There are few things in movies as thrilling as the perfect entrance, but a lot of hard work and serendipitous choices need to align to bring them to the silver screen in the first place. Let’s take a look at the stories behind six of the greatest…
Harry Lime in The Third Man (1949)
When cameras rolled in Vienna for the location shoot of The Third Man, director Carol Reed wasn’t even sure if his villain was going to show up. Mirroring the plot of the fatalistic British noir masterpiece, he and producer Alexander Korda had found themselves pursuing Orson Welles across Europe to get his signature for the part of Harry Lime, the amoral but charismatic racketeer at the heart of Graham Greene’s screenplay.
The ever-elusive showman was in self-exile on the Continent after falling out of favour with Hollywood studios and apparently delighted in the chase. One story goes that when Korda’s brother, Vincent, arrived by boat in London to pin down the maverick, he was exasperated to see Welles waving at him from another vessel travelling in the opposite direction.
They eventually got Welles to sign the contract but Reed might have been forgiven for wondering if he’d made the right choice. Welles had developed a reputation as a troublemaker and Reed had to fight RKO mogul David O. Selznick for the right to cast him.
When it came to the schedule, Welles refused to arrive in the Austrian capital until the absolute last moment. In the meantime, Reed shot around him. When the time came to Harry Lime’s first scene, Welles arrived promptly, strolling off a train and straight onto set at the Prater.
Reed’s faith in Welles paid off. The self-professed charlatan fully embodied the devious yet charming Harry Lime, a man who by all rights should be loathsome but curiously alluring in the hands of Welles.
He finally makes his appearance about halfway through the picture. Our down-at-heel protagonist, pulp western writer Holly Martins (Joseph Cotten) travelled to Vienna on the promise of a job with Lime, his old friend. He was too late - Lime was apparently killed in a car accident just before he arrived. But things don’t quite add up; there was the sighting of a mysterious “third man” at the scene and the added romantic complication of Lime’s lover, Anna (Alida Valli).
As Martins wanders through the Viennese back streets at night with Anton Karras’s plaintive zither score twanging and twiddling in the background, he spots someone lurking in a darkened doorway. The man is hidden by shadow apart from his feet, and a cat is playing with his shoelaces. True to the patchwork nature of his performance, the shoes we see were worn by a double and not Welles himself.
Thinking he is being followed, Martins calls out for the man to reveal himself. His yelling causes an old woman to come to her window to see what all the fuss is about. She raises the blind and a shaft of light falls on the man's face. Here at last is Harry Lime, looking at his old friend with an incorrigible smirk and devilment in his eyes. It is one of the greatest movie entrances of all time, and Welles also had another key contribution to make - he also chimed in with Lime’s famous “Cuckoo Clock” speech.
The Third Man was a success and crucially gave Welles what he felt he lacked previously in the States: Adoration. He became so intrinsically linked with Harry Lime that he later reprised the role for a prequel radio serial called The Adventures of Harry Lime. Accompanied by Karras’ zither, naturally.
John Doe in Seven (1995)
When I saw Seven in the cinema when it was first released, I spent most of the movie squirming in my seat with discomfort. Sitting in the dark, peering into grisly crime scenes dimly illuminated by single light sources, made me feel incredibly claustrophobic. I had to fight the urge to flee the theatre. What kept me going was the fiendish plotting - here was a serial killer thriller where I genuinely had no idea what was going to happen next.
Teaming up with hot-headed rookie Detective David Mills (Brad Pitt), Detective William Somerset (Morgan Freeman) figures out early on that their suspect is committing a series of symbolic murders using the seven deadly sins as a template. As they race to track down the killer before he can complete the set, something unexpected happens. The suspect, John Doe (Kevin Spacey), turns himself in.
Spacey wasn’t the first choice to play the meticulous killer. Ned Beatty, Val Kilmer, R. Lee Ermey, and even Michael Stipe from R.E.M were considered at first. Brad Pitt’s pick was Spacey, but his salary was initially a stumbling block until Pitt helped broker the deal.
Spacey had been around in movies since the mid ‘80s but his stock really rose after playing a part of the fantastic ensemble in Glengarry Glen Ross and essaying a cruel boss in Swimming with Sharks. 1995 was a huge year for the actor; he had already caught Sundance audiences on the hop with his performance in The Usual Suspects by the time it went on general release a month before Seven. He also had a decent role in the star-studded blockbuster Outbreak, but it was his two criminal roles that sent his career into the stratosphere.
Kudos to Spacey, his stunning late arrival in Seven only had such a huge impact because he insisted that his role was uncredited. With his name and face becoming so well known over the previous few years, he correctly reasoned that if he received third billing in a movie where the two top billed actors are chasing a mysterious killer, it wouldn’t take audiences too long to figure out who was playing the perpetrator.
Spacey’s choice elevated the film in the final act and his entrance is brilliantly staged. As the manhunt for John Doe escalates, the killer wanders serenely into the police station to hand himself over to Somerset and Mills wearing a blood-spattered shirt and fingers bandaged from removing his prints with a razor.
