The long continuous take has been with cinema since the very beginning. In fact one could argue that cinema started with the long take since editing movie into separate takes was a development that came along after the invention of the medium. However it is the existence of the edited narrative film that gives the long continuous take it’s meaning and it power.
Alfred Hitchcock composed an entire film, Rope, in nothing but long unbroken takes. Moving the massive refrigerator sized color camera around the set in a detail dance allowing him to craft long shot, medium shots, and close-ups without cutting at all. Rope is not remembered as part of the director best films but I like it and it was an example of an artist experimenting with his craft.
In 1958 Orson Well used the technique to establish the setting and tension for his noir Touch of Evil. Following a bomb from the moment it is planted in a car through several minuets as the car moves about the town this continuous take is one of the films’ most famous.
With the advent of the steady-com the long take took on a new life as now filmmakers were freed from bulky dollies and massive cranes and able to follow their subjects though a living set. Two examples that leap to my mind; first the ferry sequence in Spielberg’s Jaws where the city council comes to prevent Brody from closing the beaches, and follow Henry Hill and his date into the club in Scorsese’s Goodfellas.
A close relative to the long continuous take is the sequence where two of more shots are editing together to create the impression of a single take. Joss Whedon uses this technique in 2005s Serenity to take the audience through the entire ship during the films opening scenes, reminiscent of Touch of Evil‘s use in scene setting. Daredevil season one presented the ‘hallway’ fight in a single take, allowing the audience a chance to experience the combat’s fatigue.
A film currently playing uses the effect masterfully and that is David Leitch’s Atomic Blonde. Without going into spoiler territory I want to discuss the long take in this movie. Like Daredevil Atomic Blonde uses the long take during a particularly grueling and brutal fight sequence. Starting in a stairwell the fight ranges through a number of rooms, several floors, and even incorporates a car chase in the single shot. (Though of course this is an example of several shots seamlessly blended to the appearance of a single take.) Again, this help the audience experience the bodily toll the combat takes on all the characters but I believe that the long take severed another purpose beyond that physical empathy,
A cut in film can act as a release, an escape. We understand from a life time of movie watching that a cut means we are leaving the current moment, the current point of view for another and if that previous moment was unpleasant then cut allows us to distance ourselves from that unpleasantness. (Paragraphs and scenes breaks can do the same thing in prose.) I said that the ‘stairwell fight’ was grueling and brutal, those aspects are heightened by the lack of cuts. We are never allowed to escape the life and death fight, like the characters we are following, we are never given a chance to escape. The length of the take takes us from observers to unwilling participants. When the sequence finally ends the audience utterly empathizes with the surviving characters. It is masterful filmmaking and that bit alone is worth the price of ticket.