It opens with a bang, but not straight away. First there’s that shot. The one cited as one of the great opening shots in cinema. One of the great shots in cinema. One of Orson Welles’s most iconic sequences. It’s what people talk about when they talk about Touch of Evil (1958). It’s what people talk about when they talk about sequence shots. It’s the long take the characters in Robert Altman’s The Player (1992) talk about, as they move through an even longer one of their own. It’s not the longest single take in movies – it’s not even the longest single take in this movie – but it’s the one we all remember, much to Welles’ disappointment:
I always resist compliments about that opening shot in Touch of Evil – because it's one of those shots that shows the director making 'a great shot,' and I think that great shots should conceal themselves a little bit. But that, by its nature, had to show it, because it told the plot. There was no way of not doing a kind of virtuoso shot that announced itself. But I prefer the ones that don't, that conceal themselves.”Orson Welles
Perhaps he’s talking about the other great sequence shot in Touch of Evil, the one that tends to get overlooked? The stifling claustrophobia of the motel interrogation scene – shot with a crane through multiple rooms with breakaway walls – is every bit the dazzling technical achievement of the famous opening. Maybe we’re too engrossed by then to notice?
It's only the bad things that [audiences] are aware of, isn't it? Whatever they're aware of is your failure as a director.”
What would Welles have made of the virtuosic ostentation of this year’s Birdman? Or the previous year’s Gravity? Oscar seems to love the flamboyant balleticism afforded by digital technology, but were he working today, would Welles’s camera be floating through cup-handles à la Panic Room (2002)?
The directors I admire the most are the least technical ones – the ones freest of this very thing I'm strongly accused of being. In other words, the films I like best are the ones least like the sort of films I'm accused of making.”
Of course, the bravura stylistic flourish of the sequence shot didn’t start with Welles, and it won’t finish with Birdman. Later this year sees the arrival of Sebastian Schipper’s Berlin Silver Bear-winning Victoria (2015) – one shot, 134 minutes – putting paid to Welles’ notion that, “You can never make those kinds of shots in Europe – you can get an operator who can do it, but never a grip like an American one.”
With the 1998 reconstruction of Touch of Evil back on the big screen as part of BFI Southbank’s comprehensive Welles retrospective, we took a look at some other virtuoso long takes in cinema, whether Welles would approve or not.
Young and Innocent (1937)
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Cinematography: Bernard Knowles
While the obvious choice when it comes to Hitchcock and the sequence shot would be to head directly for Rope (1948), it’d be a shame to ignore the magnificent crane shot that marks the climax of Young and Innocent. We know the killer will be at this party, and we’ll recognise him by his twitch. Hitchcock’s camera starts in the hotel lobby, moves up and across the adjacent ballroom, over the dancing crowd and into the bandstand, settling on a tight close-up of a blackfaced drummer, locking onto his eyes as they furiously begin to twitch.
He’d repeat the trick years later with Notorious (1946), a high-placed camera moving through a crowded room to find a key in Ingrid Bergman’s hand. As Hitchcock told Truffaut: “That sweeping movement of the camera is making a statement. What it’s saying is: ‘There’s a large reception being held in this house, but there is a drama here which no one is aware of, and at the core of that drama is this tiny object, this key.’”
Le Plaisir (1952)
Director: Max Ophüls
Cinematography: Philippe Agostini and Christian Matras
In this trio of tales adapted from Guy de Maupassant, the extraordinary crane shot which scales the outside of a Normandy brothel at the beginning of the second episode would merit inclusion alone. But it’s the opening tale which contains one of cinema’s greatest shots: a spinning marvel through a party, as a man (“as graceless as a terrier among greyhounds”) dances to the point of collapse, the mask he wears concealing his advanced years. It’s a hedonistic pirouette of joie de vivre – of joie de cinéma – a sensory whirlwind perfectly exemplifying Ophüls’ famous dictum, “Life is movement.”
I Am Cuba (1964)
Director: Mikhail Kalatozov
Cinematography: Sergei Urusevsky
Propaganda as cinephile fever-dream, in I Am Cuba it’s almost impossible to pick a single sequence shot from the sheer number of awe-inspiring visual miracles Mikhail Kalatozov pulls off. The most famous comes early, as the camera takes in a rooftop beauty pageant before floating downwards to follow a bikini-clad girl into a swimming pool, both she and the camera submerging underwater. Yet even more astounding is the later funeral procession, captured in a seemingly impossible single take. The camera scales a building from ground level, passing across the old men on the roof making cigars, pushing past the Cuban flag unravelled at the edge of the building to take flight, soaring through the air above the procession below to the strains of Ravel. It’s a shot of unparalleled beauty and wonder.
