8. Boogie Nights (Paul Thomas Anderson, 1997)
Length: 2:53 mins
Paul Thomas Anderson is well known these days as, among other things, a director with a predilection for long takes in crucial moments of his films. In his debut film “Boogie Nights”, being only 28 years old, he made the most memorable one in his career. The first shot of Anderson’s career looks like a reply to the famous take of the restaurant in “Goodfellas” (Martin Scorsese, 1991).
In a movie with various characters with major importance in the plot, the first shot works as an introduction to the film’s world and each character. From the boss of the porn studio to young Rollergirl, the shot moves around the club and stays a few seconds on every character there. The shot ends with Dirk Diggler (Mark Wahlberg) standing sadly on a corner. He seems to be the only one not joining the party. The spectator can assume that this is main character of the film: a sad guy in the middle of a porn party.
7. The Player (Robert Altman, 1992)
Length: 8:08 mins
The beginning of Robert Altman’s “The Player” is mostly remembered for its technical precision and length, reaching eight minutes. Even if it is true that the first thing that gets our attention is the perfection of the camera movements and the risk to take a shot like this in such a big space, it is the content of the scene what makes it one of the most interesting and funny long takes ever.
Altman introduces the main plot of the film, with a Hollywood executive producer played by Tim Robbins getting death threats on his mail, and shows us the environment he is in. We hear Robbins talking about business from one part of the studio to another, and in the middle we pass through a window where somebody is delivering a movie pitch.
Altman makes clear in these dialogues how the money seems to be the most important aspect to take in count in the pitch and in the way the movies are going to be made. One of the funniest dialogues occurs when two executives chat about how MTV and the new editing style don’t allow you to make long takes anymore, in one of the funniest meta-jokes of the film.
They mention another film on the list, “Touch Of Evil” (Orson Welles, 1958), and comment about how Welles made a tracking shot to open the movie and how that would be impossible to see again, when the shot we are watching is tracking and running over four minutes already. This is only one of many long takes in the film, and only one of the many reflections on Hollywood and the studios over the art of the take.
6. La Ronde (Max Ophüls, 1950)
Length: 4:46 mins
“A shot that does not call for tracks
Is agony for poor old Max,
Who, separated from his dolly,
Is wrapped in deepest melancholy.
Once, when they took away his crane,
I thought he’d never smile again.”
A huge influence for Stanley Kubrick and Paul Thomas Anderson, Max Ophüls was maybe the first director with a massive and recurrent interest for the long take. “La Ronde” is full of them, and Ophüls plays plenty of times with possibilities for dolly movement, or putting the camera on a crane on bigger scale shots.
The opening shot presents itself as a representation with its own narrator. The fake looking set is mocked by the main character, who doesn’t have any interest in maintaining the illusion of film. “La Ronde” works as a collection of different tales on love and the concepts of fidelity, and from the beginning, this idea is explained to us.
The camera moves from the bottom of a ladder to the fake set on the street, ending on a carousel. Everything is fake and we know it explicitly, so Ophüls can play the way he wants with the plastic beauty of the take.
5. Scarface (Howard Hawks, 1932)
Length: 3:08 mins
The oldest entry on the list surprises because it had technical perfection at a time where long takes weren’t that common, and were not a common idea of how to open a film. Even if the medium shot length in the 30s was a lot longer, the idea of the long take wasn’t so developed or studied.
The shot tracks a bunch of people at a party, in a context shot at first. The crime sense starts when one of the men at the party stands up and crosses the room. In a beautiful change, the camera starts to follow a shadow that is chasing the man. The shadow pulls out a gun and gets closer to the man.
Then the shadow shoots him and leaves the place. We have everything that characterizes a great tracking shot: different scales, different situations and a conclusion that make the shot itself its own tale. This gangster film had been eclipsed by De Palma’s version in the 80s, but should be reviewed as a classic of the Hollywood’s Golden Era and as one of the most important and political films of Howard Hawks’ career.
