Explain this movie story technique

Perhaps someone more versed in film will be able to help me out: what is with the technique of starting a movie with a scene from later in the movie? What is this supposed to accomplish? Is it supposed to make the particular scene more meaningful? It gives away at least part of what will happen later in the movie. A couple of examples I can think of are from GoodFellas and Mission Impossible 3.

In GoodFellas where the movie starts with the guys driving in the car with Billy Batts still alive in the trunk. Then they stop and kill him. Of course this scene happens later in the movie when we see Tommy attack Billy Batts for the first time.

Or in Mission: Impossible when Tom Cruise is tied to his chair along with his girlfriend, and we are lead to believe he witnesses her death.

Is it just supposed to look cool? Or am I missing some important film technique and its meaning?

Other examples are welcome.

It’s called in media res, but other than that I can’t help you.

Not really. In medias res means you’re starting the story in the beginning of the action; it is pretty standard in all films. It has nothing to do with showing a later scene in the beginning.

For instance, in The Maltese Falcon*, the first scene shows Mary Astor showing up in Sam Spade’s office. That’s in medias res – it’s the jumping off place for the plot, and you don’t see anything leading up to it.

What you’re describing is a flash forward – where you show a later scene in the film. The purpose is to provide a narrative hook – something to draw the reader into the story.

There was a nice example in Hustle last Wednesday.

We see the team conning a mark. As Danny drives him away in a limo, the mark realizes he’s being conned, but Danny, surprised by the words, takes his eyes off the road and crashes the car in order to miss a woman pushing a baby carriage.

In this case, you want to know what happens next; the story goes back to the beginning and leads up to the scene, and the knowledge that it will all go wrong creates additional suspense, as does wondering what happens after the scene.

Twelve Monkeys has an interesting take on this idea.

In narrative terms, such a scene is called an “initial prolepsis.”

(“Prolepsis” is any part of the narrative that skips ahead to future events in relation to the overall narrative.)

Citizen Kane would probably be the stock example of the technique.

It’s not just movies, of course – you’ll find it in many narrative forms. Marcel Proust’s little gimmick with the madeleine is the obvious example from literature.

The purpose, as alluded to, is to hook the audience without giving too much away. For example, in Goodfellas,

You know Joe Pesci and the other guys are mobsters with a dead guy in the trunk, but you don’t know why. What did this guy do and why are they killing him? We’d better keep watching to find out.

And in Mission Impossible III,

We see the bad guy blow away Tom Cruise’s girlfriend, and go, “holy shit, that is one bad guy!” Of course, we don’t know that it was actually the bad guy’s woman in a Tom-Cruise’s-girlfriend disguise until we see the full scene later.

Not sure I’d agree that that’s what happens in Kane; I haven’t seen it in three years or so, but my recollection is that the opening scene is his deathbed, and then there’s a series of flashbacks, followed by the reporter’s investigation into the truth of the story via interviews with others, which also contain a bunch of flashbacks.

Granted, when the “flashbacks” are so prevalent, you get into Tristram Shandy-land and it becomes difficult to say what’s “narrative” and what’s “flashback,” but I’ve always felt, watching it, that the actual narrative thread is Kane’s death->reporter’s inquiry->final big dramatic surprise, and that Kane’s life was told in flashbacks from that narrative.

The deathbed scene and all the post-mortem scenes form a “frame narrative” that is secondary to the main narrative.

When you fine your terms down a little bit, there’s no ambiguity. When you’re describing a narrative, two useful terms are “story” and “discourse.” “Story” is the sequence of chronological events that take place over the course of the narrative, in the order that they are supposed to have occurred. “Discourse” is the sequence of narrated events as they are presented to us. The “story” of Citizen Kane begins with the old man’s birth and ends with something being burned. The “discourse” of the film begins with point from very near the end of the story, which is prolepsis – a jump ahead in the story.