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What better way to kick off my beginning-of-year resolution to write more than with a quick look at some opening titles? Donnie Brasco, the 1997 movie by Mike Newell, with Johnny Depp as the FBI undercover man and Al Pacino as the mid-level mobster who is his pathway to this underworld, has a title sequence that shifts from still photographs to moving images. The sequence is by designer Kyle Cooper, and you can see it here, thanks to the The Art of the Title Sequence (and thanks to Andrew G for the recommendation, oh too long ago).

Frame from Donnie Brasco opening titles

Still from Donnie Brasco main titles

On a black screen, we hear Dinah Washington’s ‘Stranger on Earth’ playing softly amid the clinking sounds of a bar. The first titles come up, with irregular kerning separating the letters. (A comment from Art of the Title Sequence calls it “uncanny” and suggests that this is indicative of familiar things being, at second glance, not quite right.) A fade-in to Donnie Brasco’s eyes comes up, and he is so still that it’s unclear if we’re looking at a photograph or a moving sequence. It’s grainy, and black & white, so it could be a photo. Eventually, the flicker of an eyelash. Then he glances up and the movie’s theme music starts as we are taken with some dissolves into a montage of neon lights and close-ups of 35mm contact sheets. The contact sheets are of surveillance photographs of the (presumably, at this stage) mobsters gathering on the street, in bars, by the pool. There are quick montages of successive frames that almost animate the action. There are a few similar successive dissolve shots of Donnie, but it’s unclear if these are more surveillance photos or part of the extra-diegetic framing of the movie. We see more shots of the contact sheet, sometimes with pencil marks on them, sometimes close and grainy, sometimes with the 35mm frame aligned neatly within themovie frame. There are brief moving clips in colour. Then there’s a medium close up of Donnie’s face as a still black & white image, which dissolves into the same shot, only moving now, and with the colour coming up. And finally, as he glances up towards the sound of a nearby conversation, we cut to a wide shot of the men he has been sent to infiltrate.

The sequence plays with our expectations of the images: what are we are looking at? Are they still or moving? The quick montage of stills almost turn the photographs into a movie, but not quite. Their status, like the status of Donnie Brasco himself—undercover, caught between two worlds—is ambiguous. In addition, because we see contact sheets we know from the beginning that these men are under surveillance, that despite whatever happens in the movie, however much they posture and pose and threaten, they will be brought in. There’s an inevitability about the narrative from the very beginning. It also implies the anonymous and more omniscient point of view of the FBI photographer, someone whom the men have no direct contact with but who is always there. It colours the rest of the film with our knowledge that whatever event is being played out in the movie there is likely, somewhere unseen, the watching FBI. It’s a neat way to summarise the themes (FBI investigation, the individual agent’s moral tussles) and tones (elegaic, rueful) of the movie.

It also demonstrates the inadequacy of photographs. If the FBI is able to so easily obtain these surveillance images, why do they need Donnie Brasco to spend risky years undercover? If we the viewers have these photographs at the beginning which suggest to us how things will probably end, why do we need the rest of the movie? The photographs themselves are not enough. In the story, other evidence needs to count: eyewitness testimony, an understanding from the inside of the mob’s structure, and so on. With we viewers, the photographs encourage more questions than answers. Now, this is probably to do with the structure of the opening sequence and what it witholds, rather than the nature of photographs themselves. But the photos are a useful means of taking us quickly into the world of the movie and leaving us there, ready with questions: is the guy with the hat their leader? will they all get caught? Not all of these questions get answered they way we might at first expect.