Editing is an art. A beautifully edited film will show you the meaning behind every frame and guide you through a story in a way that makes you so engaged you lose yourself entirely until the credits begin to roll.
So why then, would someone choose to make a film in entirely one shot, a single long take, without carefully choosing which bits to show the audience and which bits to leave on the cutting room floor? The Silent House (La Casa Muda) is released this week, and claims to be a one-shot horror film (though a film editor is credited) following the terrifying events faced by Laura (Florencia Colucci) in real time.
In many films and in the horror genre especially, editing is a crucial tool for creating suspense. However, the horror master Alfred Hitchcock filmed Rope (1948) using continuous long takes. Restricted by the capacity of film reel at the time, it wasn’t possible to film the entire film in one shot. Instead Hitchcock filmed for as long as he could and pieced together each long take by zooming in on objects at the end of each sequence to hide the editing process. Rope follows two men after they have committed a murder and centres on the dinner party they later hold with friends of the victim. What makes Rope such a suspenseful film, is knowing where the body is hidden from the very start. At no point is the audience allowed to wonder from the scene of the crime, or focus on something other than the secret the two characters are trying to hide.
By using a long take rather than cutting shots together, the audience is given the chance to explore what they see on screen and is not hand-fed each detail. In Alfonso Cuaron’s Children of Men (2008), Cuaron presents a vision of London only a few years in the future. Using the long take means the audience is free to pick up on the subtle changes that have been made to a location they may know very well. The subtlety creates a nasty undercurrent as the intentions of the director are not entirely clear. Rather than giving a close-up of exactly what he wants you to see, Cuaron paints the frame with ideas, and leaves it up to the audience to decide what the overall message really is.
In this sense, the long take lends itself well to the introduction of locations within film. In Goodfellas (1990), for example, Scorsese uses a long take as he follows Henry (Ray Liotta) into the night club. By not cutting away, the audience is given an even greater feeling that they are entering the club with him, and can take in the surroundings in exactly the same way as the characters. Similarly, director Joe Wright introduces the chaos at Dunkirk in Atonement (2007) using a long take which captures both the beauty of the scene and the devastation caused by the war.
The long take can also be a test of endurance. Scenes of violence can be greatly enhanced by not using shots quickly edited together, as it presents the acts as they would be seen in real life and forces the audience to watch them play out in real time. Park Chan-Wook’s groundbreaking Oldboy (2003) contains a fight sequence that appears as one shot showing Dae-su Oh (Min-sik Choi) battle his way through a corridor, beating off a group of men with just a hammer. One of the most difficult long takes to endure, however, is Irreversible’s (2002) rape scene. The scene was in fact digitally constructed, but it plays out for the audience as a full rape in real time.
The difficulty with the long take is that it asks the audience to look closely at what they are watching on screen, and to try and take in everything that is happening, as well as notice the elements that need to be seen to understand the plot of the film. It can be a beautiful technique, as demonstrated in Russian Ark (2002) which is truly filmed in just one shot, and attempts to confront two hundred years of Russian history. The camera seems to literally walk through the Russian State Hermitage Museum and captures every colour, face and gesture parallel to a stage play.
On the other hand, it can seem to be too much, as with the original release of Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil (1958) when the long take was removed by the studio because they thought it would be better without it.
The long take is an important method, and is seen throughout the work of some of cinema’s greatest contributors, including Alfred Hitchcock, Martin Scorsese, Orson Welles, Quentin Tarantino and François Truffaut to name only a few. It provides a different platform to the conventional editing style, and has left some of the most memorable scenes in film history for exactly that reason.