You’ve got a great film hero and you’re just dying to make audiences fall in love with the character. How do you make that happen effectively? Introducing a character is no easy task, but it helps that there are dozens of examples of great introductions in film.
The best character introductions have a few things in common. They are efficiently shot, with nothing in the frame going to waste. They tell the audience the essentials about the character, usually without a lot of dialogue. And they get viewers invested not only in the character, but the film as a whole.
The list below is by no means comprehensive, but it represents what comes to my mind when I think of great character introductions.
The Blues Brothers
The Blues Brothers is both one of the best musicals and comedies of all time. Despite that, the introduction has a lot of dead air. You don’t see the main characters’ faces or hear music until almost five minutes in.
Despite a dearth of dialogue, the scene tells you a lot about both the protagonists and the type of movie you’re in for. You find out each of their names through the tattoos on their fingers. You learn that Jake is the kind of guy who keeps used condoms in his pocket. The scene even sets up a subtle running gag, as we find that the watch which Jake constantly checks throughout the movie is broken.
The introduction of the Blues Brothers gives you everything you need to know about both the characters and the type of comedy you’re in for. At the end of the scene, Taj Mahal’s “She Caught the Katy” serves as not only a chance to see the protagonists’ faces but to experience the style of music that will become so central to this film.
A surprising number of good movies wait until after the first act to introduce their big draw. Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory is one of those films. Everybody speaks of the titular Mr. Wonka in such grandiose terms that you expect a huge entrance when he finally does step out into public.
Instead, Gene Wilder’s Willie Wonka limps out quietly, staggering down the red carpet as the roaring crowd goes silent. Only after a full minute of this long, quiet walk does he spring forward into a flawless somersault and greet his guests with a smile. Without actually telling us anything about the character, the film immediately reveals Wonka as a mercurial trickster who has many surprises in store.
Supposedly, Wilder asked for this scene as a condition of his taking the role. (I can’t find confirmation of that, though. Yes, I know it says so on Wikipedia, but that citation leads to this Yahoo article, which links to another article, which links back to Wikipedia.) If true, he was even more of a genius than he gets credit for.
Since Casablanca is my favorite movie, it’s not surprising that I would add it to this list. Rick, the film’s hero, gets introduced through reputation first and then through his environment. Before he shows up on screen, we know through Captain Renault that it’s a place frequented by everybody in Casablanca, including the killer who stole the letters of transit. We also know that Rick himself is infamous enough to be known by a Nazi officer, who has, “heard about this café…and also about Mr. Rick himself.”
We see Rick conducting the business of running his bar first, as he signs off on a check, but we still don’t see his face. The camera next shows us a smoldering cigarette, an empty martini glass, and a chessboard. Rick is a man of vice, but also a man of intellect.
It takes about 20 seconds for the camera to finally show Rick’s face. By the time it does, the audience knows as much about him as most of the characters in the film do – very little, but just enough to understand the sort of bitter man of mystery that we’re dealing with.
The other scenes on this list have been about providing you with everything you need to know about a character in just a few seconds. The introduction of Anthony Hopkins’ Hannibal Lecter in Silence of the Lambs also deftly sets up one of the movie’s best scenes. Walking down a hallway of screaming psychopaths, the calm and charming Dr. Lecter is a very dangerous ruse set up by the most dangerous inmate of them all.
FBI rookie Clarice Starling gets a lot of warning for her meeting with Hannibal Lecter, and the scene prepares us to witness a true monster at the end of the sanitarium’s long hallway. Instead, after dealing with raving madmen and a particularly crude bit of sexual harassment, Starling comes across a calm, polite man who is waiting for her patiently. The camera turns the corner with Clarice, showing a table full of books and a number of classical-style sketches on the wall.
Of course, there’s a good reason that Hannibal’s cell lies at the end of the long hallway filled with monsters. But we don’t really find that out until later in the story, when he escapes a different cell in brutal fashion. That scene is one of the best and bloodiest in the film. The fact that we see a calm, cultured, polite man in this introduction provides stark contrast to the murderer we witness later.
Horror is not just about blood and gore; it’s mostly about subverted expectations. And even though we’re told repeatedly that Hannibal is a monster, what we see overrides that to an extent. By providing visual cues that set Clarice and the audience up with a certain set of expectations, the film is able to provide an iconic moment of horror later on.