Legal download: Long takes on demand

The world of film is changing. For one thing, there’s not much actual film anymore. The future is digital; more and more, it’s streaming on our computers, too. Every week in Legal Download, we survey the landscape of online movies to bring you a snapshot of what’s available. This week, try to read the column without blinking in order to replicate the experience of watching movies with reallly long takes.


Anyone who’s watched and enjoyed the movies featured in this week’s Legal Download will tell you: size does matter. Only the most skilled of directors have the technical dexterity and the intellectual fortitude to shoot entire scenes — or even entire films — without a single cut. Of course, it’s one thing to use an extremely long take in a movie (or to make an extremely long take as a movie); it’s another to use that sort of formal trickery in support of an idea, as an enhancement of a theme or a story. In other words, it’s not just size that matters: It’s also how you use it (have I dragged this metaphor out far enough yet? Can I drop it now? I think I can drop it).

On iTunes
Directed by Chris Kentis and Laura Lau
$3.99 to rent, $4.99 to rent in HD; $14.99 to purchase, $19.99 to purchase in HD

Husband-and-wife filmmaking team Chris Kentis and Laura Lau have a thing for horror movies about people trapped in inhospitable locations. They made a big splash (sometimes the puns write themselves, guys) with the lost-SCUBA-divers-versus-sharks movie OPEN WATER, and now they return with SILENT HOUSE, a film about a young woman (MARTHA MARCY MAY MARLENE’S Elizabeth Olsen) trapped in a house (which is really really quiet!) overrun by mysterious intruders. This time, they ratcheted up the tension, not to mention the difficulty factor, by shooting the entire movie in long, continuous takes, which were seamlessly edited together in post-production. The long takes amplify the sense of danger around Olsen’s character, and the sense of isolation — with nowhere and no one else to cut to, we are just as trapped in that house as she is.

ROPE (1948)
Directed by Alfred Hitchcock
$2.99 to rent, $3.99 to rent in HD; $9.99 to purchase, $17.99 to purchase in HD

Kentis and Lau aren’t the first filmmakers to recognize how effectively unbroken takes build suspense in thrillers — the Master of Suspense, Alfred Hitchcock, used a similar formal approach in his 1948 film ROPE, about a pair of men (Farley Granger and John Dall) who commit a murder and then hide the body in plain sight in their apartment on the night of a dinner party as a test of their intellectual powers. The limitations of technology in the late 1940s were such that Hitchcock couldn’t have filmed ROPE as a single take even if he’d wanted to; instead, every ten minutes or so someone none-too-subtly walks in front of the camera, blacking out the frame temporarily for an “invisible” cut. Though hamstrung by the cameras of his day, Hitchcock does some impressive things with the long take gimmick — particularly in his use, for the first time ever in his career, of color. Note, for example, the way the backdrop of the New York skyline visible out the window of Granger and Dall’s apartment slowly changes with each cut to replicate the changing light of a spectacular Manhattan sunset.

On Netflix
Directed by Rodrigo Garcia
Free for streaming plan members

Rodrigo Garcia’s NINE LIVES is an ensemble film comprising nine different vignettes about nine different women, each one filmed in unbroken takes. In this case, though, the no-cuts technique offers intimacy instead of intensity. With a minimum amount of screen time for each story, Garcia needs to introduce us to the characters and their world as quickly and effectively as possible, and here the long takes establish an immediate sense of familiarity. The plotlines include a married woman with a disabled husband (Sissy Spacek) contemplating infidelity, a breast cancer patient (Kathy Baker) arguing with her husband (Joe Mantegna), and an inmate at a women’s prison (Elpidia Carrillo) struggling to talk with her daughter through a broken visiting room telephone. As you might suspect, the ways in which women communicate — with men as well as each other — is a crucial theme in the film. The long takes strip away all the artifice of traditional filmmaking in order to allows that theme, along with the phenomenal actors, to take center stage.

On Amazon
Directed by Mike Figgis
$2.99 to rent; $14.99 to purchase

One long take is tough enough, but Mike Figgis, director of LEAVING LAS VEGAS, thought he’d really challenge himself and shoot his 2000 movie TIMECODE as four simultaneous long takes. No cheats or hidden cuts here, either; Figgis made the movie in its entirety more than a dozen times, then picked his favorite take (or four takes, I suppose) and released that as the finished film. The screen is split into four quadrants, and action constantly unfolds in each of them (the sound mix alerts us to whatever image is the most important onscreen at any given time). The stories are all tales of Hollywood: pitch meetings and limo rides and secret affairs, and the impressive cast includes Salma Hayek, Danny Huston, Kyle MacLachlan, Saffron Burrows, Julian Sands and Stellan Skarsgård. The film may not add up to too much more than a technical experiment — but what an experiment. The mind boggles at the sort of sophistication and coordination required to pull this thing off.

On YouTube
Directed by Orson Welles
$2.99 to rent

There are other movies composed of one super long take (or several slightly less super long takes stitched together), most famously Alexander Sokurov’s cutless masterpiece RUSSIAN ARK, but they’re sadly not available for legal download. So instead, let’s finish things up with one of the most famous long takes of all time, the three-minute-twenty-second opening shot of Orson Welles‘ film noir TOUCH OF EVIL. A man plants a bomb in the trunk of a car, just as a couple pile into its front seat. They drive off, and the camera, mounted on a crane, swoops over a building and back down to street level, following their slow progress through a Mexican border town, including a stop for a brief conversation with a Mexican cop named Vargas (Charlton Heston) and his new wife, Susie (Janet Leigh). As in Hitchcock’s ROPE, the long take reinforces the suspense of a ticking clock, in this case a literal one — will the bomb go off? Will it explode while Heston and Leigh are standing right there? The lack of cuts also emphasizes the geography of this town, and underscores just how little space separates these two countries, whose relationship will form a crucial part of the film to follow.