First impressions count. Especially in a film. The greatest character introductions might bring to mind those such as The Godfather (dir. Francis Ford Coppola, 1972), slowing panning over Marlin Brando’s shoulder. Similarly, you might think of the long zoom out in A Clockwork Orange (dir. Stanley Kubrick, 1971), or Gene Wilder stumbling anti-climatically down the red carpet in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (dir. Mel Stuart, 1971).
But what about the ones where you don’t actually see the characters? The Hollywood motto ‘show don’t tell’ is taken one step further when the director chooses not to show, either. So what else is there to film? Well, a character’s backstory, moral compass and personality traits can all be conveyed through objects, camerawork, descriptions and settings. Allowing filmmakers to get really creative.
10) Anton Chigurh – No Country for Old Men (dir. Joel and Ethan Coen, 2007)
One of the Coen Brothers most acclaimed movies, No Country for Old Men’s iconic villain first appears in an unglorified behind shot. As a policeman lowers Chigurh, famously played by Javier Bardem, into the back of his car, we have no idea what a pivotal role he is about to play in the story. Approaching the policeman’s desk in the background, Chigurh remains out of focus. Joel and Ethan Coen achieve a subtlety in their ambiguous build-up; the fact we don’t see Chigurh’s face until after the first on-screen murder is never dramatized. He simply blends into the background, as the focus remains on Tommy-Lee Jones’s opening narration.
9) Moriarty – Sherlock (dir. Steven Moffatt, 2010-17)
Okay, so this is technically not a film. However, Sherlock still deserves a spot on our list considering we get through an entire series before meeting Sir. Arthur Conan Doyle’s legendary supervillain. Having established our beloved antihero Sherlock Holmes, we know that his inhuman intellect cannot be easily matched. Every criminal in the series has been swiftly defeated, yet Sherlock faces difficulty in decrypting a faceless stranger’s clues. Moffatt distracts audiences from what they already know is coming with smaller, contained cases. Moriarty is a culturally known villain, so of course he’s coming at some point. And yet, the mystery enshrouding Moriarty’s identity makes audiences curious at what form we will see him in this time.
8) Hans Beckert – M (dir. Fritz Lang, 1931)
The murderer in Fritz Lang’s M is first depicted to us through a wanted poster, a menacing shadow and an unsettling voice. As the figure casts his dark presence over the screen, we are immediately unsettled- setting us up for a villainous character. What’s perhaps even more threatening to us than Hans Beckert’s black silhouette, is the innocent connotations- a little girl bouncing a ball- Lang eerily inverts. Suddenly, the act of buying the child a balloon becomes sinister. Thudding music and Peter Lorre’s ominously cloaked identity suggest this character is one to be feared…and rightly so.
7) The Wizard – The Wizard of Oz (dir. Victor Fleming, George Cukor, Mervyn LeRoy, Norman Taurog, 1939)
The best thing about introducing a character without actually revealing is them is the ability to subvert audience expectations. This technicolour classic remains true to the Oz books, concealing The Wizards identity until later in the story. Also known as “Oz, the Great and Terrible,” The Wizard is rumoured to have immense abilities. The Emerald City he resides in speaks volumes of his (supposed) wealth and status. The entire premise of The Wizard of Oz builds up his reputation through Dorothy following the yellow brick road. Yet, despite his booming voice that rattles the tin man (literally) in fear, we find The Wizard to be simply a middle-aged man with a microphone.
6) Dr. Emmett Brown – Back to the Future (dir. Robert Zemeckis, 1985)
Robert Zemeckis introduces his protagonists before even establishing the setting. Back to the Future’s opening shot tracks through Dr. Emmet Brown’s home alongside Marty McFly on a visit. Zemeckis uses the title sequence to his advantage, rather than throwing it away as empty screen time. We see newspaper clippings, photo frames, a wall of ticking clocks, obscure inventions, a dog bowl and hidden plutonium. This tells us Brown is a mad scientist who owns a dog, stolen some plutonium and left in a rush. All within the first shot of the movie, without a single face to be seen.
5) Oskar Schindler – Schindler’s List (dir. Steven Spielberg, 1993)
You can tell a lot about a man by his clothes. And this is somewhat true of Oskar Schindler. The opening montage depicts Schindler getting dressed. He drinks expensive whiskey, wears a neat uniform, has rolls of cash in his desk and pins a Nazi badge to his suit. Nonetheless, as the wealthy young man sweeps through the sophisticated club, we know he is not like the rest of in his rank. Spielberg places Schindler on the outskirts, watching the snobbish upper class before swooping in. He has authority, for sure. But it’s an underhanded power, shown by the secret whisperings of a tipping manager. This correlates to his later attempts to secretly help Holocaust victims, using the guise of his uniform established in the first scene.
4) John Doe – Seven (dir. David Fincher, 1995)
We come to know the anonymous villain ‘John Doe,’ not by his face, but his Biblical motives in murder. We’ve been in his apartment, read his diaries and can even predict his next killing. However, we don’t actually meet Kevin Spacey until ninety-five minuets into the movie. Though we know from the poster Spacey is bound to appear at some point, by this time we’re too far in to remember his name in the credits at all. Fincher still manages to shock us. It is somewhat remarkable; handing over a character we know everything about, played by an actor we knew was coming, and yet, we are still surprised.
3) Quint/The Shark – Jaws (dir. Steven Spielberg, 1975)
In contrast to Fincher’s ninety-five minuet blind introduction of John Doe, Spielberg introduces Quint in a matter of seconds. Being the second Spielberg film on our list, Jaws has one of the most memorable character announcements to date. You know what I’m talking about- the chalkboard scene. Not only is it famous for the piercing screech left ringing in audience’s ears, but perfectly sums up Quint as a character: a blunt, casual, no-nonsense outcast, unafraid to stir things up. Notably, the shark itself could be seen as a character. For whom the foreboding music, building up in deep thuds, warns us this is an animal to be feared before we’ve even seen his jaws.
2) Miranda Priestly – The Devil Wears Prada (dir. David Frankel, 2006)
Rom-coms generally harbour a bad reputation in the film world. But this doesn’t mean there aren’t exceptions. Pretty Woman (dir. Gary Marshall, 1990) or When Harry Met Sally… (dir. Rob Reiner, 1989), for example. And of course, The Devil Wears Prada. The reason Frankel’s iconic movie is more than just another chick-flick is because of its skillful filmmaking. Before Meryl Streep struts into her office, other characters frantically rush around to tidy. Priestley’s character is imbued with power from the pre-empted panic of her workers. In extension, we know our protagonist will be incompatible to this snobbish fashion figure. Frankel establishes Andrea Sachs as smart, practical and unglamorous (through comparing her morning routine to other women). Thus, the first ten minutes solidifies almost all our main characters (and their relationships to each other) before even seeing Priestley’s face.
1) The Joker – The Dark Knight (dir. Christopher Nolan, 2008)
As one of the most brilliant villains in cinematic history, it’s only fitting that he receives one of the most brilliant introductions. Nolan takes us through a thrilling bank robbery, each character concealed beneath a disturbing clown mask. But before The Joker reveals his true identity, he has every accomplice murdered. Not only does this speak of The Jokers scheming intelligence, but his nonchalant shooting of his companions also shows his lack of empathy. We know we are dealing with a sociopathic criminal, who brings destruction to everything around him, before ever seeing his face. But when Heath Ledger finally reveals himself, we unearth a clown even worse than the mask.