Filmmakers have been vying for decades to come up with loooong takes that tell tales great and small.
They're the two most common words you might expect to hear on a film set. One gets the cameras rolling; the other stops them. The question then becomes what to do with all the footage.
The art of editing, of assembling various camera angles of various scenes for dramatic effect, has long been a crucial component of cinema, from D.W. Griffith's crosscutting in Birth of a Nation to Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho shower scene to Paul Greengrass' white-knuckle Bourne action sequences.
At the same time, though, a counternarrative of cinematic tortoises has nestled alongside these itchy-splicing-finger hares. More and more directors are using long takes — scenes unspooling in real time, free of edits — as a sobering reminder of temporality, a virtuosic calling card, a self-issued challenge or all of the above. The trend may have reached its commercial apotheosis with the 2015 Academy Award winner, Birdman, which told the story of an action hero's attempted Broadway comeback seemingly in real time. (Peak TV has also gotten involved, in a particularly daring 2017 Mr. Robot episode as well as extended action sequences in True Detective and Daredevil.)
Now director Sam Mendes has created a one-shot wonder with 1917, set in the no man's land of the World War I trenches. His efforts — which, like many of the films discussed here, do cheat with more than one cut — are part of a tradition that goes back at least 70 years. Here is a timeline of pivotal films (and a few noteworthy scenes) that are all "Action!" and no "Cut!"
Alfred Hitchcock filmed the psychological thriller Rope in a series of 10-minute takes, hiding most of the necessary cuts (film cameras at the time couldn't shoot any longer) by panning past a character's back or a piece of furniture. The film's star, James Stewart, was less than impressed: "The really important thing being rehearsed here is the camera, not the actors!" he muttered during filming. Soon Max Ophüls (Le Plaisir) and Vincente Minnelli (The Band Wagon) would try similarly adventurous experiments, though never for an entire film.
1958: Touch of Evil
By the time Touch of Evil opened, Orson Welles had tried his hand at splashy long takes in both Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons. But his 3-plus-minute opening sequence in Touch of Evil, in which we see a time bomb placed in a car and then sweat out the inevitable explosion, remains his gold standard. It also threw down the gauntlet for similarly ambitious opening shots by the likes of Robert Altman (The Player), Kathryn Bigelow (Strange Days), Brian De Palma (Snake Eyes) and Alfonso Cuarón (Gravity).
Long takes found a home in avant-garde film as well, few longer than Empire, in which Andy Warhol filmed the upper floors of the Empire State Building in slow motion, resulting in a film just over 8 hours long.
1964: I Am Cuba
Mikhail Kalatozov's Soviet-Cuban coproduction, all but lost for decades, had cineastes reeling when it resurfaced in 1995, in no small part because of shots like one that descends from a hotel rooftop and even goes underwater for a time. Judging from a near-identical shot in 1997's Boogie Nights, Paul Thomas Anderson was among those who liked what they finally saw.
"Film is truth 24 times a second, and every cut is a lie," Jean-Luc Godard famously said. By that measure, this horrific traffic jam offers more than 7 minutes of unalloyed truth, scored almost entirely by a cacophony of blaring car horns.
1975: Jeanne Dielman, 23, Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles
The list of long-take practitioners skews decidedly male, but Chantal Akerman said she took her time observing the quotidian activities of her titular housewife in an effort "to look carefully and to be respectful." The result was a pioneering work of feminist cinema, one whose precise attentions made the eventual cracks in Jeanne Dielman's routine all the more shocking.
Martin Scorsese's penchant for long tracking shots, still visible in The Irishman, reached its apex in Goodfellas, when we spend three minutes tailing Henry Hill taking his future wife to the Copacabana nightclub. The Copa shot, as it's become known, reportedly took eight takes to get right.
Not content with filming an entire movie in one take, Mike Figgis filmed four of them at the same time with the split-screen Timecode.
2002: Russian Ark
With more than 2,000 actors and three orchestras, Russian Ark roamed around dozens of rooms of St. Petersburg's Winter Palace in just one 96-minute take. The director, Alexander Sokurov, had enough battery power for only four attempts; the fourth one was the charm.
The only digital manipulation in Park Chan-wook's stunning 25-vs.-one Oldboy fight scene involved inserting a knife in the protagonist's back after the fact. Spike Lee added a few degrees of difficulty when he remade the film a decade later, only to see the studio insert a cut midway through.
2006: Children of Men
By this point, an inserted knife is child's play compared to the digital trickery in Children of Men. Essentially coming full circle from the days of Rope, Cuarón used deft edits to create a seamless look for a pair of action sequences, including an elaborate ambush. (Spoiler: The Ping-Pong ball is also a bit of digital trickery.)
A 5-minute continuous shot of the Dunkirk beach during World War II in Joe Wright's Atonement, complete with a pommel horse and a Ferris wheel alongside the requisite carnage, is probably the closest visual analog to 1917.
2012: Silent House
The otherwise unmemorable Elizabeth Olsen horror film, Silent House, a remake of the similarly structured Uruguayan thriller La Casa Muda, beat Birdman to the punch by 2 years with 87 seemingly uninterrupted minutes of thrills.
Alejandro G. Iñárritu, who had used several extended shots in The Revenant, required 15 to 20 takes for each chunk of Birdman. It paid off, winning additional Academy Awards for Iñárritu and his cinematographer, Emmanuel Lubezki.
2017: One Cut of the Dead
It's Noises Off meets Night of the Living Dead as this low-budget Japanese metathriller kicks off with a 37-minute zombie-attack sequence, then spends the rest of the film dismantling the logistics behind it.
1917 is in cinemas now.
Written by: Eric Grode
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