With the recent development of Sam Mendes’ World War I set ‘1917’ being shot to look like a single take as it hopes to follow in the eventual Oscar winning footsteps of Alejandro Inarritu’s “Birdman,” let’s take a look at some of the greatest single shot scenes throughout cinema history.
Goodfellas, ‘The Copa Shot’
Let’s start with arguably the most famous single shot scene in cinema history. Scorsese’s 1990 benchmark for the ‘mob movie’ included the now famed scene of the great Ray Liotta’s Henry Hill, leading Lorraine Bracco’s Karen Hill into his life of luxury and prowess. Liotta and Brecco are incredible here as they display mirroring performances, one of confidence, swagger, and bravado (in the case of Liotta) as he shares handshakes, nods and conversations with all whom he passes, whilst Bracco’s Karen Hill is visibly in shock, awe, and almost bemusement at this new world she has entered, as the world she left when they exit the car at the beginning of the scene, is not the world she is in when the long-tracking ends and she sits down in her new environment.
Atonement, ‘Dunkirk Scene’
One of the more recent entries to the list, Joe Wright’s 2007 adaptation of Ian McEwan’s novel on the dynamics of family during war time was crucial in launching the careers of the likes of James McAvoy and Saoirse Ronan, and this one scene of the famous Dunkirk beach stands out above any other. Wright, along with cinematographer Seamus McGarvey only had one day with the 1000 extras seen here, and they certainly made it count with this beautifully crafted five minute long tracking shot, which follows James McAvoy’s Robbie Turner as he strides along the beach, with the sun beginning to set on the stranded soldiers. Horses are being mercifully shot, gun fire intermittently rings out, and at one point the camera joins a group of soldier as they add power to the scene by song. Undoubtedly the films standout moment.
The Shining, ‘Tricycle Scene’
One of the eeriest moments of cinema in the last 50 years, and one who’s impact must only have been magnified by the big screen. Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 adaptation of Steven King’s novel brought with it the chilling scene of young Danny (Danny Lloyd) as he cycles through the hallways of the infamous Overlook hotel. The nearly three-minute scene follows Danny from behind, never wavering, almost creeping behind him like the ‘monsters’ he will soon encounter. But what really gives this scene its power is the sound, or lack thereof. With the silence only broken by the wheels of Danny’s tricycle on the floor as he turns corners, only adding to the heightened sense of tension for the viewer, the scene goes on just long enough to make you forget something bad is surely to happen, and then when Danny turns his final corner, the scene, and the shot are brought to a halt by a swift cut to Danny’s shocked face, and the voices of the scariest twins in cinema.
Touch of Evil, ‘Opening Sequence’
If there was anything the late great Orson Welles knew how to do, it was transport you into a world of deceit and tension, his use of lighting and shadows is unparalleled, and nowhere is that more evident than this opening sequence, quite possibly Welles’ greatest scene. The scene opens with a loud and constant ticking, never a good sign in the world of Welles’ work, and of course the same applies here, as the ticking belongs to a bomb, placed in the back of car, before the camera steadily zooms out and we meet Charton Heston’s Mike Vargas and Janet Leigh’s Susan Vargas. The genius of the scene is the unpredictability of it. Welles and DP Russell Metty beautifully weave between our protagonists and the doomed vehicle, leaving us all in the dark as to when and if there will be a Fiery introduction to the movie, and of course, after a near four minutes, chaos ensues.
A Clockwork orange, ‘Opening Scene’
Another entry for Kubrick, and again a very simple but effective shot, just as the tracking shot from The Shining. The bright red and blue title cards that accompany the start of Kubrick’s take on Anthony Burgess’ book are almost designed to unsettle the viewer right from the off, almost making the viewer squint as if they were looking at the sun. Which makes the harsh cut to the piercing glare of Malcolm McDowell’s Alex all the more shocking, as he stares through the camera for almost two minutes, as the camera slowly backs away from his menacing look, like any person might when faced with the threatening look that McDowell possesses in this scene. The tension is only alleviated when the voiceover begins, but this simple yet brilliantly effective shot will stick in your mind for weeks after watching.
True Detective, Season 1-Episode 4 ‘Final Sequence’
Alright, not a film. But Cary Fukunaga and cinematographer Adam Arkpaw created arguably the best moment of Television in years with this six-minute long shot in the middle of Nic Pizzolato’s critically acclaimed drama that plays out like a genius 8-hour long film. Winning Emmy’s few both outstanding directing for a drama series, and outstanding cinematography, the scene follows Matthew McConaughey’s Rust Cohle, as he bids to escape an undercover operation with a hostage that possesses valuable information. The scene sparks into life following a mere gun shot, giving Cohle a chance to escape with his man. The camera follows him as he moves from house to house around an estate, trying not only to not be seen and killed, but also trying to drag along his unwilling companion. The scene required so much detail that make-up artists would apply make-up during the scene, whilst the camera was focused on other things. Words don’t do this scene the justice it deserves, but if you needed any more reasons to watch arguably the greatest single season of television produced in recent years, then this is it.
