when you watch what many consider to be his best: Vertigo. Watching the three-minute opening below, you'll get the same feeling you get watching the movie: a sense that appearances are always concealing something else, and that luscious sensuality is too good not to eventually get the best of you.
"My Mama always said life was like a box of chocolates. You never know what you're gonna get." That's Forrest Gump's line that gets quoted most often, not just because it rings true. In the film, it also echoes the theme of the movie, which is that you can't know what's going to happen next, and that your destiny will carry you towards incredible, unexpected events. Now look at that feather fall down the sky, in the clip below, with an eerie, peaceful sensation of fatefulness... When you think it's going to land -it gets carried somewhere else.
3) Immerse Into A New World
Movies are dreams. (Some are nightmares.) What's really fascinating about the movie-going experience is that if the filmmaker's done their job right, then you don't realize that you've escaped your troubles, your life and yourself for 90 to 120 minutes. Even your senses are not really your own anymore, as they've been hogged by this story.
That's hypothetically speaking, of course, as few films have achieved that kind of bliss. Slipping into a fantasy has to remain both plausible and inevitable. Woody Allen managed to do that with Midnight In Paris. Granted, this film passes for porn to the eyes of an American Literature major student, so it does have an outlandish quality -but we've been warned. The opening montage was long. Too long, for some. But we're required close attention... "Take a closer look... Really look at this place... Magic can happen here."
I mentioned Juno, higher up. It does establish point of view incredibly well, yet I find it what it does even better is immerse the audience within Juno's world -or at least, to Juno's vision of the world, which is the same thing to us viewers). There's a pre-title scene, the we step into a quirky, animated universe where the soundtrack is sweet and indie and everything looks like a cartoon. Jason Reitman maintains that peculiar, crowded visual style over the movie, yet the quirks are firmly established over the opening credits.
There were two sequences I had to mention but didn't quite know in which category to put them as they do everything brilliantly.
The opening of Lord of War is a short film in and of itself: it shows the life of a bullet from the beginning all the way to a child's head. It establishes the subject of the film (guns and the not-so-admirable people who buy and sell them), and establishes the cynical, harsh tone Andrew Niccol follows (or tries to, at least) for the rest of the movie.
A notch more artsy, yet extremely efficient: Raging Bull's opening is absolutely beautiful. The stunning black-and-white, slow-motion cinematography introduces the main character and what's at the core of his identity: he fights. It's the only thing he knows how to do: that's what he does for a living, and that's also what happens in his home as well, so much so that his home is only an extension of the ring. The slow, grandiose, painfully soaring music only stresses the inescapable tragedy of Jake's predicament.
Check out Art Of The Title -their database has been super helpful to write this article.