From the Ringo Kid in Stagecoach to Harry Lime in The Third Man, cinema’s greatest characters rarely content themselves with an ordinary entrance. Not for these ladies and gentlemen the humble shuffle in from stage left or a demure wave from an overcrowded train platform. Unlike us, you’ll rarely meet them tripping over a dog or trying to remember where they left their house keys – not when there’s dry ice, a shimmering horizon or some shadows to emerge from. Here’s some top tips for making your intro count, big screen-style.
Named for Roger Rabbit’s bunny fatale but pioneered long ago in the days of black-and-white thrillers, this is all about Working It. The key, to borrow from ZZ Top, is (a) having legs, and (b) knowing how to use them. Someone who fits the bill perfectly is Lana Turner in 1946’s The Postman Always Knocks Twice. She makes John Garfield’s eyes do that Tex Avery thing when she introduces herself with a rolling lipstick and a particularly lucky doorway. It’s an effect matched when Barbara Stanwyck appears at the top of the stairs clad only in a small towel in Double Indemnity, Cyd Charisse returns Gene Kelly’s hat with her stockinged leg in Singin' In The Rain and Rita Hayworth breathes ‘Sure, I’m decent’ to Glenn Ford in Gilda. The Grace Kelly approach, looming like an angel over Jimmy Stewart in Rear Window, is also glorious.
Skip past Lolita underage come-hithering and Angela Hayes’ cheerleading in American Beauty – nothing to see here! – in Kubrick’s melodrama and learn from Sugar Kane Kowalczyk, Marilyn Monroe’s jazzy dazzler in Some Like It Hot. She announces herself with a masterclass of showboating on a station platform and enough tush-wiggling to make a train whistle ("It's just like jello - on springs; it must have some built-in motor or something"). It’s an effect matched by Cameron Diaz in The Mask and Ursula Andress in Dr. No (two intros for both character and movie star). Slow motion is your friend here and even if you’re not a lady, you can still flaunt your gifts. At least, you can if you’re Jesus in The Big Lebowski or Ted’s blonde bombshell, Sam Jones.
Also known as the ‘Anakin Walk-In’, this has been pioneered by a variety of big bads over the years but was perfected by Darth Vader in Episode IV. What you want to aim for here is to emerge through the smoke of battle – dry ice is a handy alternative – and to stride purposefully through the dead and dying (again, improvise), stopping to check that the corpses of Rebel scum haven’t mucked up your shiny new spaceboots. Heavy breathing is important too, meaning you can pull it off after scaling a staircase or completing a half-marathon without breaking character.
There are plenty of other examples to borrow from. Night Of The Hunter, for instance, where the malevolent preacher chugs along in his Model T like Chitty Chitty Scumbag. Then there’s Frank in Once Upon A Time In The West who introduces audiences to a scary new phenomenon: Evil Henry Fonda. Initially shot from behind, his grizzled villain is slowly revealed to show all trace of Fonda-ery goodness replaced with dead eyes and a jaw locked in combat with a ginormous cud of chewing tobacco. As the camera pans around him, you can’t help thinking that if he spits, people are going to drown. Worse, in one of the most cold-hearted, unforgettable intros, he reaches for his gun. Then again, if you’ve got a mouth like a weapon, you don’t need a gun at all. Gunnery Sergeant Hartman introduces himself with a unique line in motivation (“Here you are ALL equally worthless”) and encouragement (“Did your parents have any children that lived?”) that won't normally work as well with complete strangers.
A key character can be figuratively or, better yet, actually unmasked in this scenario. In fact, Keyser Soze combines the two in The Usual Suspects, a rare instance of an antagonist entering AND leaving the movie at the same time. We tried this and walked into a door.
Instead, copy the Joker’s approach in The Dark Knight and reveal your true identity while offering a fresh twist on a popular saying (Friedrich Nietzsche / Kelly Clarkson’s “Whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” will do), or dress up to make raffish fun of your guerilla colleague like Danny Kaye in The Court Jester. If you don’t have time for an extravagant dance number with dwarves or any green brocade handy, you’re probably Gandalf the White in The Two Towers, surprising us in Daz-white threads and a huskier-than-normal voice.
Here it’s all about using the shadows or hiding behind things to lend yourself a sense of enigma. Viennese doorways are good if you’re Harry Lime in Third Man and treading on a cat is a handy way of avoid the, pardon the pun, catastrophe of going completely unnoticed. The Wizard of Oz pulls off a kind of ‘reverse Harry’ when he’s unwittingly revealed to be a fraud by a small dog. The fact that it comes so late in the movie only makes the Dorothy and co.’s disappointment all the more crushing, the cad!
Curtains and doorways are all well and good but, admit it, sometimes appearing from behind a train like Harmonica (Charles Bronson) in Once Upon A Time In The West or in the middle of a packed dancefloor incongruously clad in a leather suit and a variety of firearms like Wesley Snipes’ Blade is the only way to go. Unless, of course, you’ve got a bullwhip, hat and leather jacket to give you a distinctive silhouette like Indy in Raiders Of The Lost Ark.
Named after Casablanca’s Rick Blaine, this one is dead easy. Bogie shows us how in the great Michael Curtiz classic. Grab a chequebook, an ashtray and a white tux and wait laconically for the movie to come to you in the nearest bar. If you own the bar, so much the cooler. If you don’t own a bar, study Greta Garbo. She utters her first words in talkies after walking into a dockside drinker in Anna Christie and ordering two lagers and some pork scratchings (we forget the exact details). In fact, what are we saying? You can do this at home. This is where Sydney Greenstreet comes to the fore in John Huston’s The Maltese Falcon. His oily charm, wordplay and over-familiar body language as he welcomes Sam Spade mask his chubby line in villainy.
