The extended take or long take is the first time I noticed a filmmaker articulating cinematic space and pushing his/her desire for notions of auteurism. It was the iconic opening shot in Stanley Kubrick's A CLOCKWORK ORANGE, where we are introduced to our anti-hero Alex in an extreme close-up of his face, a smirking landscape of human evil that never blinks. We then slowly PULL BACK to reveal the Korovo Milk Bar, the surroundings that fosters said evil with its retro-futuristic decay. Ever since then, I've been obsessed with the extended take in movies.
Let's be clear. The extended take is often mistaken for the tracking shot. According to Wikipedia the tracking shot is, "a segment in which the camera is mounted on a wheeled platform that is pushed on rails while the picture is being taken. Tracking shots cannot include complex pivoting movements, aerial shots or crane shots." So what is an extended take? The extended take is, "an uninterrupted shot in a film which lasts much longer than the conventional editing pace either of the film itself or of films in general, usually lasting several minutes. It can be used for dramatic and narrative effect if done properly, and in moving shots is often accomplished through the use of a dolly or stedicam."
The extended take is a cinematic high-wire act that pushes the director, actors, cinematographer, art department, sound design, and every other department to their limits. They take a very long time to set-up, and are very easy to mess up. The longer the take, the more pressure is added to get it right.
This list is, in my opinion, the 20 greatest extended takes in movies. I intentionally did not make reference to movies like TIMECODE, RUSSIAN ARK , PVC-1 , and NOKTA which are products of the digital filmmaking age, features entirely shot in a single take. I believe those movies are a genre in and of themselves and deserve a separate discussion.
There are several amazing extended takes that I would have included in this list but was unable to because they are not available online to view, like the ones in ATONEMENT and JCVD. I felt it would be unfair to make reference to something visually when I could not offer it up for review. But I do recommend checking those films out on DVD if you haven't done so.
THE 20 GREATEST EXTENDED TAKES IN MOVIE HISTORY
20. "THE PASSENGER" (1975) -- directed by Michelangelo Antonioni
On the DVD commentary to THE PASSENGER, star Jack Nicholson propagated a myth that Antonioni built the entire hotel soely for the purpose of shooting this final and haunting shot. Documented production photos prove otherwise, and shows how the director achieved this shot by opening the bars on its hinges to push the camera through. Hynoptic in its pacing and underlines the existential nature of the movie's themes.
19. "ROPE" (1948) -- directed by Alfred Hitchcock
Loosely based on the real life murderers Nathan and Leopold Loeb, Hitchcock's ROPE was shot in 10 takes and is the famed director's first color film.
18. "THE SHINING" (1980) -- directed by Stanley Kubrick
Not as complex or lengthy as the other takes on the list, but is included for its iconic visual. Stedicam operator, Garrett Brown, achieved many of the extended sequences by mounting the camera on a wheelchair. Author Stephen King (who wrote the book the film is based on) originally tried to talk Kubrick out of casting star Jack Nicholson.
17. "THE MIRROR" (1975) -- directed by Andrei Tarkovsky
Tarkovsky moves his camera with the seamless fluidity of a Max Ophuls in this scene that's gorgeously moody as a classic Flemish painting.
16. "BONFIRE OF THE VANITIES" (1990) -- directed by Brian DePalma
Every Brian DePalma film contains one or several great extended takes, so it's no surprise he makes it twice on this list. Here's one from the often forgotten BONFIRE OF THE VANITIES, showing Bruce Willis entering the World Trade Center. DePalma can be seen in this shot dressed as a waiter.
15. "WEEKEND" (1967) -- directed by Jean-Luc Godard
WEEKEND's famed extended shot is the list's most overtly political, with its statement becoming more and more profound as the scene unfolds. WEEKEND also marks the end of a particularly productive period for Godard who was pumping out two movies a year.
14. "KILL BILL Volume 1" (2003) -- directed by Quentin Tarantino
The tour through House of Blue Leaves proves to be Tarantino's most ambitious shot. Add to it the wonderful music by the girl band "The 5,6,7, 8's" and the funky lighting by Robert Richardson, you have a classic extended shot that is a mash-up of Tarantino's influences.
13. "WERCKMEISTER HARMONIES" (2000) -- directed by Bela Tarr and Agnes Hranitzky
In this scene, the camera moves with such confident discipline and restrained mastery, it serves to highlight the performances rather distract. Its stark poetic beauty is only complimented by another extended shot of the main character moving along a dark street...which only gets darker much like the character's arc.
