Ten Memorable Long Takes in Movies

To contrast with yesterday’s post about jump cuts is a larger list about long takes. I was recently reminded by Scott at FRC of something Steven Spielberg once said: “Cuts are for action and long takes are for emotion.” This, I think, is very true.

Thus I’ve decided to make a list of ten of my favourite long takes, tracking shots or still shots in movies. In random order:

Opening Shot, Caché (2005)

Expect to see a fair bit of Michael Haneke on this list. I’ve tried not to overflow it with his movies but he is one of my five favourite filmmakers of all time, and one of the reasons for this is his brilliant use of long (or ‘still’) shots. The opening shot of Caché is no exception.

The Slow Zoom, Wavelength (1967)

Yes, I realize that Michael Snow’s avant-garde masterpiece was actually a series of takes rather than one simple one, but each long take individually is a gift. A slow zoom onto a postcard and nothing else, this is a truly memorable experience. Some will be bored, some riveted, but either way you will be affected.

Walking, Gerry (2002)

Gus van Sant’s 2002 movie is 100 minutes and contains exactly 100 takes, many of them long. In what is perhaps the longest, we see Matt Damon and Casey Affleck trudging incredibly slowly across an unending desert terrain before one of them finally stops and collapses. The film has been criticised for being slow and boring, but I think it is a scenically beautiful movie that chooses to express its point in images, rather than words.

Confessions of Motherhood, Persona (1966)

Near the end of this Ingmar Bergman masterpiece, a scene is shown twice. Once, with the camera focused for a good four minutes on a person speaking, and after that the scene is repeated with the camera focusing this time on the person listening. This technique is surprising, but beautifully Bergmanesque.

Traffic Jam, Week End (1967)

Although broken up by a series of intertitles, the infamous traffic jam shot in Jean-Luc Godard’s Week End is nonetheless one single shot. Godard shows us hundreds of cars, various animals, dead bodies and other assorted randomness in what has been dubbed “the world’s worst traffic jam.”

The Rotating Camera, Week End (1967)

I didn’t want to include two shots from the same movie, but I couldn’t resist. This shot had to be in there. We have a yard, and it doesn’t really matter what’s shown on screen but how we see it. Godard rotates his camera 720 degrees – that’s two full revolutions – before changing direction and completing another 360 degree turn. All in one take. Why could this not have been accomplished in one 360 degree turn? Who knows. That’s the whole point of Godard’s darkly comic satire.

Ping Pong, 71 Fragments of a Chronology of Chance (1994)

In this three-minute unmoving shot in Michael Haneke’s third film, we see a man hitting ping pong balls shot at him by a quick machine. He hits them almost mechanically, missing the odd one, with a look of unbreakable concentration on his face, but what makes the shot special is how long it lasts. Some would say too long, but I see the point Haneke is trying to make. It’s like staring at a painting and taking hours to spot the tiniest detail which then seems to be leaping out in front of you.

Antoine Runs, The 400 Blows (1959)

At the end of Francois Truffaut’s stunning film debut, the protagonist Antoine Doinel runs across long roads and sandy beaches while the camera follows. Finally, at a beach, Doinel turns around and looks right into the camera, bewildered. The shot freezes. “FIN” appears on screen. Fade to black. Welcome to the French New Wave.

The Letter, Winter Light (1963)

About twenty minutes into this quiet masterpiece, Gunnar Björnstrand, as a pastor, begins to read a letter to him from his girlfriend, played by Ingrid Thulin. Cut to Thulin, who in an eight minute shot, reads the letter aloud while looking directly into the camera. A marvellous feat of both acting and directing for Thulin and Bergman.

The Stabbing, The Piano Teacher (2001)

Michael Haneke’s most shocking film (and easily his most accessible) culminates in a scene that I will never, ever forget. Isabelle Huppert, in what I consider to be the best female acting performance of all time, suddenly and startlingly stabs herself in the shoulder, with an unforgettable grimace of defiance on her face. It isn’t a particularly long take, when you compare it with the others on this list, but with the amount of raw emotion in it, it seems to last a lot longer than it actually does.

