When talking about one shot, I’m often zooming in on parts of a movie that last only a few seconds. Which is to be expected, as shots are the smallest cogs in the machinery of a film. Especially in modern cinema. As the methods of editing became easier and easier throughout the 20th century, filmmakers began cutting more and more, and the length of an average shot only shortened. No doubt our increased habit of checking tons of different sources of information 24/7 also decreased our attention span (or increased our capacity to quickly process lots of information) forcing filmmakers to tell their stories quicker and more dynamic, not to risk boring the newer generations.
Which is fine by me, of course. Art changes as the world around us changes. And maybe a 100 years from now the style of editing has moved in a completely different direction once again, influenced by technological and cultural changes I can’t even imagine right now.
But I do think there is one other important reason for shots to often be short in length, and that is that it’s so exponentially much harder to realise lengthy single-takes. It requires large amounts of planning, organisation, talent and thus; money. It’s like running a marathon in comparison to running several shorter distances; when you cut it up into smaller pieces, it becomes much easier to do it.
And as money-related as cinematography is as an art form, it’s naive not to think that often filmmakers may need to choose for less complicated, less costly shots to use in their film.
Which is what makes these rare longer shots so special to me. They feel more deliberate, thought out, more substantial and just special. They ask you to take the time to look at them. Like they’re not afraid to show themselves, nor hide imperfections.
Some of my favourite long-shots are the mirage scene in Lawrence of Arabia (1968) where Omar Sharif’s character arrives out of the desert into the shot, the Copacabana entrance scene from Goodfellas (1991), the wheelchair ride through the hotel in The Shining (1980) and the highway attack scene in Children of Men (2006). But there is one shot, to me, that stands above all of those, and it’s an oldie.
Touch of Evil
Touch of Evil (1958) is a thriller made by the legendary Orson Welles and considered one of the last classic film noire movies. The film opens with a long shot. 3:20 minutes to be exact. Yes, that is one single shot lasting over three minutes. It’s a favourite of many film critics, often called one of the most amazing long shots in the history of cinema. And with good reason. It’s not only a tour-de-force of technical skill and planning, but the artistry of the cinematography is amazing in and of itself.
Before anything else, just watch this one shot…
I think it was Hitchcock who famously differentiated between suspense and shock. When you put a bomb in a scene without telling the audience about it, there is no tension, but when it goes off, there is shock. This is an effect often used in ‘cheap’ horror. Jump-out-of-your-seat scares, which can sometimes be pretty cool, but often are the easiest and least interesting ways to move your audience. Just insert a loud tone and let something jump in your frame at an unexpected moment, and BAM! you’ve shocked the audience.
Suspense, on the other hand, is more drawn-out and potentially a lot more effective in continually engaging your audience. It’s when you tell your audience there’s a bomb in the scene, but delay the moment it goes off. Even better is it when you tell your audience there is a bomb, but none of the characters in the scene are aware. Which is exactly what Orson Welles does in this shot from Touch of Evil.
The shot starts with a bomb, which is planted in a car, unbeknownst to its driver and passenger, and then follow the car for three minutes, knowing that the clock is ticking (literally), while no one else knows of the imminent danger. And then, after three minutes, the car explodes…
But Welles’ direction is more intricate than simply following the car straight on. Instead, the car seems to be connected to the camera with an elastic rope. It drifts out of view as the camera moves on, only to crawl back to the foreground just as it seemed to leave the frame.
Then Welles starts to focus on a couple walking the streets, which are the main characters of the movie, and your attention drifts to them. But just as you start to wonder if the car will resurface, it crosses paths with the couple, until they’re standing next to it. The tension grows more and more as they stand around the car idly chatting, while the woman in the car complains about a ticking noise.
Like an elastic rope, Welles plays with the audience by heightening the tension, then lowering it, until he pulls you in again. It’s like you’re dancing ballet with Orson Welles, and he’s the lead.
I have to admit I’m a sucker for this kind of deliberate pacing, and I think it’s a key characteristic for film as a medium of art. An average film easily lasts 90 minutes, up until 3 to 4 hours for some epics. Can you name another art form that so easily asks that time investment of its audience? Theatre, on average lasts about 50% of that time, music (based on record lengths) even less. Maybe books take longer to read through, but they’re not so insisting as movies to experience the art from start to end in one sitting.
So movies ask you to take a considerable amount of time to experience them, and we, as an audience are used to that, we accept it takes some time to experience a movie. So why the rush? Why would you exhaust your audience with a non-stop rush of shots that are cut so short they almost seem to trip over themselves in a hurry?
Of course, there is a certain kind of art in that, and a certain effect you’ll definitely achieve with your audience (chaos, disorientation, panic, etcetera), but when your desire is to communicate tension and suspense, I think cinema teaches us that it’s in stillness and deliberate pacing that the audience feels it best. When I first saw the opening shot of Touch of Evil during my film studies I was floored by its effect, and even now, I love to watch that single one shot.