Out tomorrow on DVD, and worth checking out, is Silent House, a film most notable not for its haunted-house narrative (which is adequate) nor its leading performance by Elizabeth Olsen (which is quite good), but for its remarkable technique: the entire film is cleverly shot to appear as though it is captured in one unedited, unbroken take. It wasn’t, of course (it’s pieced together seamlessly via several hidden “stitches”), and isn’t the first film to try to put that trickery across; earlier films like Russian Ark, Timecode, and PVC-1 have been executed entirely in a long take, though this is one of the few films to use the technique at the service of a genre story.
These films are part of a long tradition of stylish filmmakers showing off their craft via long, elaborate shots, often incorporating extensive camera movement and busy choreography to create an unending flurry of on-screen activity. After the jump, we’ve assembled ten of our very favorites; agree, disagree, and add your own in the comments.
Alfred Hitchcock wanted to make a film with no edits primarily as a challenge: could he create suspense and tension without the luxury of cutting? Alas, the technology he was working with didn’t allow him the opportunity — film cameras can only hold a “reel” (roughly ten minutes) of film, and once that reel runs out, it must be changed. As a compromise, Hitchock decided to make Rope as a series of ten unbroken five-to-ten-minute takes, “masking” them whenever possible to give the impression of continuous shooting. It’s more of an interesting experiment than an altogether successful technique, but the film has its moments, the relentlessness of the camera nicely complimenting the claustrophobia of the single-set story.
Touch of Evil
Several great directors have used the busy unbroken take as a method for crafting an opening scene, using its fluidity and immersion to create a “shoot first, ask questions later” M.O. — and also to give viewers something interesting to look at while all those names are going by. The first filmmaker to do so may well have been Orson Welles, whose famous crane-assisted shot in the dusty noir classic Touch of Evil placed a bomb in the trunk of a car and then coiled around it for three and a half minutes. (In its original release, the shot was accompanied by titles and Henry Mancini’s score; the clip above is from the 1998 “restored cut,” which removed them per Welles’ wishes in a memo to Universal that was ignored back in 1958.)
The most famous long shot since Touch of Evil came in 1990, when Martin Scorsese and cinematographer Michael Ballhaus created the famous “Copa sequence” in Goodfellas, where the camera follows Henry Hill (Ray Liotta) and his girlfriend Karen (Lorraine Bracco) into the Copacabana nightclub, through the backdoor, down hallways, through the kitchen, and out to the floor, where waiters set up a table to give them a front-row seat. Scorsese and Ballhaus did it eight times before they got their keeper, but it’s not just gimmickry; in that remarkable scene, the filmmaker is explicitly visualizing Henry’s power and access, the way that his connections as a “wiseguy” literally opened every door for him. Plus, it’s a cool shot (and one memorably sent up six years later in Swingers).
Director Brian DePalma’s film version of The Bonfire of the Vanities was such a massive clusterfuck, so critically reviled and so widely ignored by moviegoers, that few people noticed that it contained a killer opening shot, tracking a disheveled Bruce Willis as he’s prepped for a big event — and the fact that it came out three months after Goodfellas couldn’t have helped either. Eight years later, DePalma did his best to top not only himself (and all the other Steadicam-crazy filmmakers) with the twelve-minute opening shot of Snake Eyes, an otherwise forgettable Nicolas Cage vehicle. “Now about that first shot,” Roger Ebert wrote. “It’s wonderful.” And indeed it is, a bravura piece of Steadicam work that follows corrupt cop Nicolas Cage from backstage to ringside of a heavyweight championship bout. Shame about the rest of the movie.
Always up for a little bit of meta-movie consideration, Robert Altman used the long, unbroken shot that opened his 1991 Hollywood satire The Player to discuss… long, unbroken shots. The eight-minute scene, which begins with a pre-action slate and proceeds to introduce the film’s important characters, tracks through a studio parking lot, with commentary provided by head of security Fred Ward, who despairs of modern films’ “cut cut cut” MTV aesthetic, invoking Rope and Touch of Evil (adding three minutes to that shot’s running time), though he hasn’t seen Absolute Beginners or The Sheltering Sky.
Lest we given the impression that only North American filmmakers love their tracking shots, let us pause for a nod to the great Jean-Luc Godard, who famously stops his 1967 film Weekend for a full seven minutes in order to show every single car in a massive traffic jam that is the result of (spoiler alert, if you haven’t watched it!) a bloody car wreck on the road ahead. As his ’60s output moved from the jazzy but indisputably audience-pleasing rhythms of Breathless and Band of Outsiders to more experimental territory, he was more and more prone to test his audience’s patience, but that’s not all he’s up to here; the activities of the stranded motorists and their cacophony of impatient honking serve as a sharp contrast to the carnage and tragedy that’s impeding them.
I Am Cuba
This 1964 Soviet-Cuban propaganda film was indifferently received at the time of its release and forgotten for three decades, until it was rediscovered in the early 1990s and championed by the likes of Scorsese, Coppola, and (later) Paul Thomas Anderson. One look at the film and it’s easy to see why: its acrobatic camera work, shot almost entirely in long takes with wide-angle lenses, make it a stylist’s dream. It’s hard to select a single sequence for praise, but the most remarkable is probably the clip above, in which the body of martyred student Enrique is carried through the streets in one extraordinary three-minute unbroken (and crane-less) shot.
On the audio commentary to his breakthrough 1997 film, Paul Thomas Anderson openly admits to cribbing from I Am Cuba, particularly in a pool party sequence that follows a character under water and back up to the surface (going one step further than a similar scene in Cuba). But that’s not the best long take in Boogie Nights; the champ is the notorious “New Year’s Eve” sequence, which follows Little Bill (William H. Macy) as he makes an unfortunate discovery, and decides to do something about it. It’s not just the gliding camerawork that makes the sequence so brutally effective; the cuts which follow it, first to the concerned partygoers, then to Macy, and then to black, are even more blunt and jarring after the earlier smoothness of the sequence.
Children of Men
As explained in the clip above, director Alfonso Cuarón wanted to use “all-in-one” takes in his brilliant 2006 film Children of Men to further a captured, documentary-style aesthetic. The most impressive of its many unbroken shots is the attack on a moving car, which used a specially designed car-mounted rig to create 360 degree movements for the tense, harrowing sequence. (Unfortunately, we can’t find an embed of the scene itself, which means you’ll just have to go watch the whole movie again. We apologize, sort of.)
Director Joe Wright decided to make the most complex scene in his film — giant location, over one thousand extras, etc. — even more complicated by shooting it all in one five-and-a-half minute shot, to better convey the chaos and madness at Dunkirk beach (and, presumably, to make a sequence that would knock everybody out). Watch it here.
And a few others worth mentioning: Oldboy, The Protector , Kill Bill: Volume I, The Passenger, and Hard Boiled. Which ones did we miss? Let us know in the comments.