That’s my list. I tried to do more obscure ones rather than the obvious ones, in case you’re wondering why some of your favourites might be missing. But if I have missed some important ones, or if you just have something to say about the subject in general, leave a comment below. Thanks.


Posted on September 7, 2011, in Lists, Movies and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 29 Comments.

  1. Confused…..have you posted same clip twice?

    And look at me inspiring a post on Southern Vision, wonders will never cease!! Isn’t the Persona one lots of cuts? not one long take at all. I am probably missing the point….

    I would like to include a scene from Duel…..

    Cool Post matey

  2. Christian Hallbeck

    The endings of “Stalker” and “The Sacrifice”. (Tarkovsky’s films are mainly made up by longer and shorter long cuts.)

    The watch-scene in “Hour of the Wolf” – which lasts one minute, but feels like ten.

    The ending of “The Passenger” by Antonioni.


  3. Its says a lot about a filmmaker when there most accessible film features rape and self-stabbing

  4. The one from Cache is awesome, for a minute you wonder whether the entire movie will be shown from this one vantage point.

    The shot from Gerry, and actually the entire film is an homage to Bela Tarr. There are several shots like than in Satantango and Werckmeister Harmonies

    Weekend is possibly my favorite one. I love the old cars, and the pile of horse manure.

    I just saw Steve McQueen’s Hunger last night, and there are two very interesting long shots in that film as well. One of them approaching 20 minutes long.

    • I’ve been wanting to see Satantago for quite a while now. Really interests me.

      A 20 minute shot in a Steve McQueen movie? Definitely caught my attention there. Though they all pale in comparison to Russian Ark.

  5. oh man putting Gerry in a top 10 list as a positive thing is asking for trouble! it really was quite good, although definitely got to be in the right mood for it. even my ADD producer Simon lists Gerry as one of his favourites. but that might be a deliberate attempt to hide his ADD.

    i love the look of cache. i should probably check out some of Haneke’s work at some point.

    when i saw Charlie Casanova at Revelation i noted that whils tthe entire movie is pretty frenetic in its pace and editting it finishes with a long beautiful stationary shot of domesticity. coming as it does at that point of the movie it is even more powerful.

    • I do love GERRY. For one, it contains plenty of music from one of the greatest musicians who ever lived, Arvo Part, and it’s also scenically stunning, and visually visceral. I was probably one of the only people who was actually riveted when they watched it, for every second.

      Definitely check out more of Michael Haneke’s movies. He’s my third favourite filmmaker of all time and I’ve seen all his films; they are all magnificent in my opinion. The best place to start is anywhere, but leave movies like CODE UNKNOWN and 71 FRAGMENTS for later. Try CACHE, THE WHITE RIBBON or THE PIANO TEACHER, if you haven’t seen them.

  6. The Winter Light scene is as claustrophobic as it gets in movies. You’re trapped in that room with Marta as she shreds all of Tomas’ existence to pieces. It’s one of my five very favorite scenes in all of cinema.

    • I’d be interested in seeing a list of your favourite scenes – working on one of my own.

      I love every moment of WINTER LIGHT and it’s all thanks to you. If you hadn’t mentioned it then I would never have saw it, probably.

  7. No one has mentioned the Dunkirk mega long one-take in Atonement? It kind of killed the movie in terms of rhythm and energy but you can’t deny that it was masterfully done.

  8. Random aside- have you ever checked out mubi.com for some of the stuff you haven’t seen? I don’t think they have a lot but they do try to supply the obscure stuff.

    • Haha, that comment you just wrote got marked as spam by Akismet!

      I have checked out Mubi, but nothing really came of it. Will give it another look.

  9. I guess this list wouldn’t be complete without a mention of Hitchcock’s 1948 “experiment,” Rope, consisting of only (as I recall) eight separate pieces of film. (Hitchcock actually wanted it to appear as a single long take, and he gets around the necessary film-canister changes by doing things like zooming in the back of a character’s dark suit to disguise the cut.) It’s often thought of as kind of an oddity, but it’s actually pretty good.

  10. I was looking for the tracking shot at the end of The 400 Blows to show up on the list somewhere 🙂 That’s a great scene in one of my favorite movies 🙂

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