Michael Wilmington, Tribune Movie Critic – Chicago Tribune
When shooting a movie, taking the long way may be the best.
A complex, long-take, moving-camera shot – like the 20-minute Steadicam marvel that kicks off Brian De Palma‘s new film, “Snake Eyes” – can be to a movie what a virtuoso dance sequence is to a ballet, or a star-turn aria to an opera. If done beautifully, it increases our joy in the sheer mechanics and possibilities of the art. Meaning aside, we can take pleasure in intricate choreography and brilliant execution, virtuosity and razzle-dazzle, in all the ways a master of moving-camera work – like Orson Welles, Max Ophuls or De Palma – makes something technically prodigious look effortless.
Take Welles’ spectacular opening crane shot in “Touch of Evil.” When it wends its serpentine way through the start of that legendary thriller –
– in an unbroken single take that lasts from the moment a bomb is planted in a car trunk to its explosion blocks later at the border – movie lovers can be thrilled by the story, the fabulous technique and the cheeky bravura of the filmmakers in attempting the shot. There are similar frissons in long-take scenes by directors as various as Alfred Hitchcock (Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman’s long kiss in “Notorious”), Stanley Kubrick (Danny’s toy car riding through Overlook in “The Shining”) and Andrei Tarkovsky (the mesmerizing opening shot of child and tree in “The Sacrifice”).
What makes a superb long-take scene so fascinating? For one thing, it’s often breathtakingly difficult to achieve. Breaking up a scene into dozens or hundreds of shots – standard operating procedure for most big-studio action movies – allows the director to change, retake or reshuffle those shots at will. In a long take, there’s more aesthetic exposure and risk. Everything in the shot (performances, background, action, lighting) has to flow perfectly, because only one element (beyond added visual effects) can be significantly improved in the editing: the sound, through redubbing.
Of course it can be argued that, in a movie, story is more important than shot duration; Robert Altman playfully sent up the whole notion of “great shots” with his tongue-in-cheek eight-minute opening studio scene in “The Player.” But Altman’s irreverence was also part homage to cinema’s past glories. Indeed, the elegance of a moving long take makes it almost an anachronism; these days, Hollywood action scenes are edited with such frenzy (as in the jackhammer-paced “Armageddon”) that there may be dozens of cuts a minute.
A moving-camera long take is more spacious. It gives the scene, and the actors, time to breathe, to grow and to suggest an entire world – as in the memorable ballroom scene in Welles’ “The Magnificent Ambersons” (a long scene that, before the movie’s mutilation, was originally filmed in one take). It creates almost palpable tension and emotion, as in Jack Nicholson‘s furious tantrum scenes in “Carnal Knowledge.”
Long takes can show us grand ballrooms or bloody battlefields (“Paths of Glory,” “Henry V”). Or they can be intimate and interior. What viewer can forget Bibi Andersson’s erotic bedroom confession in Ingmar Bergman’s “Persona,” or potter Masayuki Mori’s return to his ghostly wife in Kenji Mizoguchi’s “Ugetsu”?
Indeed, some directors – among them Welles, Mizoguchi, Jim Jarmusch, Greece’s Theo Angelopoulos and Hungary’s Miklos Jansco – make a whole film style out of extremely long takes. But the man many regard as the all-time master of the unbroken, moving-camera shot was Viennese-American-French filmmaker Max Ophuls. “A shot that does not call for tracks,” his friend, the actor James Mason, once mused, “is agony for poor, dear Max.” For Ophuls, the moving shot – whether his camera followed doomed lovers in “Letter from an Unknown Woman” and “The Earrings of Madame De . . . ” or grand courtesans in “Lola Montes” – captured bittersweet romance and false freedom.
For others the shot means flamboyance, dazzlement, even entry into another world – as in “2001: A Space Odyssey.” Either way, a beautiful long take is a cinematic coup that, in the right hands, stops the show.
MESMERIZED BY `SNAKE EYES’.
