Every great film must have a great opening. In the past I have discussed how the likes of The Player and it’s one shot take manages to introduce us to the entire world in which the film took place in, and introduced us to the key characters in what seems like a natural way.
The opening to a film must grab the viewer’s attention and maintain their focus. Openings set up a film’s themes and the tone of the film. As Dan J. Marder from “Movie Outline” states, the aim of your opening scene should “set the tone immediately. Let the reader “feel” what your script is about in the first words on the page… You can write the greatest action sequence of all time, but if you don’t connect your audience to the protagonist, no one will care.”
In my personal opinion, one of the greatest and most effective openings to a film is Falling Down (directed by Joel Schumacher, with screenplay by Ebbe Roe Smith). This 5 minute scene is a perfect introduction to our main character, D-Fens (played by Michael Douglas), without a single use of dialogue being exchanged by any of the main characters. As openings go, it is a tense and exhausting thrill ride that leaves the viewer on the edge of a nervous breakdown (similar to how Douglas’ character is feeling). It is also a nice homage to Federico Fellini’s famous opening to 8½ (1963).
“This 5 minute scene is a perfect introduction to our main character D-Fens (played by Michael Douglas) without a single use of dialogue being exchanged by any of the main characters.”
The scene opens with a black screen, very faintly we can hear the sounds of someone’s shallow, laboured breaths. It’s not automatically a sound that people find attractive. Then we see a extreme close-up of teeth, it’s an aggressive first image. The camera zooms out, to reveal a man’s snarling mouth. This image takes up the entire frame. We see a bead of sweat trickling down his face. The cinematography by Andrzej Bartkowiak is remarkable, and used to great effect to place the viewer in this very hostile environment.
Then the camera pans upwards so the viewer see more of the man’s face. The titles inform us that this is Michael Douglas, but not how we are used to seeing him. It was Joel Schumacher’s idea for the crew cut that Michael Douglas had in this movie. Combined with the glasses Douglas wore, he is almost unrecognisable. His face is hidden by big, geeky, ugly glasses. His eyes look lifeless and dull. If eyes are the window to the soul, then what does this tell us about Douglas’ character?
The camera continues to zoom out, revealing more information to us. We see that this man is in a car, which is stationary. Behind him we can glimpse the familiar red and white stripes from the American flag, which indicates that this film is taking place in the US. The camera continues to zoom out so it moves outside the confines of the vehicle, peering in through the windscreen. This helps to show how trapped Douglas’ character is feeling right now, and also alientates the viewer from his character, as we have the freedom alongside the camera, to move outside the confined space of the car.
Sound is used to great effect here. At first the sound is muffled, and all that can be heard is Douglas’ breathing. Then as the camera pans across the car to reveal more of the actual location, the score (by the legendary James Newton Howard) begins, and diegetic sounds become clearer. The camera now tilts down, follows the front of his car to the road, then shows the car in front with its exhaust pipe smoking fumes.
Without even seeing the rest of the road, we know that the cars must be in a traffic jam. The camera tilts up once again to show us the car in front to a family sitting in the car, with a little girl peering out of the back window. There’s something tragic and sad about this poor child being trapped inside a hot car which isn’t moving.
We pan across to another car, where we see a woman applying lipstick, the focus here is on the Garfield cat stuck to her window, with it’s mouth full of sharp, pointy teeth. It looks somewhat threatening and menacing. There is a level of amusement here as Garfield is a cat who hates Mondays and is quite selfish. One has to wonder whether Douglas’ character identifies with this fictional cat, or is jealous of it?
Then the camera continues to pan across while tilting up to show us a bunch of unruly children on a coach in the traffic jam. These kids must be bored out of their minds as they are throwing paper and screaming, laughing, leaning out of the window. These wayward children represent D-Fens embracing his inner chaos. We then see two ‘yuppie’ types in a car, arguing with someone else over the phone.
The sounds of shouting, jeering and aggression are layered here, and they could be the very sounds inside D-Fens head as he wrestles with his inner turmoil. It is worth mentioning that just before the camera moves to the men in the car, the American flag hanging from the bus, fills up the entire screen. Schumacher is proposing the question here of who represents America? The unruly school children or the unruly men? Perhaps, they are both the same.
We move back inside the car with D-Fens. A fly is buzzing around inside the car, the sound gets louder and it’s another unpleasant sound which heightens our discomfort. D-Fens tries to cool himself down but the car’s air conditioning doesn’t seem to be working. The score now increases, and we hear drums beating. The pressure is building.
Now the editing by Paul Hirsch begins to come into play. The cuts become more rapid now matching tempo of the music. The shots of bumper stickers paint a picture of the modern world, with false advertisements offering financial freedom, guilty reminders of Christ dying for our sins and trolling remarks declaring us to eat shit. These are more than likely signs that our character sees every day.
“For D-Fens there is only one way out, and it’s not going to be easy one.”
The fly comes back, landing on his neck which is now drenched with sweat. D-Fens tries to swat the fly, with the camera zooming tighty on his face as the music and the sounds build. Close-up shots of the bumper stickers with the words ‘FREEDOM’ and ‘HE DIED’ suggest that D-Fens has made up his mind about how he can escape this hell hole.
For D-Fens there is only one way out, and it’s not going to be easy one. There is a further close-up of Douglas’ darting eyes, looking at the people yelling in the car next to him and the woman applying makeup. None of these images are appealing to the eye.
Finally it comes too much. He gets out of his car, gasping for air. For a few seconds he looks around the scene of chaos, not really sure on what to do next. Then suddenly someone yells at him asking him what’s he’s doing. With that D-Fens answers, “I am going home.” then he starts walking away, leaving his car.
The sequence begins with one smooth-flowing continuous shot showing the audience the traffic jam and introducing him as the main character, then begins to cut rapidly as the sequence goes on,which builds up to a climax of his tension. This entire sequence took a day to film, showing the level of skill which was undertaken to create this impressive opening sequence.
The fact that we do not know what has caused this delay, only adds to the mystery. We know very little about this character’s backstory, but we know enough to be able to understand what drove him to this point. This scene is a brilliant indication of what to come. And its technical aspects along with Douglas’ performance are praise worthy. There is so much to admire from a screenwriting perspective as it pulls you instantly into this world. 26 years on, there’s no denying the fact that Falling Down remains one of cinema’s best opening scenes.