Week End (1967)
Director: Jean-Luc Godard
Cinematography: Raoul Coutard
One of Godard’s most famous sequences, the eight-minute tracking shot alongside a traffic jam outside Paris is as pregnant with symbolism and mischievous dark humour as anything in the director’s work. Under Godard’s laconically satirical gaze, we roam past emblems of capitalist might and western civilisation, French society in microcosm, broken down and gridlocked bumper to bumper. The protagonists weaving through the wreckage barely pause – even for the bloody carnage that serves as the shot’s brutal punchline – and neither does Godard’s indifferent camera, save for a double take of kinship with a comically aloof llama.
The Red and the White (1967)
Director: Miklós Jancsó
Cinematography: Tamás Somló
There are sequence shots of greater technical complexity later in the film than that which opens The Red and the White, to which any attempt at description would do a disservice. Miklos Jancsó’s style is synonymous with the lengthy, intricately mounted sequence shot, exemplified by this film he made in the USSR for the 50th anniversary of the October Revolution. There’s a lyricism to the dextrously sinuous prowl of Jancsó’s camera that serves as counterpoint to the film’s impassive detachment to its numerous killings, the first gunshot we hear a brutal jolt from the elegant means by which it’s captured.
The Passenger (1975)
Director: Michelangelo Antonioni
Cinematography: Luciano Tovoli
Few pleasures in home cinema are greater than listening to Jack Nicholson’s sotto voce growl on the DVD commentary track of The Passenger, not least his description of the film’s monumental penultimate shot, through the barred window of a hotel custom-built to be pulled apart and repositioned as the camera makes its impossible move. “Look out the window, what do you see?” he purrs, “Bullfight, across the street. The girl is leaving. An old man scratching his shoulder, a boy is throwing stones. One shot. I think we know this thug. Was that a gunshot? Still one shot. The girl hears an ambulance. Still one shot. Police arrive. One shot. How did the camera get out through the bars on the window? Still one shot. Now we’re looking back at the hotel. Still one shot…”
The Hunters (1977)
Director: Theo Angelopoulos
Cinematography: Giorgos Arvanitis
Theo Angelopoulos was one of cinema’s greatest exponents of the sequence shot and one could choose any number of his films and find myriad masterful examples. One of his lesser known titles, made after the magisterial The Travelling Players (1975), The Hunters exists in multiple time periods between 1949 and 1976, and features a temporal-law shattering shot that crosses eras without a cut, as a man walks from the beach into town, from 1949 to 1963. “In a certain manner,” said Angelopoulos of his propensity for the long take, “each shot is a living thing, with a breath of its own, that consists of inhaling and exhaling. This is a process that cannot accept any interference; it must have a natural opening and fading.”
The Sacrifice (1986)
Director: Andrei Tarkovsky
Cinematography: Sven Nykvist
So complete a synthesis of Tarkovskian elements is at play in the final moments of his final film, that it can’t help but take on an elegiac quality, especially given the director’s knowledge of his failing health. There were tears on set when the shot was finally captured, Tarkovsky having finally agreed to cinematographer Sven Nyqvist’s request for a safety camera, after the first take was ruined by a film-jam. The six-minute sequence shot of the burning house – rebuilt at great expense after take one – is as haunting as anything in the director’s work, a tracking shot so poetically and elementally charged that its necessity was described by Chris Marker as less “a moral issue, than a metaphysical one”.
Director: Martin Scorsese
Cinematography: Michael Ballhaus
“I like doing that kind of thing,” said Scorsese of perhaps his most iconic sequence, Ray Liotta’s entrance with Lorraine Bracco through the back of the Copacabana club in GoodFellas. “I’m torn between admiring things done in one shot, like Max Ophüls and Renoir or Mizoguchi on the one hand, and the cutting of Eisenstein or Hitchcock on the other, which I probably love even more. But here there was a reason to do it all in one shot.”
It’s as rich and smooth as a Sinatra showstopper, and much of the credit has to go to steadicam operator Larry McConkey, who had the entire scene blocked, lit and shot before lunch. “It had to be done in one sweeping shot,” continues Scorsese, “because it’s his seduction of her and it’s also the lifestyle seducing him.”
The Player (1992)
Director: Robert Altman
Cinematography: Jean Lépine
“The pictures they make these days are all MTV: cut, cut, cut. The opening shot of Welles’s Touch of Evil was six and a half minutes long. Well, three or four. He set up the whole picture with that one tracking shot.” It’s apt that Altman’s movie about movies should open with a tracking shot about tracking shots, taking its cue from Welles, as announced, setting character and plot in perpetual motion. Unpicking elements of the production process with scenes within a scene, it finds all manner of compositional elements within a single take of staggering virtuosity.