12. "I AM CUBA" (1964) -- directed by Mikhail Kalatozov
This famous long take originally come out of the water and continued. The camera was hand held, then passed from crew member to crew member, to make its way down the side of the hotel and into the pool. Much to the disappointment of the camera crew, the director cut the end of the take, ending it underwater instead.
11. "BOOGIE NIGHTS" (1997) -- directed by Paul Thomas Anderson
Many great extended shots tell their own individual stories within themselves, and have a beginning, middle, and an end. There are several mind-blowing long takes in BOOGIE NIGHTS (like the Shakespearean opening which introduces all the characters at the club), but this shot tells a clear tale of American tragedy and literally ends with a bang.
10. "THE PLAYER" (1992) -- directed by Robert Altman
This opening and self-referential shot was unscripted and all the dialogue was improvised. It took fifteen takes, but Altman ended up using the third take. The interior scenes of Griffin Mill's (played by Tim Robbins) office are the same used in BARTON FINK.
9. "MAGNOLIA" (1999) -- directed by Paul Thomas Anderson
P.T. Anderson tops his BOOGIE NIGHTS shot with this epic extended take through a TV network's hallways. Lots of dialogue, intricate lighting, and countless blocking and cues with multiple characters make this the most impressive take in Anderson's canon.
8. "OLDBOY" (2003) -- directed by Chan-wook Park
There's a rule in filmmaking: If something can go wrong, it will go wrong. Which is why extended takes of fight scenes are extremely difficult and risky to the safety of the actors. In OLDBOY, its star Min-Sik Choi had to do most of his own stunt-work. This single take proves it.
7. "CARLITO'S WAY" (1993) -- directed by Brian DePalma
DePalma is at his best with this extended shot through Grand Central Station. A masterful composition that builds suspense by allowing the viewer to see only as much as Al Pacino's character. The word "fuck" is said a total of 139 times in CARLITO'S WAY.
6. "BREAKING NEWS" (2004) -- directed by Johnnie To
Johnnie To never really got his due as a filmmaker. This virtuoso shot proves it's about that time.
5. "THE PROTECTOR" (2005) -- directed by Prachya Pinkaew
Martial arts star Tony Jaa kicks major ass in this extended fight scene that took 5 takes and over a month to shoot. This is the first Thai film to ever break into America's top 10 box office, debuting in fourth place.
4. "CHILDREN OF MEN" (2006) -- directed by Alfonso Cuaron
CHILDREN OF MEN contain several jaw-dropping extended shots. There is an on-going debate whether Cuaron used digital cheats to compose several shots into a single take. I've read sources that claimed this shot was done in four different locations and sources that claim it's one take. Whatever the truth, the audacity of Cuaron's vision is never in question. This scene is the strongest conceptually from beginning to end.
3. "HARDBOILED" (1992) -- directed by John Woo
This classic extended shot is impressive on many levels. But more so because John Woo (due to a tight schedule) had no room for error and only had one chance at getting it right. Critics have theorized that Woo knew (at the time) HARDBOILED would be his last Hong Kong production and wanted to pull out all the stops to let Hollywood know he was coming with both guns-blazing.
2. "TOUCH OF EVIL" (1958) -- directed by Orson Welles
Orson Welles was a genius ahead of his time. This extended shot that opens TOUCH OF EVIL was so complex that it took endless takes to get it right. The complexity of the manipulation of shadows and darkness is awe-inspiring as the camera moves through the town. Welles finally got the take he was happy with on his last chance to film it before sunlight broke. It opens with a close-up of a bomb and ends with it exploding, the perfect arc to a long take. Welles decided to shoot the movie mainly at night because he knew meddlesome studio execs would be asleep during production.
1. "GOODFELLAS" (1990) -- directed by Martin Scorsese
From the master Scorsese, this sensational extended shot puts us right in the eyes of Lorraine Bracco's character Karen Hill. Like her, we are seduced by the glamour of Henry Hill as he takes us through a tour of the gangster's life. Money, respect, and power all in a single shot that ends with legendary comedian Henny Youngman, who kept ruining the difficult shot by forgetting his own famous lines.
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Mike Le is a writer/producer living in Los Angeles. He is also the creator of the webcomic DON'T FORGET TO VALIDATE YOUR PARKING.
You can follow Mike Le on Twitter: @DFTVYP.