Search for the best long takes in cinema, and you’ll find the usual suspects. The Copacabana shot in Goodfellas; the opening shots of Boogie Nights, Touch of Evil, and Gravity; action scenes in The Protector, Hard Boiled and Oldboy; the car shootout in Children of Men; the TV station shot in Magnolia; the conversation in Hunger; the jog in Shame; the conclusion of The Passenger; the raid in True Detective. You’ll read about the extended use of long takes in movies like Rope, Timecode, Irreversible, Russian Ark, and, soon enough, Birdman. And the thing is, while all of those shots deserve to be hailed as some of the best long takes ever captured, the internet is oversaturated with praise for them. I’ve written about many of those shots on this blog before, so in an effort to branch out, here’s a list of excellent and vastly underpraised long takes in film.
The Earrings of Madame de... (1953)
Ready to Take the Day // 2 minutes 32 seconds
As far as long takes are concerned, German maestro Max Ophüls is the be-all and end-all. Stanley Kubrick, Paul Thomas Anderson, Sam Fuller, and Alejandro González Iñárritu have cited Ophüls’ shooting style as a major influence on their careers. The man was a pioneer of long takes, and choosing just one favorite is damn near impossible. But I’ll offer up the opening shot of The Earrings of Madame de..., in which the camera follows the title character as she gets ready for her day. I would give further insight into the shot, but Paul Thomas Anderson (via the Criterion release of the film) has already articulated the intention of the shot far better than I could.
I Am Cuba (1964)
Mikhail Kalatozov’s I Am Cuba was released exactly 50 years ago, and I still have no idea how many of the elaborate long takes in the film were achieved. Just watch this goddamn funeral scene (located here). Starts on the ground, traverses up a building, glides to another building, eases through a crowded room, then fucking floats outside in midair. Astonishing.
Fun fact: Paul Thomas Anderson proudly ripped off I Am Cuba’s long take of a pool party for a similar sequence in Boogie Nights.
The Passion of Anna (1969)
A Man Lost // 1 minute 20 seconds
The common thread in Ingmar Bergman’s Hour of the Wolf, Shame and The Passion of Anna is Max von Sydow’s fleeting sanity. Although the films are set in different places and different time periods, they form an unofficial trilogy, centered around a man gone mad. Essentially, all three films are leading up to the conclusion of The Passion of Anna, in which we slowly push in on von Sydow’s character pacing back and forth in a barren field. Nowhere to go and no one to listen. Aimless, lost, gone.
All the President’s Men (1976)
“Okay, we go with it.” // 33 seconds
It’s important to note that just because a shot is long, that doesn’t automatically make it effective. A shorter long shot can be as vital as the most extended long shots. This shot near the end of All the President’s Men is a prime example. The entirety of the film builds to this moment. The shot in question begins at the 2:40 mark in the clip above. Washington Post reporter, Carl Bernstein (Dustin Hoffman) comes running out of an office, the camera pushing in and out, in perfect stride with the actor’s movements. He stops and tells Bob Woodward (Robert Redford) some news, and they take off after their editor, Ben Bradley (Jason Robards). Now, watch what the camera does here. Study it. It glides across the newsroom, effortlessly weaving around desks and barriers. The character focus changes from Bernstein to Woodward to Bradley, all within 33 seconds. It’s truly astounding work; one of the single greatest shots of Gordon Willis’ career.
“Michael’s around someplace.” // shot one: 3 minutes, shot two: 58 seconds
Although the opening shot of John Carpenter’s Halloween sneakily cuts when Michael puts the mask on, the effect remains the same. We’re in there. In the mind of an unseen child – a child we fear, though to the extent of which we do not know. Yet.
The Candle Burns // 9 minutes 7 seconds
Andrei Tarkovsky was a master of long takes. It’s so difficult to pick a favorite, but his epic conclusion to Nostalghia is as necessary as long takes get. Out of context, the clip above may not mean much to you. But if you’ve seen the film, you know how devastating this shot really is.
Manhattan Murder Mystery (1993)
“This would be a really great way to kill somebody.” // 1 minute 56 seconds
Covering a five person conversation is a nightmare. There are so many angles and points of view to hit on; you could literally spend days shooting masters, mediums and close-ups of every actor in the scene. An alternative solution is to do it the Woody Allen way. Handheld, with the camera bobbing and weaving around the table for one single take. A little sloppy, totally raw, completely authentic.
Pulp Fiction (1994)
“I’m the foot fuckin’ master.” // 2 minutes 36 seconds
Quentin Tarantino has certainly executed much longer takes in his career (the diner conversation in Death Proof is a lot of fun), but this shot in Pulp Fiction is a perfect example of a stealth oner. That is, a long take we don’t really notice. The writing is so good (and the acting so priceless), that you completely forget the entire scene is executed in one take.
Funny Games (1997/2007)
A Mother Mourns // 10 minutes 14 seconds
What would you do if your only child was murdered in front of you? How long would it take you to move again, to think again, to breathe again? All questions Michael Haneke explores in this shot from both versions of his pitch black satire, Funny Games. And note, the embedded clip is only a portion of the entire shot. Fucking agony.
Good Will Hunting (1997)
“Your move, chief.” // 2 minutes 38 seconds
This scene has been discussed a lot, mostly due to its strong writing and Robin Williams’ perfect delivery (rest in peace, fine sir). But the cinematography is essential. In one shot, two men are literally, irreversibly united.
Code Unknown (2000)
Subway Terror // 5 minutes 30 seconds
This is one of the most unsettling things I’ve ever witnessed in a film. Unbearable to watch, but absolutely necessary for everyone to see. (Note: I could not find this clip with English subtitles. The film is currently on Netflix Instant in America. My suggestion is that you watch it immediately.)
Y Tu Mamá También (2001)
Tequila Confessions // 6 minutes 55 seconds
I actually wrote about this scene in my recent list of the best fourth wall breaks, but it deserves mention again, for an entirely different reason. Few contemporary filmmakers execute wildly imaginative long takes as consistently as Alfonso Cuarón and his DP, Emmanuel Lubezki. But Y Tu Mamá También is different. The many long takes in the film never bring attention to themselves. They simply exist, without being flashy. My favorite is the extended conversation the three main characters have at a beach bar. They drink, they toast, and boy, do they dance.
4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days (2007)
The Frantic Search // 3 minutes
Before Midnight (2013)
“This is where it ends.” // shot one: 5 minutes, shot two: 8 minutes 4 seconds
They talk about things that people who have known each other for a long time talk about: work, kids, food, cats. When Jesse brings up his oldest son, Hank, the conversation slowly turns. He misses Hank dearly, and feels that he is shamefully absent for his son’s formative years. Celine hears this, and assumes Jesse wants her to move to Chicago. “This is where it ends. This is how people start breaking up,” she blurts out. It’s the conversation that haunts all of Before Midnight. Beautiful in its simplicity, painful in its accuracy. (Note: although the driving shot temporarily cuts to a shot of the Greek ruins, director Richard Linklater has said that two driving shots were from the some extended take.)
12 Years a Slave (2013)
The Flogging of Patsey // 4 minutes 46 seconds
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