4. The Conversation (Francis Ford Coppola, 1974)
Length: 2:55 mins
“The Conversation” is the only film on the list where the camera stays (almost) static. The opening sequence of the film shows us a big crowd moving around in a square, without a character doing anything to catch our attention. However, the shot is not as static as the camera; there is always a zoom, and an extremely slow zoom at that. By watching a random crowd from afar with a slow zoom, which may sound boring on its own, we get immediately absorbed by the theme and mystery of the movie.
Coppola doesn’t initially let us know who the characters are, but we can hear their transistors and we know they are chasing someone. As soon as we realize that we are spying, we start to follow any movement that can look suspicious. In something that could be resolved in different cuts of faces and chasing, we have something much more interesting. Because cinema is spying by itself, we are not only spying the people we should spy, we are also spying the spies.
Again, like in almost every great long opening take, the theme of the movie is presented in the first few minutes. The only reason why “The Conversation” is not always considered to be an all-time classic is that it was released between The Godfathers I and II, because the rest of the film stands to the brilliance of this shot.
3. Halloween (John Carpenter, 1978)
Length: 2.38 until the hidden cut. 3:44 counting the hidden cut.
“Halloween” is well known for representing the paradigm of the “slasher” film and step-by step, exposes all of its elements. It shows how sex is the starting point of the killings, it shows how carnality and death are always directly connected, and it gives all the elements that would shape the “final girl” concept. But one can go further and trace how many of these elements are shown only the first opening shot, which is maybe the greatest opening shot to any horror film.
In the long take, we are inside the body of Michael Myers (Will Sandin) when he was a kid, and we can see through his eyes. We chase the house and we walk around the garden, we start to see the young couple inside and we enter. The fluidity of the camera makes the subjective point of view as effective as ever, until we reach the couple about to have sex.
Then, we (in Michael Myers’ body) kill the girl. In only one shot, we have almost all the elements that define a slasher: sex equals death, the victims are always young couples, the killer chases them on a special date, and we are supposed to identify more with the killer than the victims. We only miss one element: the final girl. When the shot is over and we know all the aspects of the killer, the rest of the beginning of the film present us to Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis), the paradigm of the “final girl” concept.
2. Offret (Andrei Tarkovsky, 1986)
Length: 9:20 mins
Ingmar Bergman was a big admirer of Andrei Tarkovsky, and Bergman inspired Tarkovsky as well. So when Tarkovsky moved from the Soviet Union and made his last film in Sweden, he made his most Bergman-inspired film in collaboration with Bergman’s cinematographer Sven Nykvist. Tarkovsky was always one the masters of opening a film, with some classic opening scenes like the flying from the tower in “Andrei Rublev” (1966). However, maybe the greatest one was made within this collaboration.
The take starts with Alexander (Erland Josephson) planting a tree with his son in a general shot. From the first view of the landscape, we can recognize the hand of a great cinematographer, with his beautiful way of handling natural colors. When the postman arrives on his bike, they start to walk together from left to right.
Unlike most of the previous entries of the list, “Offret” doesn’t look to introduce us into the plot. The conversation goes on a philosophical way, and the events of the movie don’t seem as important as its moral themes. Nykvist provides the landscape for the discussion, making every frame look like a painting.
1. Touch Of Evil (Orson Welles, 1958)
Length: 3:18 mins
As an inspiration for many of the films on this list, this is an obvious choice for first place. Even taking away some personal criteria, “Touch of Evil” still represents the idea of how to open a film virtuously, and it is still one the main examples in cinema classes.
As the characters in “The Player” comment, we have a tracking shot on an enormous scale. It is mesmerizing to think about the starting point of the shot, as well as its last point. Just as in the classic Hitchcock definition of suspense, there is a bomb and the audience knows that, but the characters don’t.
The take starts on Earth when the bomb is placed in the car, but once the bomb is planted the camera starts to follow the car from heaven, making a big and wide movement. We follow this car on a big tracking scale, completely new for its time, and then we continue to follow a walking couple. The conversations are not very important, but we know there is a bomb and it is going to explode at any time. Even so, no description can compete with the clip above.
Author Bio: Héctor Oyarzún is a film student in the Valparaíso University of Chile. Since he was a kid, his most important occupation is watching films. He also likes punk music and playing guitar.