If you’re not in a bar or at home, but instead, say, incarcerated in a glass cell for being a human-liver-munching maniac or mellowing at your daughter’s wedding, you can achieve the same effect. Stand stock still and sniff a lot like Hannibal Lecter in Silence Of The Lambs or linger in the shadows like Don Corleone in The Godfather and you’re most of the way there. You’ll need a serious aura for this one.
In Great Expectations Abel Magwitch announces himself to Pip by looming out of a fog-mirred graveyard. Now, being a scary-looking dude at the best of times – and this is his craggy, swamp-dwelling phase – Magwitch almost scares the boy to death, ensuring that neither he, nor we, forget him in a hurry. As A-Magz demonstrates, here it’s about making the biggest impression in the shortest possible time. Don’t be afraid to bring the crazy like Frank in Blue Velvet or the Lone Biker of the Apocalypse in Raising Arizona. Nude entrances are disappointingly rare in cinema but The Terminator’s T-800 arrives in his Arnie-shaped birthday suit and then repeats the trick in the sequel, throwing in a memorable wardrobe swap with an unsuspecting biker.
Then, of course, there’s the nibbly-faced intergalactic jack-in-the-box itself in Alien, the founder member of this category. And, because John Hurt’s stomach was taken, Jaws’ villain emerges from the ocean instead to scare Brody into delivering one of cinema’s classic lines.
As King Kong proved back in 1933, an arrival can become a thing of intimidating majesty with the addition of time and some hardy jungle creepers. Jurassic Park’s T-Rex did likewise. There’s nothing like the rustle of crushed trees and mangled jungle creatures to announce a major player onto the screen. If virgin jungle is out of reach but you do have a desert handy, try emerging from a mirage like Omar Sharif in Lawrence Of Arabia. Don’t be afraid to keep people waiting here – this sequence was originally twice as long – and don’t forget to shoot someone at the end of your schlep, if you still have the energy. Django somehow does, despite dragging a coffin across most of the old West.
Jack Sparrow, meanwhile, delivers a real barnstormer in Pirates Of The Caribbean by piloting a sinking boat into harbour without getting his feet wet and Julie Andrew’s Maria famously twirls her way across the Alps in The Sound Of Music.
Here, of course, it’s all about building a sense of anticipation. Make like strolling Tony Manero, flying Mary Poppins or clunking Gort in The Day The Earth Stood Still and take your sweet time. Also, bring a death ray.
The Ringo Kid’s first appearance in Stagecoach, John Wayne’s big intro in Westerns, shows what you’re up against here. Questions you need to ask yourself include: Do I have a weathered cool that will intimidate all comers? Can I twirl a Winchester rifle without shooting myself? Do people call me ‘The Duke’? If the answer to any of these is “no”, move on to John Preston (Christian Bale) and his door-surfing, gun-kata’ering intro in Equilibrium. He may be unsmiling but on the inside there’s an almighty God-I’m-Good party going on, something Gene Wilder’s eccentric candy baron can probably relate to in Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory. We’re not saying that pretending to be disabled is a good idea, but it does seem to work for Wonka. Nicolas Cage’s entrée into erotic thriller Zandalee is also a thing of magnificent self-awarelessness.
Then there’s Mr Huit à La Banque himself, James Bond in Dr No. Britain’s finest shows some metaphor leg – there’s a glimpse of hand here, a bit of back there – before delivering his killer “Bond, James Bond” introduction, all while owning a game of baccarat. Like 007, Quint makes a seriously confident entrance in Jaws. Notice how he makes a hideous scratching sound with his nails and a blackboard, and the way he has the room eating out of his salty hands with his knowledge of marine biological and a big shark he drew when no-one was looking. Our advice? Grow long nails and buy an encyclopaedia.
Here it’s all about the words. The patter. The killer lines. The first clue that this character is a force to be reckoned with. We’ve named it after Gloria Swanson’s grand Guignol dame in Sunset Boulevard because the way she swats away Joe Gillis’ “You used to be big” faux pas – “I am big. It’s the pictures that got small” – with the indignance of a leopard swatting a fly is timeless. Another fast-mouthed goddess, Hildy Johnson (Rosalind Russell) in His Girl Friday, introduces herself with a visit to her ex husband that establishes her as the heart of the newsroom and someone who's in with everyone and a match for Cary Grant's cunning editor.
A bit less cerebral but just as sassy is Kelly LeBrock’s cyber goddess who announces herself to her makers with a saucy, “So, what would you little maniacs like to do first?” in Weird Science. Less cerebral and less sassy, but just as memorable is the first appearance of Jeff Bridges’ the Dude in The Big Lebowski. He shuffles through a supermarket in his dressing gown while Sam Elliott’s narrator tells us of “a man... I won't say a hero, ‘cause, what’s a hero?” Now, here’s one we can all emulate.
Whether it’s George Lazenby reminding us that “this never happened to the other fella” before the opening credits of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service or Alex DeLarge (Malcolm McDowell) staring at the camera at the beginning of A Clockwork Orange, a nod and a wink to us in the cheap seats guarantees you a big splash. Other notable exponents include Spanish Buzz shattering ‘el cuarta pared’ and ranting about “el despiadado Zurg!” in Toy Story 3 – sure, not a new character per se but definitely a surprising new identity – and Ferris Bueller, who reveals himself with a gleeful “they bought it” at the beginning of his Day Off.
One thing, though. Try to keep it cheery. No-one likes a gloomster. Yes, you, Rob Gordon.