Despite mixed reviews, Brian De Palma’s “Snake Eyes” is a feast of virtuoso camerawork, with a Steadicam shot that is one of the most remarkable “single take” scenes ever. It begins with the video image of a TV reporter outside an Atlantic City casino, as Defense Secretary Charles Kirkland arrives. The camera tracks across two other monitors in the TV control booth to an image of Detective Rick Santoro (Nicolas Cage) hamming it up with reporter Lou Logan, then to Santoro and Logan in the flesh. After the scene’s only apparent cut (purists will start the shot here), Santoro lopes downstairs while chatting on a cell phone with his girlfriend. He sees boxer Lincoln Tyler, collars a bookie, and tries and fails to place a bet on credit. He then spots sleazo Cyrus, chases him down an escalator, beats him up and lifts several grand so he can get in his bet. Trailing Tyler’s entourage, he chats with a showgirl, (2) takes another call, then reaches ringside and buddy-turned-Navy-security-chief Kevin Dunne (Gary Sinise). Santoro and Dunne’s gabfest takes them all around the ring before thousands of boisterous fans and to ringside seats in front of Kirkland. The fight starts. (3) Two swish pans move to (4) a mysterious redhead and back. Dunne goes to question her, she bolts, and he follows. A swish pan moves back to Santoro, whooping it up. Blond-wigged Julia Costello takes Dunne’s seat and, after Santoro flirts with her, leans in to talk to Kirkland. A tussle starts in the audience. As Tyler is apparently knocked out, Santoro gets another call. As his eyes rise warily, De Palma finally cuts to what he sees: a sniper’s hiding place. It is the first obvious edit in 20 minutes.
10 GREAT SINGLE-TAKE SCENES
- “Touch of Evil” (Orson Welles, 1958). See sequence above.
- “Rope” (Alfred Hitchcock, 1948). Legendary as Hitchcock’s “single-shot movie,” Patrick Hamilton’s play about Loeb-and-Leopold-style thrill-killers was made in 10-minute takes with cleverly disguised cuts. (The “Snake Eyes” shot has hidden cuts – in the wipes and swish pans – as well.)
- “GoodFellas” (Martin Scorsese, 1990). See sequence below.
- “Sunrise” (F.W. Murnau, 1927). A legendary silent movie scene: Guilt-ridden farmer George O’Brien leaves wife Janet Gaynor and trudges through a moonlit swamp to a meeting with evil city woman Margaret Livingston.
- “The Player” (Robert Altman, 1992). The camera descends on Tim Robbins’ studio and wanders around for eight minutes, picking up multiple conversations inside and outside the office bungalows. Among them: a Fred Ward-Buck Henry dialogue about virtuoso long takes in “Rope,” “Touch of Evil” and “Absolute Beginners.”
- “Absolute Beginners” (Julien Temple, 1986). Broken by black-and-white snapshot freeze frames, the shot follows a young London photographer (Eddie O’Connell) through wildly colorful 1958 Soho at night.
- “The Travelling Players” (Theo Angelopoulos, 1975). A rowdy horde of right-wing Greek bullies leaves a political meeting and walks from 1952 back to 1939, where Joseph Goebbels is set to speak in the town square.
- “Le Plaisir” (Max Ophuls, 1952). In the opening of this multi-part Guy de Maupassant film, we follow a masked reveler down a dark Paris street, into a bustling cabaret, then whirl around with him as he dances madly and collapses.
- “Paths of Glory” (Stanley Kubrick, 1957). Kirk Douglas as Colonel Dax runs across a hellish WWI battlefield.
- “Boogie Nights” (Paul Thomas Anderson, 1997). Porn superstar-to-be Mark Wahlberg gets an eyeful in a ’70s Southern California disco bar.
DEFINING OUR TERMS
Crane shot: Any moving shot in which the camera rides on a vehicle called a crane, mounted on an electronically controlled arm called a boom. (Also called a “boom shot.”)
Dolly shot: A shot in which the camera moves in to or out from part of a scene.
Long take: A single scene, or part of a scene, filmed without cuts as a continuous unbroken shot. (Also: “single take.”)
Pan: Horizontal camera movement across a scene. A rapid pan is called a “swish-pan.”
Steadicam: A lightweight, portable, motion-picture camera mount, notable for producing unusually steady hand-held shots.
Tracking shot: A shot in which the camera, on a mount, moves through a scene, generally following a character from in front or behind. (Also: “trucking shot.”)
Definitions adapted from Frank Beaver’s “Dictionary of Film Terms.”