Continuing the film’s theme of indifference in a society where people have become apathetic to the crime and moral decrepitude around them, Doe is able to walk unnoticed into the very workplace of the professionals who are searching for him.
On a rewatch, it is significant how Doe’s eyes are fixed on Mills as he finally gets their attention and gets roughly placed under arrest. We can tell from the smirk on his face as he asks for his lawyer that all bets are now off and he still has a few nasty surprises to come.
Gilda in Gilda (1946)
Everyone knows about Rita Hayworth in Gilda, even if they’ve never actually seen the movie. The Shawkshank Redemption has had a big part in that, even shorn of the actor’s name from the original title of Stephen King’s novella, Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption. Otherwise, the picture of her seductively smoking while wearing a long evening dress is one of those iconic bombshell images from Hollywood’s Golden Era that has transcended the film it comes from, like Marilyn standing over the subway grate or Jane Russell reclining in a bed of hay.
Hayworth broke into movies in the ‘30s as a dancer and put in the hard work over dozens of pictures before Gilda made her a superstar overnight. Released in 1946, Hayworth was pitched as an alluring femme fatale. Unlike Barbara Stanwyck or Lana Turner, however, Gilda is quite a sad character who doesn’t get the spiteful glory of her contemporaries. She’s just a pawn in a grubby tale, an opportunist caught between two men who are more interested in each other than they are her. Even the film’s happy ending feels tacked on.
That doesn’t stop Hayworth grabbing the few star-making moments the film allows her. She gets a show stopping song-and-dance number, sensuously tousling her hair and rolling off her long evening gloves while crooning “Put the Blame on Mame.” But before that, you have the famous entrance.
It’s a startling shot, even when you know it is coming. Our low-life protagonist Johnny Farrell (Glenn Ford) is taken upstairs by his boss and friend, Ballin Mundson (George Macready) to meet his new wife, who Ballin has married only after knowing her for a day. As they enter the boudoir, Ballin asks if Gilda is decent.
We cut to an empty shot of the bedroom that is suddenly and gloriously filled by Rita Hayworth rearing up from the bottom of the frame, flinging her abundant red locks back over her head. “Me?” she says, her shoulders bare and giving Ballin a smile and a gaze that makes it quite clear why he married her so quickly. Then she clocks Farrell and we know that, in typical noir fashion, they have already had a turbulent past together.
Willy Wonka in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (1971)
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory may well be a beloved family classic adapted from a cherished children’s book, but its existence owes a lot to the unsentimental entrepreneurial smarts of its producer, David L. Wolper. After director Mel Stuart approached him about adapting Roald Dahl’s novel at the behest of his daughter, Wolper saw a great business opportunity. He was already in talks with the Quaker Oats Company about creating a vehicle for a brand new chocolate bar. Wolper persuaded them to buy the rights and stump up the cash for a movie to promote the product, prudently renamed the Wonka Bar.
Casting the reclusive chocolatier was critical to the picture’s success, and the producers considered everyone from Fred Astaire and Ron Moody (Fagin in Oliver!) to all six members of the Monty Python gang. Then Gene Wilder walked into the audition room, and Stuart was ready to cast him on the spot: “He didn’t even have to open his mouth. He’s got the part.”
Wilder had one condition, however. Willy Wonka’s grand entrance had to be done his way. “I’d like to come out with a cane, and be crippled,” he explained. What comes next was Wilder’s invention: Wonka comes out to greet the lucky golden ticket holders. The crowd falls silent as he slowly limps along the red carpet, dismayed that the magical Mr. Wonka is disabled. As he reaches the factory gates, his cane gets stuck between the cobbles and he carries on for a few more steps before he realises. A long beat, then he suddenly falls forward, as if about to land flat on his face, before tucking into a neat forward roll and springing back to his feet.
Wilder’s timing is exquisite and it’s a wonderful way to introduce Willy Wonka. The actor also had strong character reasons for wanting to enter the film like this; he believed that this way, “no one will know from that time on if I’m lying or telling the truth.”
Tim Burton upped the ante with an amusingly chaotic musical number to introduce Johnny Depp’s version of Wonka in his 2005 version, which is pretty great but doesn’t match the simple brilliance of Wilder’s entrance. Timothée Chalamet will have his work cut out when he first steps on screen in the upcoming Wonka.
Tina Carlyle in The Mask (1994)
The Mask was a box office smash back in 1994, but it could have been different in a lot of ways. Firstly, director Chuck Russell, who cut his teeth with horror movies like A Nightmare on Elm Street 3 and The Blob, decided to ditch the splattery violence of the original Dark Horse comic books and turn it into an anarchic family-friendly superhero comedy instead.
Russell had hoped that the movie would be Jim Carrey’s first starring role after he was impressed by the comic actor’s stand-up work and appearances on the TV sketch show, In Living Color. Yet the production of the effects-heavy movie took so long that Carrey had time to go away and make Ace Ventura: Pet Detective, which became Carrey’s big breakthrough instead.