Strange Days (1995)
Director: Kathryn Bigelow
Cinematography: Matthew F. Leonetti
Kathryn Bigelow opens Strange Days with a sensational coup de cinema, a three-minute robbery-gone-wrong shot from the first-person vantage point of one of the crooks. Setting up its Macguffin (a wearable virtual reality device that records and plays back what the user sees) and immediately mainlining the film’s themes of audience complicity in visual media consumption, it’s a bravura narrative delivery system that piles on the ethical complexities as the film progresses – not least in its brutal, perspective-flipping murder sequence. Audiences didn’t go for it at the time, presumably finding its commentary too enmeshed in the violence it’s critiquing, much like the great De Palma films of the 80s. One suspects he’s probably a fan, and rightly so.
Snake Eyes (1998)
Director: Brian De Palma
Cinematography: Stephen H. Burum
Speaking of whom… There are few filmmakers who demonstrate such masterful command over the extremities of cinematic style quite like Brian De Palma. He’s never one to shy away from brazen displays of ostentatious technique – much like his leading man here, Nicolas Cage – and the razzle-dazzle showmanship that opens his underrated thriller Snake Eyes serves to eclipse not only its Vegas fight-night bombast, but also the similarly elaborate steadicam number that opened his Bonfire of the Vanities adaptation eight years earlier. A 13-minute unbroken take (albeit one with a few hidden cuts, granted) is all but an hors d’oeuvre to the formal chutzpah to come, from a master craftsman who rarely brought anything but his A-game.
Flowers of Shanghai (1998)
Director: Hou Hsiao-Hsien
Cinematography: Pin Bing Lee
While his 2003 film Café Lumière would be Hou’s explicit take on the formal stylings of Yasujiro Ozu, Flowers of Shanghai appears more indebted to the ‘one scene, one shot’ maxim of Ozu’s contemporary, Kenji Mizoguchi. Employing a series of fades with all the properties of a sigh to join his luxurious long-take visual pattern, the rhythm of the film feels like a series of breaths drawn, held and exhaled. The opening sequence sets the pace through an exquisite eight-minute shot, swooning back and forth across a drinking game in the ‘flower house’, a candle-lit, golden-hued 19th-century brothel. It’s a seductive vision, steadily undermined as the masterful film continues, Hou’s camera alone evincing an exquisite melancholy of peerless delicacy.
Russian Ark (2002)
Director: Alexander Sokurov
Cinematography: Tilman Büttner
Standing tall over any and all pretenders to the one-take-wonder, Sokurov’s 99-minute, single-take journey through the Russian State Hermitage Museum proves as thrilling a viewing experience as it is a rigorous formal and intellectual exercise – more so, certainly, than Peter Greenaway’s similar, abbreviated experiment in 3x3D (2013). As the film progresses, the eponymous ark takes on a double meaning: the museum and its treasures, of course, but also the content and confines of Sokurov’s frame. It’s an exhausting ride, and you can’t help but spare a thought for steadicam operator/DP Tillman Büttner, who captured the whole thing on the fourth, arduous take.
Breaking News (2004)
Director: Johnnie To
Cinematography: Cheng Siu-keung
Johnnie To is no stranger to the blisteringly orchestrated gunfight, but few come with such gravity-defying chops as the ferocious, seven-minute, single-take stake-out-cum-street-battle that opens Breaking News. Scaling the side of buildings and surveilling the scene in a non-descript alleyway, To’s camera marks each of the characters – cop and crook alike – creating a superior sense of spatial awareness through multiple sub-scenes (all within the one shot) before the bullets start to fly. And fly they do. Switching between a ground sweep and a soaring crane shot as a machine-gun toting baddie makes his way from a top window, the cut finally comes with a blazing whip-pan punctuated by an explosion. Pure adrenalin, pure class.
The Protector (2005)
Director: Prachya Pinkaew
Cinematography: Nattawut Kittikhun
If you prefer your action set-pieces conducted mano-a-mano, you can quite literally get your kicks from the barnstorming central sequence of Prachya Pinkaew’s The Protector. Tony Jaa wants his elephants back. Not knowing who took them, he fights everyone. Like, most of Thailand. In a four-minute take of breathtaking physical and visual athleticism, Jaa fights his way from the ground to the top floor of a hotel, demolishing all in his path with a flurry of Muay Thai manoeuvres. The sequence took a month to film, nailed on the fifth take, and while Jaa barely breaks a sweat, spare a thought for the poor steadicam operator who had to keep up with him.
Discover award-winning independent British and international cinema
Free for 14 days, then £4.99/month or £49/year.Try for free