The Long Take and "True Detective"

"A long take or oner is an uninterrupted shot in a film which lasts much longer than the conventional editing pace either of the film itself or of films in general, usually lasting several minutes. It can be used for dramatic and narrative effect if done properly, and in moving shots is often accomplished through the use of a dolly or Steadicam. Long takes of a sequence filmed in one shot without any editing are rare in films" -Wikipedia

That pretty much explains everything. The long take has long been one of the toughest shots to create in cinema. Firstly it takes lots of precision, a well calculated storyboard and a first class cameraman -amongst other things. Watching Episode 4 of HBO's brilliantly frustrating "True Detective" a few weeks ago got me back to thinking about this legendary cinematic shot. Episode 4 ends With Cohl and a gang disguised as police, trying rob a stash house, shooting one of the residents, and stirring up the neighborhood's inhabitants in the process, resulting in an outbreak of gunfire and chaos. With the actual police on their way, Cohle holds a guy at gunpoint and tries to escape the house and make his way through the projects. This is all done in one continuous 6 minute shot. Brilliantly devised by director Cary Joji Fukunaga and his ace cameraman Adam Arkapaw.

It really is just an amazing display of just how far we've come over the years, in that possibly the best shot of the entire year might come -not from cinema- but from Television. I'll ponder more on "True Detective" once the series ends but for the time being I wanted to delve more into the best single takes I've ever seen. One that comes to mind right away is the opening of Robert Altman's "The Player". The film's opening shot -which took more than 15 takes to nail- lasts for 7 Minutes and 47 seconds. Of course, any female will tell you this, it's not about the quantity but the quality and the quality on this one shot is incredible. A self-referential introduction to the world of make believe, the opening single take sequence to Altman's masterpiece is a formula bending ode to the classic single shot of "Touch Of Evil" (look below). Altman's wonderful analog parlor patter follows the scenery as the storyline unfolds between storylines. Clever quickly turns classic as the film is established something more visual flourish than acerbic satire.


Of course Altman or "True Detective" wouldn't have have been able to perform such brilliant feats without their groundbreaking predecessor Orson Welles' "Touch Of Evil", one of my very favorite films of all time and one of the best directed movies I have ever seen. The film opens with a three-minute, twenty second tracking shot. On the U.S.-Mexico border, a man plants a time bomb in a car. A man and a woman enter the vehicle and make a slow journey through the town to the U.S. border. Newlyweds Miguel Vargas (Charles Heston) and Susie (Janet Leigh) pass the car several times on foot. The car passes the border then explodes on site.

I can't name all of them but I'm only mentioning the ones that have really stood the test of time. Take the complexity of any long take and combine it with a moving vehicle and you get the mesmerizing 4 minute long take from Alfonso Cuaron's incredible "Children Of Men". A specially designed car was used that allowed crew to slip in and out of the vehicle , remove the windshield and replace it, and still get around the entire car as if it were really happening. There have been very few camera tricks as impressive as this one in the last 2 decades of cinema.

If "Touch Of Evil" is the grandfather of long takes then Martin Scorsese's "Goodfellas" is the next generation. Giving us the perspective of being alongside Ray Liotta as he brings Lorraine Bracco to the Copacabana club both propels the plot and the character into the gangster lifestyle. Shot eight times, Scorsese was forced to film this way since the club wouldn't allow them to enter the short way. The result is movie history.