It’s widely known that the entirety of Birdman was made to look like one continuous shot, something that at points overshadows how good the screenplay actually was. Something that shouldn’t be overlooked however is the chaotic, ingenious, dream-sequence (ish) scene in which the incredible Michael Keaton’s lead character Riggan is encouraged to take life by the balls by the ‘Birdman’ character he played for many years. Having woken up hungover on the street, Keaton is pestered by, well..himself in a bird-costume as his inner voice battles for him to make a big comeback to acting, before the scene turns into sci-fi, superhero, action thriller, as he sees what he could achieve. The action and the camera-work are almost cloverfield esque, while the scene reaches its conclusion with a floating Michael Keaton. As all good scenes should…
Creed, ‘Adonis V Leo Spornio’
Ryan Coogler cemented his place as one of Hollywood’s greatest young directors with his smart, slick, gut-punching spin-off of the great Rocky franchise, and although Stallone unfortunately fell short of the Oscar that would have rounded out his 40 years playing the iconic boxer, the film was universally praised, and with this single shot boxing match you can see why. Tight on both boxers, the camera dumps you straight in the centre of the action, giving you almost the referees view of proceedings, as Michael B.Jordan’s Adonis and Gabe Rosado’s Leo Spornio slug out a chaotic two-rounds. The way the camera brilliantly ducks, and weaves is a testament to the genius of Coogler and DP Maryse Alberti, creating an almost virtual reality experience for audiences as they feel every punch with Donny, right up until he knocks the giant Spornio out.
Children of Men, ‘Car Attack’
Emmanuel Lubezki is probably, along with Roger Deakins, the most famous cinematographer working today, and his partnership with Alfonso Cuaron has brought him unrivalled success. During Cuaron’s 2006 dystopian feature set in 2027 in which women had been unable to give birth in 18 years, and Clive Owen’s Theo Faron, along with the likes of wife Julian (Julianne Moore) and Chiwetel Ejiofor’s Luke are tasked with getting a miraculously pregnant woman to a sanctuary, Lubezki and Cuaron delivered one of the most shocking one-shot scenes in recent history. Presenting itself like a ‘banterous’ road trip, with the notable highlight being the chemistry between Owen and Moore, the scene takes an outrageous turn after the travellers are attacked by a heard of people. As they are forced to reverse, and the camera moves from the front of the car to the back, almost taking cover from the attackers in the back seat with the passengers. While the expertly crafted long take only adds to the tension and claustrophobic nature of the scene, the shocking, brutal and violent death of a main character turns the dial up to eleven.
Hard Boiled, ‘Hospital Shootout’
A nailed-on certainty in any list celebrating the long shot. John Woo’s 1992 crime thriller has what many consider to be one of the best action sequences ever shot. Having amassed millions of views on YouTube, the scene begins in silence outside of a hospital ward as Yun-Fat Chow’s inspector ‘Tequila’ and Tony Leung’s Alan wait with bated breath to make their attack, before a loading of their guns begins the action. The scene plays out like the hardest level of a video game, as more and more gun-wielding mobsters attempt to halt our two heroes in their tracks. The camera work is excellent, the choreography is slick, and Woo even has time to throw one of the films biggest twists smack bang in the middle of the action. No Spoilers here.
The Passenger, “The Ending”
Back in 1975, a year before he won his first Oscar for ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’, the mercurial Jack Nicholson was starring in ‘The Passenger’, a film by the late, great Italian director Michaelangelo Antonioni. Acting opposite Maria Schneider, Nicholson shone in this identity swapping, war time, journalistic thriller. But what stands out for most is the films final sequence. Lasting over eight minutes, Antonioni and DP Luciano Tovoli crafted one of the most recognisable scenes in cinema history. Beginning on the face of Nicholson’s lead character ‘Locke’, the camera pans around our lead as he lays down on his bed, before facing the barred windows that separate his room from the baron Sahara landscape. The camera then slowly inches forward. Just enough every couple of minutes so that we can see what is going on outside. However, it isn’t until the camera breaks through the bars and into the outside world that the sound of a single gun shot brings with it trepidation, as the arrival of a police car sets the camera back in a 360 spin to face its original position. The camera takes seemingly an age to get back round, so much so you find yourself almost attempting to peer around the corner to find out the fate of the films lead. And when that inevitable moment comes, it’s made all the more powerful by this genius piece of camera work.
The Player, “The Opening”
The opening of Robert Altman's "The Player" is a minimalist classic in itself, a tracking shot about tracking shots. The film's opening -which took more than 15 takes to nail- lasts for almost 8 minutes. A self-referential introduction to hot-shot producers and the world of make-believe they seem to live in, the opening tracking shot in Altman's masterpiece is a formula-bending ode to the opening of "Touch Of Evil.” There’s even the time to add meta-ness to the dialogue as a studio hand is briefly seen complaining that “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.” Altman's wonderful analog parlor patter follows the scenery of just a few minutes in the day of a Hollywood studio, as storylines unfold upon storylines and the visual flourish and acerbic satire of the film is set-up in grandiose fashion for us.