There is an undeniable art in knowing how and when to deploy a long take, and it takes even more skill to execute one effectively. It’s a technique that’s been used by countless directors and cinematographers to build suspense, grab the audience’s attention, maximise the impact of high energy scenes or preserve the intensity of methodical slow-burners. Renowned for being a means to flex some directorial muscle and demonstrate cinematic prowess, long takes have given us some of the most memorable scenes in cinema; from languid, haunting takes by Tarkovsky, to the stylish and buoyant sequences employed by Scorsese.
We’ve endeavoured to create a shortlist featuring some of the most iconic, gripping, and fantastically orchestrated long takes in cinema history – classic and contemporary flicks alike. Take a peek at our list below, and if you want to mention how we’ve failed to include The Player, Russian Ark, The Passenger, Rope or any other glaring omission, feel free to shout at us in the comment section!
The Copacabana – Goodfellas (1990) – Martin Scorsese
Cinematographer: Michael Bauhaus
The Copacabana entrance from Scorsese’s 1990 classic Goodfellas is, arguably, one of the most recognised (not to mention stylish) examples of the long take in modern cinema. Indeed, even those who might not necessarily be familiar with the long take as a cinematic technique will surely still recall the grace and finesse with which Henry and Karen glide into the exclusive club. What you might not know, however, is that this tracking shot actually came about because Scorsese was denied permission to film his actors going in through the front door. We’re glad he had to improvise however, as the resulting shot perfectly captures the initial appeal and fluidity of Henry’s life. What’s more, it also marks the beginnings of Karen’s ‘seduction’ into Henry’s criminal world; doors swing open for them, generous tips are nonchalantly given, and the pair are treated with an enviable amount of respect and reverence.
Opening Scene – Boogie Nights (1997) – Paul Thomas Anderson
Cinematographer: Robert Elswit
Fans of Paul Thomas Anderson’s second feature film, Boogie Nights, will know that it actually boasts two, equally-cherished long takes. Whilst the shot of Little Bill’s romp through the New Years party is definitely more ‘gripping’ in a conventional sense, the mixture of technical skill, snappy story telling and overall cool that characterises the film’s opening is hard to beat. Transferring the camera from a sweeping crane view to a tracking steadicam shot, Anderson leads us from the glaring lights of the movie marquee across the cadillac-strewn streets of San Fernando Valley and into the beating heart of a funky 70’s nightclub; introducing us to nearly all of the films main characters in the process. It’s easy to note the influence that Scorsese has on Anderson here, but that doesn’t stop this take from being, for our money, one of the best film openings of all time.
The Bomb – A Touch of Evil (1958) – Orson Welles
Cinematographer: Russell Metty
Whilst we’re on the subject of ‘greatest film openings of all time’ it’d be remiss of us not to mention Orson Welles’ classic noir A Touch Of Evil. Clocking in at a little over three minutes, this long take is touted as one of the greatest, if not the greatest, long take in cinema history. Upon viewing, it’s easy to see why; despite the meticulous choreography and technical prowess the shot must’ve demanded, Welles’ opening is a masterclass in how to create, build and sustain suspense whilst introducing key elements of the narrative. Though the release of A Touch of Evil was marred by disagreements between the director and the studio – a conflict which ultimately led to the release of a film which satisfied neither of the parties visions – subsequent releases have restored the scene to its former glory and allow it to play out how Welles intended.
The Burning Barn – The Mirror (1975) – Andrei Tarkovsky
Cinematographer: Georgy Rerberg
From one master to another, from openings to endings, Tarkovsky’s series of three long takes at the conclusion of his 1975 masterpiece The Mirror are held in high regard by cinephiles the world over. The languid, deliberate and almost poetic nature of The Mirror – a film which, in many ways, is more like a dream – is arguably typified by these three shots, particularly the last one which sees Tarkovsky drift from the house to the burning barn; a shot which is as audacious as it is restrained. The Mirror is committed to exploring dense themes such as memory and nostalgia and perhaps as a result of this, its structure is ‘unconventional’ to say the least – but even when watched out of the context of the film itself, the last, lingering shot of the burning barn is, if you’ll excuse the cliche and our simplistic examination, hauntingly beautiful; It’s like a painting.
The War Zone – Children of Men (2006) – Alfonso Cuaron
Cinematographer: Emmanuel Lubezki
Known more recently for the Oscar-winning Gravity, which itself boasts impressive long takes (albeit with the help of CGI), Alfonso Cuaron’s 2006 effort Children of Men is a brilliant, bleak and captivating science fiction thriller with a distinct visual style. Set amidst an increasingly chaotic world in which women have lost the ability to reproduce and the earth’s population is dwindling, the film follows Theo (Clive Owen) as he rediscovers his activist routes after meeting Kee, the first woman to become pregnant in eighteen years. There are numerous long takes in Cuaron’s movie – including the ‘ambush scene’ which is at once both thrilling and technically complex – and they each contribute to the realisation of the fluid and immediate visual style that Cuaron was aiming for. It’s Theo’s dash through the heart of a war zone towards the end of the film, however, that really had us on the edge of our seats.
(and if you want to know a little more about that distinct visual style Cuaron was trying for, be sure to watch this great analysis of his ‘preoccupied’ camera.)
The Traffic Jam – Weekend (1967) – Jean-Luc Godard
Cinematographer: Raoul Coutard
Jean-Luc Godard’s 1967 feature film Weekend is, as many claim, better viewed as a collection of dark, surreal, comic and chaotic vignettes that play out as the bourgeois couple of Roland and Corinne set out on a journey through the French countryside. Chief amongst these vignettes, and perhaps one of the most memorable long takes in recent cinema history, is the traffic jam scene. Though technically speaking the take is just a long sideways tracking shot, the tiny glimpses of life that we bear witness to as we track along the traffic jam are imbued with a surreal, comic, and even political significance. The clip above is only a snippet of the original take, which clocks in at over 7 minutes long, but you can watch it in all its glory (complete with commentary) here – if you so desire.