In theory, I’m really into opening titles – the blend of music, movement and graphic design that tell you what the film you are watching is called and who all the cool people are who were involved in making it. In practice, I often don’t remember them. But when I was asked to do this blog-post, I found there were a handful that I could recall in a certain amount of detail, and with a certain level of fondness.
(Incidentally, this is #40 in a series of 47 posts about movies, with topics selected by my friend, each given to me after the previous one is written. For more information, check out #1 here.)
A while ago I watched a Youtube video that talked all about this topic from Cinefix (you can see it here) which talks about this topic waaaay more authoritatively than I can. So the opening title sequences that I remember don’t span the variety of styles that have been introduced over the decades (which the video highlights), but the are ones that particularly remember from my personal viewings.
Musical themes are really a different topic but still intrinsically connected to this one, so I’ve merrily included them.
Watchmen (2009 – directed by Zack Snyder)
Main Title Designer: Neil Huxley
Watchmen is by no means a favorite movie of mine, or even one that I like at all. But it’s the sort of film that gets referenced on lists like this, and the sequence genuinely stood out to me from my one time viewing the movie. The sequence has a memorable graphic style, and is used to gives the audience an overview of the alternate history that the film takes place in, and the role that super-heroes have had in it. All the tune of Bob Dylan’s The Times They Are A Changin’.
The Hawks and the Sparrows (1966 – directed by Pier Paolo Pasolini)
This is one of those films I watched during my Italian cinema class back in my first year of college. I don’t remember it very well – most of it was a man and his son walking along a road discussing politics and philosophy with a talking crow, and encountering various figures representative of different parts of society. The opening credits of this classic but oddity of a film are sung by Domenico Modugno to a tune by composer Ennio Morricone. They are also printed, but not just the credits themselves but all the lyrics (which includes things like “The director who risked his reputation, Pier Paolo Pasolini,” except in Italian). It was a clever and innovative idea, but as my professor pointed out, it means that none of us young filmmakers could ever use it after that..
The Palm Beach Story (1942 – directed by Preston Sturges)
If you are not familiar with the work of Preston Sturges, you should go and correct that because the guy was amazing. The Palm Beach Story is not his best work, but it’s worthwhile watching, and features a very notable opening title sequence. The credits themselves are fairly normal, but they are displayed over what a mounts to a short prologue-film: basically a mini-romantic comedy showcasing the marriage of the movie’s primary characters, and setting up in an oblique way the movie’s final gag. It doesn’t quite make sense, but it’s a fun detail the likes of which one does not often see.
Spider-Man 2 (2004 – directed by Sam Raimi)
Title Designer: Kyle Cooper. Main Title Animation: Gary Mau. Main Title Editor: Laura Giordano.
Spider-Man 2 is still one of the best superhero films we’ve ever had, and it’s got one of the best opening title sequences. Spidery-style graphics and text are combined with some beautiful paintings by comic superstar Alex Ross (depicting events from the first movie). This is all put together over a score by Danny Elfman, who for years was the go-to guy for doing the music of comic book based projects. It’s good stuff.
Jaws (1975 – directed by Steven Spielberg)
If you remember the credits from Jaws, you might think this is a joke, but it’s not. The credits are pretty simple – they just run over some underwater shots of the ocean and then images of a bunch of teenagers having a party on the beach. But the reason it stands out to me is the simplicity of putting all the main actors on one title card. There’s something really bold about putting names like Robert Shaw, Roy Scheider and Richard Dreyfuss all on the screen at once, upfront and above the title. It helps to give a sense of confidence for all that is coming. Of course, John Williams’ iconic music score didn’t hurt either.
Superman, the Movie (1978 – directed by Richard Donner)
Main Title Designer: Denis Rich
Without a doubt, this is the opening title sequence that has gotten into my imagination the most over the years. Another memorable John Williams score helps to bring to life a series of swooshing credits over a starfield sequence. It’s actually a ridiculously long, self-indulgent title sequence with no less than sixteen separate title cards with actor’s names, (all done in a long animated style) plus all the other credits. Indeed, the credits come right after a shot of the Daily Planet building in Metropolis, and it’s been joked that they basically take as long as it would take actually to fly all the way to Krypton, where the movie’s first big scene happens. But even with all that, I love the way the graphics, music and editing all work together to give the whole thing a truly epic feel.
The Untouchables (1987 – directed by Brian De Palma)
So, Superman has the most epic title sequence, but The Untouchables has my all time favorite. The graphic design is pretty simple but it combines so well with the other elements to perfectly establish the movie’s tone. The sequence starts with a nondescript interior, the camera floating past a series of shadows on the ground. The music begins slowly and eerily, soon giving way to a driving and rhythmic piece making heavy use of strings and percussion (and maybe a harmonica, I think?) The credits begin to show up with the shadows appearing to pass over them. As the music increases in intensity, the camera eventually pulls back to reveal the movie’s title itself, with the words, “The Untouchables,” coming to rest on the screen’s horizon, apparently sitting upright with the bold black letters themselves casting the shadows that we’ve seen. The whole thing perfectly establishes the atmosphere of secrets, corruption, crime, and grim determination. I don’t know who designed the graphics, but the music is by the great Ennio Morricone (again). And as a bonus, the title track is called The Strength of the Righteous, which, let’s face it, is a great name for just about anything.
Bonus: Possibly the most annoying title sequence ever is Star Trek: First Contact, which has all of it’s credits “blur in” – go from way out of focus, to sharp and clear. It’s the only credit sequence for a movie that I can remember that threatened to give me a headache.