Wednesday, November 9, 2011

14 Great Under-Appreciated Long Takes

While watching the amazing long unbroken shots in recent films like Shame and Miss Bala it occurred to me that the discussion of the greatest long takes in film history is one that has calcified into the same examples over and over.

Goodfellas and Touch of Evil are always name-checked as the pinnacle of achievement. The Player and Boogie Nights usually rate mentions as new classics. Feature-length experiments like Rope and Russian Ark are mentioned as oddities and depending on how in depth the discussion goes titles like I Am Cuba, Hardboiled, or Snake Eyes might get thrown around.

But with such a wealth of choices out there I submit that there should be more diversity of films under discussion. So what that in mind here are fourteen more shots that deserve to be in the conversation:

The Messenger (2009) - "Kitchen" 
Length: 8 min 15 sec

Dir. Moverman, Cin. Bukowski

The emotional core of Moverman's bruising drama is this incredible shot, lasting nearly a full reel of film, as war widow Samantha Morton and Casualty Notification Officer Ben Foster dance around the idea of romance as a bandage on their sadness. The benefits of letting a shot play out are on full display here. The camera continually reframes the scene as it unfolds but it’s the actors that control the pacing and create a tension that would have been absent with constant cutting. 

Y Tu Mama Tambien (2001) - "Drinks
Length: 6 min 56 sec

Dir. Cuaron, Cin. Lubezki

This shot from Cuaron's road trip masterpiece might not have the pyrotechnics of the famous extended takes in his Children of Men's but I would put it up against any of them for content. Arriving late in the film, right before the story's simmering tension boils over, Cuaron follows the trio as their inhibitions are washed away in a few rounds of drinking, truth and dancing. The shot climaxing with Maribel Verdú delivering a lazy samba right into the camera, after which the sex scene hardly seems necessary.

Do the Right Thing (1989)- "So Much Hate"  
Length: 4 min 22 sec

Dir. Lee, Cin. Dickerson
Right before the film's famous montage of racial slurs Spike Lee stages this long scene with Sal trying and failing to reach an understanding with his hot-tempered son. It's a great example of letting blocking within a shot tell the story. Here it's Sal's Pizzeria versus the outside world, which intrudes in the form of Smiley and the voices of the unseen corner boys. It's a long, sad sigh before launching into the heartbreak and violence of the film's final third.

Hannah and Her Sisters (1986) - "Very Skillfully..." 
Length: 2 min 35 sec

Dir. Allen, Cin. Di Palma

Never one to indulge in unnecessary cutting when one take will work, Woody Allen could field dozens of candidates for this list, but there is something about this shot that sticks with me. The shot's length is essential to how well it works, as both the shot and Caine are in patient control as his voiceover describes how delicately he must proceed in his pursuit of Barbara Hersey. Which serves to makes it all the more effective when he feelings run away with him and he bursts out with his breathless, messy declaration of love.

Eastern Promises (2007) - "Bloody Crawl"
Length: 1 min 7 sec

Dir. Cronenberg, Cin. Suschitzky

Topping off what is arguably the greatest fight scene in modern movies, this shot of the bloody aftermath is not as long as most choices on this list (or the stellar opening to Cronenberg's History of Violence) but I include it because A) it's awesome and B) it so perfectly demonstrates what a film can gain by letting things play uncut. Not only does it fit dramatically - the length of the shot lets us really feel his pain and exhaustion - but it lends the shot's brutal punchline a gasp-inducing impact. Whether or not audiences register it consciously they instinctively believe what they see more when it unfolds sans cuts.

Topsy-Turvy (1999)- "Rehearsal"
Length: 2 min 53 sec

Dir. Leigh, Cin. Pope

The pleasure of watching actors really doing the thing the characters are doing is getting lost in an age where one can barely find a shot of a guy standing on a street corner that is not somehow digitally altered. Not so in the work of Mike Leigh. In a wonderful single-shot scene from his brilliant Topsy-Turvy Sullivan runs his stars through "I Am So Proud" from The Mikado, creating theatrical magic right before our eyes. The shot isn't a technical feat - the camera is stationary - but the joy of watching in real time as a masterpiece takes shape is thrilling nonetheless.

The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943) - "Their Mother's Funeral"
Length: 3 min 10 sec

Dir. Powell & Pressburger, Cin. Perinal

One of the cinema's great monologues delivered, it is inconceivable to think of it playing in anything but one unbroken take. The Anton Walbrook character we first met as a proud young German soldier is now a tired old man seeking refuge in England during World War II. He chronicles, in steady heartbreaking simplicity, the rise of Nazi party, the loss of his sons to the Hitler youth, and finally how the death of his English wife left him homesick for a country not his own. Powell & Pressburger were smart enough to know that when one has material this powerful best to present it untouched by razors.

