Crime films are often defined by their slow-burn pace – a powerful opening is an easy way to keep an audience engaged through the sleuthing to come.

1. Spione

Fritz Lang’s silent films often end well and start well (usually with something of a dip in the middle), and Spione might be the finest example. In this crime-spy thriller, the first few minutes are electric. Documents are stolen, politicians are assassinated, a sinister mastermind revealed. A tone of conspiratorial worry and fear is immediately established at a pace the rest of the film has no hope of keeping. But it doesn’t need to – we are already enraptured.

 

 

2. Vertigo

Saul Bass was one of the most acclaimed visual artists of the 1950s, and for good reason. His iconic posters are inseparable from the films they represent, and more than that, his contributions to the title sequence is inimitable. Vertigo begins with psychedelic spinning mandalas, which grow and grow until the audience are subsumed within them. Bernard Herrmann’s score is hypnotic. We then cut to a hand grabbing a rung – a rooftop chase. Our hero, Jimmy Stewart, leaps across to an adjacent building only to botch his landing, holding on by his fingertips. As he looks down, a dolly zoom (the first of its kind) wretches the stomach and establishes the film’s title. An immediately gripping action sequence that contextualises the film to come.

 

 

3. Infernal Affairs

Spione opens with haste, but even Lang can’t compete with the sheer economy of Infernal Affairs. The opening credits notwithstanding, the film establishes the film’s fundamental premise within a lightning 5 minutes, detailing the training and then detraining of an undercover officer. Where the Hollywood remake (The Departed) is something of a slovenly beast, Infernal Affairs wastes absolutely no time – though it never quite truncates its narrative to the same intensity as in its first few minutes, the high pace is there to stay.

 

 

4. Tokyo Drifter

“I’ll ask you once more, for the third and last time: don’t get me mad.” Seijun Suzuki, master of the Japanese B-movie, is a director of distinct style. Though his films were at the time relegated as cheap and frivolous – largely Yakuza flicks – the sheer verve of his direction sees them become much more. Tokyo Driver, perhaps his pulp masterpiece, opens assuredly. It begins in a stark, ultra-high contrast monochrome – the blacks inky, the whites so bright as to bleach out all detail.

A former Yakuza man restates that he’s out of the game; men attack him, but he doesn’t retaliate. An extreme close up on a mob boss, and then a cut to colour: a man in a yellow jacket caught against a pitch backdrop firing his pistol, with reddened muzzle flashes. Immediately we know this will be a film of gaudy and exciting form, a film about revenge, about a man wronged. “Knock him down three times, then he’ll rage like a hurricane.” Prophetic words – and enticing.

 

 

5. Touch of Evil

Regarded not only as one of the finest openings of a crime film, but of all films, Touch of Evil is an exemplar in establishing atmosphere. Shot in a single, complex sequence shot, the camera opens close on a bomb. We see it planted in a car, and then follow this car as its unbeknownst occupants drive it toward the Mexican border. The content of the scene is relatively simple, but this simplicity becomes dread when combined with the knowledge of imminent disaster and the inescapable nature of the long take. This is a scene that functions on the basic requirements of suspense as according to Hitchcock – let the audience know what the characters don’t. A powerful opening to one of Welles’ greatest films.

 

 

6. Sexy Beast

Sexy Beast opens on a shot of the sun, then panning to the purple-burnt body of a rotund Ray Winstone sunbathing by a pool. The kind of image that sears itself into the mind alone, though after intercutting with shots of his wife driving toward his Mediterranean abode, it takes on a surreal dimension. From the cliffedge rolls an enourmous boulder, which scarcely misses Winstone’s eponymous (?) character and is subsumed by the pool. The comedic, somewhat leftfield, and doom-laden foundation of Sexy Beast explicated in a few minutes. Not to forget the best needle-drop of the lot – ‘Peaches’ by The Stranglers.

 

 

If you’re interested in writing crime, be sure to sign up for our Crime Writing from the Trenches of Hollywood Masterclass by Hollywood-based crime writing consultant Jennifer Dornbush.

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About 

Filmmaker, critic, and erstwhile pilgrim, Milo is interested in Dutch angles, silent movies, and the secrets of the Holy Ghost. He is currently developing a comedic retelling of Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying (funds pending).