How ’bout them oners?
One of the things my subconscious does during a film, even a film I hate, is to mimic some of the immediate experiences of the people at the center of it. When James Bond goes underwater, I hold my breath with him. When Dave Bowman from 2001: A Space Odyssey went into the vortex, his face was my face. And when I observe a lengthy shot, I don’t blink until it’s over.
I’ve had it in mind for years to write about the “oner,” but I could not, for the life of me, figure out what to say that could be better or more insightful than this video right here by Tony Zhao of Every Frame A Painting. That analysis is so complete and perfect that I had nothing to add to it until two years ago when I saw 1917.
For those who don’t remember, 1917 is a popular but pathetic experience taking the form of a World War I story about a pair of grunts being sent through No Man’s Land to stop an allied regiment from charging into a trap. It is relevant here because it, like Rope, appeared to be (and was advertised as) a continuous single shot for the entire film. Or at least the first two-thirds of it. The film follows and tracks this Frodo/Sam pair like a tour guide through the Museum of Notable British Actors: Exhibit 1 – Colin Firth; Exhibit 2 – Andrew Scott; Exhibit 3 – Mark Strong; Exhibit 4 – Benedict Cumberbatch; Exhibit 5 – Richard Madden. It’s supposed to evoke the constancy of danger and continued hardship of the common man in war. But the experience itself is like being wheeled on a hanger hook with A Clockwork Orange‘s eye opener. While it is certainly not a bad idea to use lengthy shots in a war film (as Tony noted, Saving Private Ryan was full of these), or even to make a war film in this way, 1917 is a misfire whose cinematic intentions are betrayed by the very cinematography it boasted because it forgot one of the simplest characteristics of the oner that, if nothing else, my subconscious had made clear to me.
When a single take is used, your scene is in real time.
One of the best examples of doing it right was in S1E4 of True Detective in an episode titled Who Goes There. While on an undercover mission with a motorcycle gang, Detective Rust Cohle (Matthew McConaughey)’s cover is blown when the gang’s drug raid on a black family’s home erupts into a slaughter. In a thrilling six-minute tracking shot, Cohle must save a kid, capture the gang leader without the rest of the gang noticing, call his partner, and escape the neighborhood before they all get killed by the rival gang. You feel like you’re right there with him as he’s figuring it out, and then just before it gets too long, he tells his partner to meet him out front in 90 seconds. Then for the rest of that sequence, the seconds are ticking away in your head as you follow his movements. It is so robust, eventful, and action packed a shot that it gives you that epic, visceral experience in a way that feels completely effortless.
In a single take, True Detective used real time first for the way it slows things down in an intense waiting game, and then for the way it speeds things up in an even more intense escape. It skillfully avoids the uncanny valley that 1917 stumbles into because 1917 is a 12-hour mission pretending that at least four of those hours are continuously depicted in the 2-hour runtime. We see the sun go down and then come back up and some considerable time before and after each event. It takes characters in and out of the trenches and barracks, and witnesses multiple exciting events full of people who seem to exist just outside the frame and are dying to enter it. Neither the character nor the viewer has any appreciation for what lies beyond the frame because of how hard the movie tries to sweep the terrain making itself look big. It’s like being dragged through a video game cutscene without ever being able to take the controller. It’s meaningless, hollow, and pretentious.
But there was a movie that did the feature-length oner perfectly. Almost perfectly. That movie is Rope.
As a suspense film, Rope is conventional, mid-tier Alfred Hitchcock distinguished only by two things: (1) an imbuing of more gay energy than had probably ever existed in a major film from that era; and (2) the impression of a single, unbroken take. In reality, Rope had many cuts and breaks – all of them nimbly hidden and, for the cuts you do detect, they constituted story act breaks.
I talk a lot in my reviews and essays about how many of my favorite films fuse style and substance together into an experience that transcends the mere story beats you may have seen elsewhere. Rope is the story of two college-graduate roommates killing their peer and concealing his body in the chest on which they intend to display the food for the dinner party later that night – with the family of their victim as the principal invitees. The entire film takes place in the confined space of a comfortable upscale apartment. It is not the first movie to tell the Leopold and Loeb story, but it’s the interpretation of it that makes the film what it is. Since the take is unbroken, changes to the scene are more noticeable. The day wanes to night in the open-curtain background, and every character is bursting with their emotions without elaborate buildup.
When the audience is hanging there, better to hang still and merely look around. Thus the camera never leaves the apartment, but the apartment is never an empty setting. Hitchcock’s dual philosophies on cinema and storytelling are realized purely here. But if Rope was made today, it would replace the subtext with explicit text and feature Philip and Brandon tonguing each other on screen for the trailers. The film stands as a metaphor for living in the closet, and the actors recite their lines with that awareness.
The key to its brilliance is Jimmy Stewart as Professor Rupert. Brandon’s desire to impress him goes beyond the student-teacher relationship, and Rupert’s suspicions are intimate, not merely social. Brandon snivels while Phillip shrivels, yet Rupert’s journey is the most profound. In any other film, he’d be the clever one who proves that the students could never outsmart the master. In this film, he realizes that he himself is effectively David’s killer.
As gay as Rope is, Hitchcock achieved something with it that no conservative or reactionary filmmaker today has ever managed. He exposed the historic and present-day rhetorical, social, and philosophical implications of capital-P Progressivism for what they truly are. It was not a coincidence that Loeb and Leopold committed their crimes in the aftermath of the Woodrow Wilson era. And it isn’t a coincidence either that David’s murder here is being carried out by a pair of college snobs who missed out on World War II yet tout themselves as men of the perfect breeding to fight it. You can hear it in the way Brandon boasts of Phillip’s strength and chicken (or cock) strangulation skills in addition to all the philosophy talk. It’s a generational indictment of past and present thought leaders who profess such platitudes yet are never subject to the consequences of their ideology.
Rope made Rupert pay for it. And it did it in a single take.
V’s Ten for Ten (2022)
#1: “48 Hrs.” (1982)
#2: “Battle Royale” (2000)
#3: “She Wore a Yellow Ribbon” (1949)
#5: “Malcolm X” (1992)
#6: “6 Underground” (2019)
#7: “Broken Blossoms” (1919)
#8: “Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol” (2011)
#9: “Mutiny on the Bounty” (1935)
#10: “Escape From Alcatraz” (1979)