Sanjuro (1962) - "Standoff"
Length: 1 min 35 sec

Dir. Kurosawa, Cin. Saito
A classic scene that could only have worked as a long take. In Sanjuro's closing moments Toshiro Mifune's hero has lead the scrappy band of young samurai to victory only to have his last surviving enemy appear and challenge him to a duel. Mifune tries to dissuade him but he refuses to back down and promises to kill everyone present if he lives. And then...nothing. For what feels like an eternity they face each other, motionless. The seconds draw out like minutes until, finally, there is a flurry of action and - well - if you haven't seen it I won't spoil it for you, but once seen it's never forgotten.

Modern Romance (1981) - "100 Ludes"
Length: 3 min 13 sec

Dir. Brooks, Cin. Saarinen

A masterpiece of comic escalation. Trying to forget about his recent breakup and failing spectacularly, Albert Brooks gets bombed on Quaaludes and proceeds to stagger through his apartment crashing into closet doors, making proclamations to his parrot, Petey, and insisting to Bruno Kirby over the phone that he really, truly loves him, before hitting him up for more ludes. "I'd like to get maybe a hundred" Brooks says to Kirby's utter disbelief. The longer the take drags on the funnier it gets.

Paths of Glory (1957) - "Official Visit"
Length: 1 min 31 sec

Dir. Kubrick, Cin. Krause

The later shots of Kirk Douglas in the trenches are more iconic, but this earlier scene is more impressive, setting the stage for the whole film in one economically choreographed tracking shot. Cramming reels of exposition into 91 seconds, Kubrick is also able to layer in a twist of dramatic irony to boot. As the effete General Mireau is doling out insufferable platitudes to the troops on his tour of the trenches, Kubrick stages it so that in one shot the General - who is the only one flinching at the explosions - encounters the three men he will later order executed to cover for his own failure.

The White Ribbon (2009) - "Punishment"
Length: 3 min 30 sec

Dir. Haneke, Cin. Berger
One of the central moments in Haneke's meditation on innocence and evil is this beautifully controlled shot. Beginning on the white ribbons of the title as they are gathered by a tearful mother so she may tie them to the arms of her disobedient children to remind them of their essential purity, the camera follows the children as they proceed towards the room where they are to receive a beating from their father. Only the camera stop short, lingering outside as the violence takes place behind closed doors. Leaving crucial elements to the imagination is a Haneke trademark, and White Ribbon, and this shot in particular, is all the more powerful for the director's restraint.

Sullivan's Travels (1941) - "With a Little Sex In It"
Length: 4 min

Dir. Sturges, Cin. Seitz

This opening scene from Preston Sturges' comedy classic moves with such gusto that I doubt one viewer in a hundred notices the technical mastery on display. Getting all the film's set up out of the way in one four minute sprint, the director leaves the famous split-second timing entirely in the hands of his actors. Racking up an impressive number of classic lines ("If they knew what they liked, they wouldn't live in Pittsburgh!") this shot sets the gold standard for teaming rat-a-tat dialogue with clean, unobtrusive camerawork. Legend has it Sturges filmed it all in one take on a dare.

Wings of Desire (1988) - "Library"
Length: 1 min 20 sec

Dir. Wenders, Cin. Alekan

A long unbroken shot can seem like little more than a self-indulgent stunt when dropped into a film unmotivated. On the other hand, when one is deployed as elegantly as Wenders does here, few things elevate a film more. What better way to portray the pair of angels immersing themselves in an ocean of thought than following them into the huge Berlin library as the sounds of people's inner voices wash over them and are eventually joined on the soundtrack with an other-worldly choir. Perfect.

The Verdict (1982) - "Closing Statement"
Length: 3 min 50 sec

Dir. Lumet, Cin. Bartkowiak

Exhibit A for both the benefits and potential pitfalls of doing it all in one shot. It is difficult to imagine a more graceful climax to Sidney Lumet's courtroom masterpiece than this camera move which starts as a wide shot of the courtroom before moving to a medium on Paul Newman delivering his closing arguments and ending on a close up on his pensive expression at the plaintiff's table. But the shot's creative brilliance was little consolation to Lumet when the film came back unusable and he was faced with the prospect of recreating the whole scene from scratch. Lumet was convinced he would never recapture the magic. Luckily he was wrong.


  1. Oh my, I don't think I'd ever noticed that that was a long take in "Y Tu Mamá También". what's wrong with me? That song they play in that scene is amazing. The lyrics go perfectly with the mood.

  2. One of my favorites: Melville's eight-minute interrogation sequence in Le Doulos:

  3. Jose - It's also funny the things that we remember as long takes that aren't. There were shots from Before Sunset and Punch Drunk Love that I intended to put on the list but on close inspection they snuck cuts in on me.

    Craig - That's a beauty.


    This is my favourite long take - though here sadly interrupted by the upload limit of the time. It wasn't until the second or possibly even third viewing that I realised it was an unbroken shot, such is the power of the scene. Came rather late to this, sorry!

  5. i think another scene worth mentioning is the dialogue between michael fassbender and the priest in Hunger