I often take opening lines for granted. For cinema it's really the opening shot that matters, while opening lines should be considered primarily with novels and plays. But movies aren't just a visual medium, and there are indeed a lot of brilliant and memorable words spoken at the start of good and bad films alike. To remind yourself of some of the greatest, check out the list of 50 Best Opening Lines in Movies over at ShortList.com.
The thing about significant opening lines is a lot of them are spoken in voice-over, as narration, which is a very literary technique. Many of them are even just taken right from their source material, such as Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas ("We were somewhere around Barstow..."), Rebecca ("Last night I dreamt..."), The Rules of Attraction ("And it's a story that might bore you..."), A Clockwork Orange ("There was me, that is Alex...") and, close enough, Adrian Lyne's version of Lolita ("She was Lo -- plain Lo in the morning").
It's more creative when the line is from the book but not its beginning. The famed lines that begin Goodfellas ("As far back as I can remember...") are a variation of a paragraph in the middle of page 13 of Nicholas Pileggi's Wiseguy. The opening of High Fidelity ("What came first...") appears on page 24 of Nick Hornby's original novel. Trainspotting's speech is from all the way on page 187 of Irvine Walsh's book.
Other great adapted scripts invent something new, as in the case of Fight Club ("People are always asking me..."), The Talented Mr. Ripely ("If I could just go back..."), Gone, Baby, Gone ("I always believed it was...") and The Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring ("The world is changed...").
But it's the original scripts I think should be given the most credit, especially if they begin with actual dialogue rather than narration, like Reservoir Dogs and Ferris Bueller -- ShortList seems to have a mistake on this one, by the way. "The key to faking out the parents" bit is like the 100th line.
That said, many of my favorite original opening lines -- those from Manhattan ("Chapter One: He adored New York City..."), Badlands ("My mother died of pneumonia..."), Heathers ("Heather told me she teaches people real life..."), The Big Lebowski ("A way out west there was a fella...") and the documentary Sherman's March ("In 1864, during the American Civil War...") -- are all done in voiceover.
I should point out that true opening lines should immediately kick off the film, unlike, say, a memorable first line that comes minutes after a long montage or silent scene. Even if "Will you just watch the hair" was the opening line of Saturday Night Fever, as Filmsite incorrectly lists, the film's real memorable opening is Tony's walk during the credits sequence anyway.
Here are some of our readers' favorites, submitted to me via Twitter (@thefilmcynic). Most of them didn't name the movie, so feel free to see if you can name them all. After reading theirs, won't you share your own pick for best opening line in the comments?
"This is the universe. Big, isn't it?" - @mousterpiece
"Rosebud" - @TPRCinema
"Saigon. Shit. I'm still only in Saigon." - @Marshy00
"Yes, this is Sunset Boulevard, Los Angeles, California." - @nixskits2
"There are eight million stories in the naked city." - @BernardoVillela
"Chapter one. He adored New York City." - @Sam_Moore1994
"There's an old joke: 2 elderly women are at a Catskill Mountain resort..." - @laura_grande13
"What came first: The music or the misery?" - @matinee_ca
"I was 12 going on 13 the first time I saw a dead human being." - @alexspivey
"My name is H. I. McDonough. Call me Hi." - @TheTrueBrendanF
"Are you watching closely?" - @rosstmiller
The Speech in Patton. The opening speech is just a taste of the wonderful movie. - @August_Macias
Was going to say "It is the first day off in a long time ..." then realized those aren't actually the first words spoken. - @jettek
"If they move, kill 'em" from The Wild Bunch probably doesn't count, but I'm submitting it anyway. - @kateyrich