In Scenic Routes, Mike D’Angelo looks at key scenes, explaining how they work and what they mean.

Generally speaking, opening credits are a waste of the viewer’s time. Most people know which actors star in the movie they’ve chosen to watch, and they don’t care about any of the other creative personnel, unless the director is a huge name—Spielberg, Scorsese, Tarantino. Cinephiles, who decidedly do care, usually already know most of that information, and are ready to assault you with it in advance. (Apologies, friends and family. But Roger Deakins really does deserve an Oscar.) Since there’s little to be gained by boring the audience in order to massage some egos, most filmmakers who include an opening-credits sequence try to make it entertaining, using those two or three minutes to set the tone for the movie to follow. This can be especially useful when the movie isn’t necessarily what the casual filmgoer would expect. A singular title sequence then becomes a way of asking, “We know you showed up anticipating X (possibly based on a deliberately misleading trailer), but can we possibly interest you in Y instead?”

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One of my favorite examples of this ploy is the opening credits sequence Tony Gilroy dreamed up for his second feature, Duplicity. Gilroy had made his directorial debut two years earlier with Michael Clayton, a fairly sober legal thriller that was nominated for Oscars in most major categories, including Best Picture. (Its sole win was for Tilda Swinton in Supporting Actress; that was the year of No Country For Old Men.) Duplicity, an espionage romance starring Julia Roberts and Clive Owen, is a different sort of animal—but not wildly different, the way that, say, Raising Arizona bears no resemblance at all to Blood Simple. Gilroy is working in a lighter, frothier vein here, and he evidently wanted to communicate that right from the jump. To that end, he shot one of the goofiest opening-credits sequences in recent memory: a slow-motion smack-down between rival CEOs, played by Tom Wilkinson and Paul Giamatti. It’s actually way, way sillier than the movie itself, but it ensures that nobody will mistakenly think they’re watching Michael Clayton 2.

One of the reasons this sequence works as effectively as it does is that no context whatsoever is provided for it. Wilkinson’s character, Howard Tully, and Giamatti’s character, Dick Garsik, will become prominent later on—the movie’s plot involves their longstanding rivalry, and Roberts and Owen’s lovers act as spies on Garsik’s behalf—but this is the first time we’ve ever seen them, and we have no clue who they are. It’s just two random middle-aged men in nice suits shouting at each other beside two corporate jets. James Newton Howard’s jazzy score owns the soundtrack, so we don’t even know what they’re yelling. It’s clear that they’re both very angry, but it’s still a surprise when the shoving match breaks out, and then escalates to Tully picking Garsik up, throwing him to the ground, and diving on top of him with a snarl of fury. Most bona fide Hollywood comedies don’t kick off with behavior this ludicrously exaggerated; it’s especially odd as a means of introducing what’s primarily a sophisticated battle of wits, otherwise devoid of slapstick.

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At the same time, though, the filmmaking here is sophisticated in the extreme. It’s not a coincidence, I suspect, that one particularly magnificent shot—beginning with empty sky, into which first Garsik and then Tully fall en route to hitting the pavement—is accompanied by the credit for director of photography Robert Elswit, who’s best known for his collaborations with Paul Thomas Anderson. Nowadays, it’s impossible to say with any confidence who’s responsible for a film’s look, given how much tweaking is done in post-production. Still, it’s likely that Elswit deserves much of the credit for the gorgeously gray, overcast sky, which seems to permeate everything in the frame. He’s presumably also responsible for working out just how much to slow everything down, a rate that varies—it took me several viewings to notice that you can see everyone walking in slow-mo even in that initial long shot, when they’re all tiny and huddled together in groups. The timing throughout needs to be just right, or the violence won’t be funny.

Meanwhile, Gilroy is rocking heightened symmetry like a madman. His screenplay for Duplicity is replete with doublings and repetitions, including one dialogue exchange that’s played out three different times over the course of the film, in contexts that make it truly bewildering (especially the second time, when it seems impossible and nonsensical). Gilroy establishes that motif visually here, right from the first shot, in which the hangar is perfectly centered in the frame and each jet is precisely the same distance from the center. Wes Anderson couldn’t have made it look more artificial. The subsequent alternating shots of Tully and Garsik approaching each other across the tarmac, likewise, are mirror images: first head-on, then profile, then three-quarter. In fact, everything is so perfectly composed that I wince every time I see the shot in which they finally meet, which has Tully enter frame right a second or so before Garsik appears at frame left. (Note that the hangar behind them is still perfectly centered; it goes off-center for the first time a moment later, at the point when all hell breaks loose.) A tiny “error,” noticeable only because what precedes it calls attention to its own exactitude.

Gilroy’s commentary track on the Duplicity DVD (shared with editor John Gilroy, Tony’s brother; their other brother is Dan Gilroy, who directed Nightcrawler), which I somehow only just now thought to consult, confirms that an enormous amount of time and energy went into getting this sequence right. He and Elswit shot it all on video with stuntmen beforehand, doing various tests to work out the angles and speeds. “We found out that 75 frames per second wasn’t really funny,” Tony Gilroy notes, “but 150 frames per second was hilarious.” Unfortunately, they stick entirely to technical matters—there’s no discussion at all about the sequence’s function, and why Gilroy felt it was worthwhile to work so hard on something that could easily be excised without harming the narrative in the slightest. But maybe he felt that’s pretty obvious. Clearly, it’s first and foremost a public service announcement: “Don’t take this movie too seriously. These people are completely ridiculous. Have fun.” Coming from someone who’d only directed one previous film, which is very serious indeed, that’s valuable information. The people who made Duplicity get their moment of recognition, and the audience now knows it can relax a little. Everyone wins.

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