Oy, I don’t want to talk about snow. Let’s talk about the opening of Saturday Night Fever!
And yes, I’m serious, because it’s one of the best movie openings ever, and not just because it has a few famous shots or it uses one of the greatest songs by The Bee Gees. It establishes the film’s setting and a key facet of the lead character’s personality, all in the space of just a couple of minutes as the opening credits roll.
Here’s that opening:
Now, most people remember this for John Travolta’s cocky, almost arrogant strut down that sidewalk. His hair is perfectly coifed, and his outfit–leather jacket with red open-collared shirt and matching shoes with perfect shine–combine to create that image, don’t they? This is a guy you don’t mess with. The song’s lyrics seem almost to be describing this specific man, don’t they?
Well, you can tell by the way I use my walkI’m a woman’s man, no time to talk
But digging a little deeper…the movie doesn’t open right on Travolta walking. No, we get a shot of Manhattan, looking over the Brooklyn Bridge…and then the camera pulls back. Manhattan recedes, as if to tell us no, we’re not going there, that place is a dream. There’s a fade and suddenly we’re seeing another bridge, the Varrazano Narrows. We’re still in NYC, but Manhattan is world’s away, we’re being told. The camera drops us into one of those neighborhoods all the way on the other side of the city, with all of Brooklyn between our movie’s setting and the place where NYC dreams come true. An elevated train stops, and then do we finally cut down to street level, where our man, Tony Manero, is walking.
But we don’t even see him walking, first! He’s stopped to check out the shoes in the front window of a shoe store. So before anybody has said a single word, we know that we’re far away from Manhattan, and our main character is serious about his appearance. Then we see him walking: first that famous shot of his feet, walking in step with the music playing, and then the camera pans up to show us Tony Manero.
And for all the confidence of his strut and it’s mirroring in the music, his face is anything but super confident. Travolta’s eyes dart back and forth, in the self-conscious way of someone who is wondering if people are looking or laughing at him. The expression Travolta wears here is not the expression of someone walking as if he owns the sidewalk. (There’s also the fact that he’s walking that way, dressed this way, while carrying a can of paint.)
Then we get the movie’s first dialogue: cut to a pizzeria where a worker is pulling a pie from the oven as Tony waits at the carry-out window. She doesn’t address him like he’s a big-wheeling hot-shot guy; she smiles and says a friendly, “Hiya, Tony, two or three?” Because he’s a regular. And when he orders, he doesn’t give a confident “Two!” or a silent holding-up of two fingers. Travolta gives the order quickly, but repeats himself: “Uh, two. Two, yeah, two. Two’s good.” Cut to Tony, walking again, paint can in one hand and his two slices, stacked together in the other.
So now we know that Tony’s world is just a few miles from Manhattan but might as well be worlds away, and that the outward appearance that Tony obviously cultivates very specifically and very carefully is something of an act, a veneer he has put on a more tender inner life. Both of these facts will become key thematic elements in the movie to come.
That, folks, is a great movie opening.