Sometimes cinema is all about first impressions. When a great character strides across the screen for the first time, we KNOW. Maybe it’s the result of an expert director building up for the big reveal; maybe it’s simply the actor’s force of presence. Whatever the reason, you could very well just end the movie there: we already know everything we need (but of course, that would take so much of the fun out of things). A smile, a pose, a single line of dialogue: these are the only weapons needed to burn the greatest entrances into our brain. We may have received another one for the ages with Ryan Gosling’s Driver (goddamn, is that jacket cool), but with all apologies to Gosling and Nicolas Winding Refn, they can’t touch the entries on this list. Here are my choices for the greatest cinematic entrances (warning: possible spoilers, particularly for the #1 choice).
10. Capt. Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp), “Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl”
Johnny Depp’s performance as Jack Sparrow in the first “Pirates” is one of the most unexpectedly brilliant things to hit the silver screen. This movie had no business being good. For god’s sake, it was based off an amusement park ride; it had no business being mediocre. And after three thoroughly mediocre sequels, it’s a thrill to look back at the original and remember how fresh Depp’s performance was at the time. Depp’s swagger was not yet tinged by the self-conscious ridiculousness that later screenwriters unnecessarily shoehorned in. Sure, there is humor here, but it lies in expert juxtaposition rather than boring old zaniness. Jack Sparrow is great because he refuses to acknowledge his own absurdity; he rises above it.
9. Maria (Julie Andrews), “The Sound of Music”
You know the shot. Pan in slowly over a majestic, impossibly green mountain landscape. A lone figure emerges, fluttering up the hillside, light as air. She whirls with boundless joy. The music swells…and cue Julie Andrews, only one of the most beautiful singers of the 20th century. Sure, this scene has been mocked to death over the years, but parody is the sincerest form of flattery; all those lazy comedic hacks secretly wish they could create an entrance half as iconic as this one.
8. Rick Blaine (Humphrey Bogart), “Casablanca”
Everybody goes to Rick’s. But Rick never drinks with customers. Rick. Reeeeck. Rick Rick Rick’s. For the first ten minutes of “Casablanca,” every other word from the characters’ mouths refers to Rick Blaine, the proprietor of the classiest club in Morocco. It takes quite the actor to live up that kind of hype. Luckily, that actor was Humphrey Bogart, and all he had to do was sit there and play chess with himself, smoking that ever-present cigarette, drink at hand, to show that Rick was an isolationist mofo destined to put one over on everyone else in the film. Because he’ just better than you. Yes, you.
7. The (real) Wizard (Frank Morgan), “The Wizard of Oz”
Occasionally an entrance can stick with us because it completely subverts our expectations. The man behind the curtain is certainly the best example; after the fire and intimidation of the false Wizard, the reveal of the real deal turns the entire film on its head with an epic “womp womp.” Grandeur is toppled by simple irony.
6. The Ringo Kid (John Wayne), “Stagecoach”
Say what you will about John Wayne, but the man had presence. “Stagecoach” wasn’t Wayne’s first film, but it was the one that catapulted him to stardom, and it’s not that hard to tell why. Watch that clip again. Seriously, Renaissance artists painted the Second Coming with less pomp and glory. From this moment on, the Duke would never play second fiddle to anyone else on screen again, either in “Stagecoach” or literally any other movie he made. He’s the quintessential Western hero, and he’s here to save the fucking day. Get used to it.
5. Lisa (Grace Kelly), “Rear Window”
Like Rick Blaine, Lisa’s already received a lot of lip service by the time she finally appears on screen. If you were dating Grace Kelly, you would talk a lot about her, too (even if Jimmy Stewart is an ungrateful little SOB for the first half of the film). Looking every inch like the honest-to-God princess that she was in real life, Kelly descends wordlessly upon Stewart like a pipe dream freshly materialized into being. Hitchcock is rightly considered the master of suspense, but he never gets enough credit for his romantic side.
4. Darth Vader, “Star Wars” (skip to around 2:30)
The greatest villain in film history deserves one of the greatest entrances. Emerging through the smoke like a demon summoned from the depths, surveying the dead rebels with obvious contempt (even behind the mask) as we hear that ominous wheezing for the first time…we haven’t even seen Vader choke anyone yet, and we know this is not a character to be messed with. Now if only George Lucas would stop messing with him.
3. James Bond (Sean Connery), “Dr. No”
…and please excuse me, I don’t mean to be rude, but tonight I’m fucking you.
2. Harmonica (Charles Bronson), “Once Upon a Time in the West”
I know that’s a long clip, but you’ve got to watch the whole thing to appreciate what Leone does here in the opening of his operatic masterpiece. No one could draw out a scene as excruciatingly long as Leone (see: the Mexican standoff at the end of “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly”); the mind-numbing tedium of the three toughs waiting for the train just makes it even more earth-shattering when the distinctive wail of Harmonica’s legendary theme pierces the quiet. What’s the deal with this mysterious musician? Then he shoots everybody, and you realize: oh, he’s a bad-ass. And that’s pretty much how it goes for the rest of the movie.
1. Harry Lime (Orson Welles), “The Third Man”
For days, Joseph Cotten’s hapless American author Holly Martins has been stumbling around Vienna, fruitlessly looking for evidence of what happened to Harry Lime, an old friend who summoned him to Europe in the first place. Harry seems to have been killed in an accident, but a mysterious “third man” present at the time of the death complicates matters. Leaving the apartment of Harry’s former mistress, Holly notices a dark figure watching him in the doorway – and the rest is cinematic history. The expression on Orson Welles’ face in this scene is absolutely incredible: the true nature of Harry’s plot is yet to be revealed, but already we get the sense that the entire world is his plaything. And then just like that, he’s gone again. It’s physically impossible for Harry to escape that doorway that quickly; but he does, and we don’t question it, because that is the magic of this indelible character. Calling Welles a scene-stealer doesn’t even come close to defining what Welles does with this film, but this entrance should give you a pretty good idea.