That might have benefitted the film. Apart from the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles franchise and Tim Burton’s Batman films, superhero movies weren’t the dead cert they are today. The Rocketeer, Blankman, and The Phantom all performed poorly at the box office, while Captain America (1990) didn’t even get a theatrical release. Could Carrey’s zany performance in Ace Ventura have given The Mask the bump it needed on the way to becoming the 8th-highest grossing movie of the year?
The third fortuitous thing was the casting of Jim Carrey’s love interest, Tina Carlyle. Russell was first interested in Anna Nicole Smith for the role, the supermodel and Playboy Playmate of the Year 1993. Russell says he never continued that line of inquiry beyond an initial meeting, although another version of the story from producer Robert Engeleman claims Russell was “crushed” when Smith backed out to do Naked Gun 33⅓: The Final Insult instead. Either way, Smith’s presence in the Carlyle role would have made The Mask a very different movie indeed. Smith’s game performance as a blonde bombshell in the Leslie Nielsen cop spoof provides some indication how it might have turned out.
Casting director Fern Champion was looking at other top models without much luck before a friend recommended a virtual unknown named Cameron Diaz. Aged just 20 at the time, Diaz had never acted before but Russell knew she was right for the part after the first script reading. Her chemistry with Jim Carrey also helped the director convince the studio executives, too.
The movie wastes no time introducing her. After the credits sequence establishes bank clerk Stanley Ipkiss (Carrey) as a lovelorn geek who is absolutely useless around women, enter the dame: Dashing in from a sudden rainstorm, Diaz is presented in much the same way as Lana Turner in The Postman Always Rings Twice, starting at her feet and working slowly up. It is an entrance deliberately intended to evoke the classic femme fatales of old with a little modern sizzle.
Diaz’s natural warmth and intelligence caused Russell and the producers to rethink Carlyle’s role in the movie. According to Engelman, Carlyle was originally intended as a good girl who turns out to be bad, but had to be re-written because people instantly fell in love with Diaz and wouldn’t believe her in a villainous role.
Harmonica in Once Upon a Time in the West (1968)
Once Upon a Time in the West is a different beast from Sergio Leone’s hugely successful Dollars Trilogy. While those three films were a witty and laconic conversation with the tropes of classic horse operas, West was more of an elegy, a swan song for the movies that influenced it and the Old West that inspired it.
Key to the change of atmosphere was its central character, Harmonica, a stoic drifter who arrives in town to wreak vengeance on the man who sadistically murdered his brother. The film feels more weary and melancholic, perhaps reflecting the feelings of the director. Leone originally didn’t want to make another western as he was planning an adaptation of Harry Grey’s book The Hoods, a project that would finally reach the screen in 1984 as Once Upon a Time in America.
The studio persuaded him with a boatload of cash and the opportunity to work with one of his idols, Henry Fonda, who was cast against type as Frank, the avaricious and soul-dead antagonist. While Fonda playing the bad guy might have been the most startling casting choice, it was Charles Bronson as Harmonica who set the mood.
Bronson was a star in his own right after notable roles in The Magnificent Seven, The Great Escape, and The Dirty Dozen, but he only got the part after Clint Eastwood turned it down. That benefitted the film because Bronson suits the character better. Eastwood is a fine actor, but at that stage of his career he may have played Harmonica much as he had his star-making “Man With No Name” roles - aloof and ironic.
Bronson was a hard man from a hard upbringing, and his rugged features were well-suited to Leone’s signature mega close-ups. We first meet Harmonica in the celebrated opening scene, eight minutes of waiting in silence followed by a brief flurry of violence. The scene is a mesmerising study in boredom as three villainous gunslingers wait at a station in the middle of nowhere for a train to arrive. One sits on a water trough and cracks his knuckles; one stands under a leaky water tower and catches drips in the brim of his hat; and the other tries to grab forty winks but is irritated by a fly.
The quiet is suddenly shattered by the blare of a train whistle and the locomotive clatters along the track, bringing with it the trio’s target. At first, they think their man isn’t on the train. But, as it pulls away again, they are frozen to the spot by a mournful tune. Here is Harmonica, gazing coolly at the three men as he finishes playing his namesake instrument. He’s in no hurry.
What I love about this entrance is how Bronson plays it. He’s more elemental, almost as if he has been carried in by a zephyr rather than the train. Eastwood would have stood there, impenetrable, as if he’d been there since the dawn of time.
Then there is a difference in delivery. We get a classic Leone exchange between Harmonica and the men sent to kill him. They are ostensibly there to greet him but, when he asks whether they brought a horse for him, one smirks, “Looks like we’re shy one horse.” Harmonica is not amused: “You brought two too many.”
It’s easy to imagine that Eastwood would have delivered that line like one of his classic kiss-off lines in the Dollars Trilogy. From Bronson’s lips, it is a simple statement of fact, a genuine threat before he draws his six-shooter and guns them down.
So there you have it, six of my favourite movie entrances and how they came to be the iconic moments that we know today. What are your picks? Let us know!