Top 5 Long Takes

On this week’s Filmspotting podcast, the hosts did their top 5 long takes. For the uninitiated, a Long Take in cinema is referring to an uninterrupted shot that lasts a lot longer than the general editing tempo in the film, usually several minutes. Of course, there are a lot of ways to implement this concept. Some filmmakers, like Ozu or Tarkovsky, are known for more static long takes, meaning that the camera is stationary and the action simply unfolds in front of it. Other folks, like Scorsese or Wells, took the concept further by moving the camera to follow the action. This is usually accomplished by mounting the camera on a dolly and rolling it around on preset tracks (or by using cranes) – thus yielding the term Tracking Shot. The invention of the Steadicam in the mid 70s allowed for smooth tracking shots without the tracks.

You could say that most Long Take/Tracking Shot combos are a lot more showy and maybe even distracting, but I generally enjoy those sorts of pyrotechnics, so long as they’re used for a reason, so that’s what I’ll be focusing on. Now, there are a lot of really famous long takes, but I don’t want to make a super-boring list either, so I’ll just mention three of the most famous first: The opening sequence of Touch of Evil is a masterpiece and often tops lists like these. The Coppacabana scene from Goodfellas is another classic that always shows up on these lists. Paul Thomas Anderson was seemingly inspired by Scorsese (though he puts his own touches on it as well) in his film Boogie Nights, which features a couple of bravura sequences, including one where the camera even follows someone as they dive into a pool. There are even some films, like Hitchcock’s Rope or Russian Ark, that are comprised of just a hadful of shots (indeed, the latter is only a single take). There are, of course, tons of other famous shots like this, but I’m going to be focused on relatively short takes (in the 3-20 minute range). I’m also going to shoot for some more obscure stuff on my list, including some action films (sorely lacking in the Filmspotting lists). I’m going to try and avoid most of the films on the Filmspotting list as well, so there are some other obvious shots that I’m trying to avoid (of course, they also mention about 30 films in their discussion, so it’s hard to be completely unique here).

  • Snake Eyes – Filmmaker Brian DePalma is infamous for his long takes and has employed them in many of his films. Considering that Snake Eyes is an absolutely terrible movie, this is my pick for best long take from an otherwise bad movie. The actual sequence is pretty astounding though. It basically follows a crazy Nick Cage as he walks into a Casino to go to a boxing match. It’s hard to get a good read on how long it really is, but it’s somewhere on the order of 15-20 minuntes long. Purists might complain a bit, though, as there may be a cut or two somewhere in the shot (swish pans and moving over black areas allow opportunity to hide a cut, meaning that it will still seem continuous, even if there was a cut), but I still think it was pretty impressive. The shot opens the film. Unfortunately, it’s all downhill from there.
  • Oldboy – The centerpiece of the film is this fantastic 3-minute fight sequence in a hallway. For those of us from the Nintendo generation, it strikes a particular chord due to the quasi-side-scrolling nature of the sequence. It’s one of the shorter sequences on this list, but there’s something special about the raw intensity in this one that makes it more impressive than many other candidates.
  • Hard Boiled – Legend has it that director John Woo was running out of time (and perhaps budget), so he “compromised” by shooting a few minutes in one uninterrupted take. This only works out to be about 2-3 minutes, but the sequence involves two cops making their way through a hospital filled with bad guys. Lots of gunplay, and the camera follows them through twists and turns and even an elevator. An amazing action sequence.
  • The Player – Another opening sequence. This film is actually set in a movie studio, which allows director Robert Altman to make all sorts of references and homages to other famous long takes (including direct mentions of the aforementioned Touch of Evil, amongst other more obscure movies). Coming in at around 8 minutes, it’s one of the longer takes on my list.
  • Breaking News – And saving the most obscure for last, this is Kaedrin favorite Johnny To’s most famous long take, an 7 minute (or so) shootout that starts the film. Really astounding use of the crane on this one, which features lots of movement, but in a relatively constrained location. This is vintage To though, as he’s great at intricate staging in his action sequences.

Well, there you have it. A few of those are perhaps very well known and often referenced, but there’s at least one that is rarely mentioned when it comes to long takes.

I do have one honorable mention though, and it’s a strange one. I don’t think I’ve ever heard it referenced in long take discussions before, but it’s definitely at least 2-3 minutes long. I’m not sure why this one sticks with me so much, but it’s the scene in Tarantino’s Jackie Brown (which has a couple of good long takes, including another opening shot) where Ordell Robbie (Samuel L. Jackson) goes to talk to Beaumont Livingston (Chris Tucker) at a hotel. It’s a long scene, and the camera follows them around a bit, but stays relatively stationary, despite the fact that they get into a car and drive around for a while. Again, I don’t know why, but that scene always sticks in my mind when I think of long takes.

Well, I suppose that’s enough blabbering about Long Takes. Feel free to share any of your personal favorites in the comments!