Geschrieben am 3. Oktober 2022 von für Crimemag, CrimeMag Oktober 2022

Nick Kolakowski: Smoking Gun (11) – „Touch of Evil“

From ‘Touch of Evil’ to ‘True Detective,’ Long Shots are Crime Films’ Secret Weapon

I re-watched part of Orson Welles’ “Touch of Evil” the other night, for a project I’m considering. I’d forgotten its technical brilliance; the movie might be 64 years old, but the camera slithers through the grittier stretches of the U.S.-Mexican border with a suppleness that’s thoroughly modern. Ever since, generations of crime-film directors have used ultra-long shots as a tool for different emotional effects and story beats—they’re a secret weapon of sorts.

In case you’ve never seen it (or it’s been a few years since your last viewing), “Touch of Evil” begins with a close-up of a pair of hands setting a time-bomb. A mysterious figure plants the explosive in the trunk of a car, which two people (blissfully unaware of the danger) then drive away; the camera follows the deadly vehicle for a few blocks, past loud bars and street vendors, before it explodes at the three-minute mark. Before that final boom, the car cruises perilously close to Charlton Heston and Janet Leigh, our protagonists, who are engaged in the witty banter of newlyweds; there are no cuts to bleed the tension, which builds and builds with each passing second.

In a movie filled with amazing shots, that opener is perhaps the most bravura performance. From a production standpoint, it required split-second timing, and a crew capable of maneuvering heavy equipment very rapidly across significant space. “Today, a remote-controlled camera on the end of a Python boom would make the shot far easier to prepare and not nearly as hard to shoot. Then, it was a wonder… we shot on it all night, with various things going wrong,” Heston would later write.

Decades later, in “Goodfellas,” Martin Scorsese would direct another iconic long shot—the often-imitated, never-equaled “Copacabana shot.” Unlike Welles, Scorsese had the advantage of a Steadicam, but following two figures (Ray Liotta, playing mob rat Henry Hill, and Lorraine Bracco as his wife Karen Hill) through the club’s tight kitchen corridors and dance floor was still an enormous technical feat; the crew had to film it eight times to get it right. On a thematic level, though, that effort pays off: you see how Hill moves seamlessly through his world. It’s the high before the brutal crash that marks the film’s climax.

The “Copacabana shot” was immediately celebrated among cinephiles. In its wake, other crime-film directors took their own shot—so to speak—at the long take. Perhaps the most kinetic comes near the end of John Woo’s “Hard Boiled,” wherein two cops (played by Chow Yun-Fat and Tony Leung) shoot their way through multiple corridors of a hospital, gunning down dozens of gangsters in the process. The three-minute scene is almost a ballet, the two cops spinning in perfect coordination through smoke and fire—because he never cuts, Woo builds a rising energy that you simply don’t find in most cinematic gunfights.

Technology has made the single long take far easier to execute. For example, Alfonso Cuaron’s “Children of Men” (which you can argue is a neo-noir of sorts, in a similar vein to “Blade Runner”) is almost entirely composed of exquisitely choreographed shots that stretch for minutes at a time, but the effect is largely achieved through computer graphics and composite imaging. “True Detective” has one of the great uncut sequences, a house robbery that transforms into a frightening sprint through backyards and houses to safety; although the sequence was reportedly a nightmare to film, the crew could rely on handheld cameras far lighter than anything available to Welles back in the day—useful when you’re trying to film Matthew McConaughey running across a lawn with attackers in pursuit. 

I’d always admired the technical side of long shots (I’m the type of cinephile that will watch them over and over again, trying to find the cuts), but it wasn’t until I watched “Touch of Evil” and went down a multi-decade rabbit hole that I realized such shots are incredibly supple tools for conveying theme and emotion—especially in crime films.

Nick Kolakowski is the author of „Maxine Unleashes Doomsday“ and „Boise Longpig Hunting Club“ as well as the Love & Bullets trilogy of novellas. His noir fiction has appeared in Tough, ThugLit, Mystery Tribune, Plots With Guns, and various anthologies. Brandnew: his „Payback is Forever“ (Shotgun Honey 2022), inspired clearly by the novels of Richard Stark. Our review here (in German). – Just out: Hell of a Mess. A Love & Bullets Hookup.

Nick Kolakowski, geboren 1980, aufgewachsen in Washington. D.C., hat Geschichte in Chicago studiert. Er schreibt Romane, Kurzgeschichten, Lyrik und Essays, viele davon über Crime Fiction und verwandte Themen. Seine Texte erscheinen u. a. in der Washington Post, in Shotgun Honey, North American Review, The Evergreen Review, Rust & Months. Kolakowski lebt in New York City. Eine Besprechung des von Parker inspirierten „Payback is Forever“ in unseren Bloody Chops.

Bei Suhrkamp auf Deutsch: Love & Bullets.
His essays with us

His column „Gunsmoke“ with us: 

Michael Mann, again: What Michael Mann Teaches Us About Enduring Crime Fiction
„Heat 2“ – How Do You Craft a Sequel to a Masterpiece?
4 Ways Tarantino’s “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” Novel Stands Out From the Film.
On „Heat“: Manhunter Takes Down Thief: How Michael Mann’s Early Career Led to ‘Heat’
The Most Honest Nihilism – on „The Way of the Gun“
No, Time to Die – The latest James Bond movie digs into the fatalism at the iconic spy’s core.
Cormac McCarthy’s Overlooked Masterpiece? – „The Councelor“
Nightmare Alley“ – How Guillermo del Toro’s Film Alters a Masterpiece Noir Novel
David Cronenberg – The Carnal Crime of “A History of Violence” and “Eastern Promises”
With Parker, Donald E. Westlake Pulled Off Crime Fiction’s Most Spectacular Magic Trick
Guy Ritchie’s Return to Crime Films is Worth Watching

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