What Makes One Long Take Legendary, While Another Gets Forgotten?
For my money, the best book ever written about the production of a single movie is Julie Salamon’s The Devil’s Candy, which chronicles the turbulent production of Brian De Palma’s The Bonfire of the Vanities. De Palma allowed Salamon to follow him and his crew from pre-production up through the release of the movie. The result was a valuable and entertaining time capsule of Hollywood excesses of the early 1990s.
Now that book has become a podcast. Season 2 of the Turner Classic Movies’ The Plot Thickens is dedicated to adapting The Devil’s Candy. As host, Salamon goes back through her old audio recordings of interviews with De Palma, Tom Hanks, Melanie Griffith, Bruce Willis, producer Peter Guber, and many more. Episode 4 is titled “Wire Without A Net,” and it largely covers the preparation and shooting of Bonfire’s cinematic pièce de résistance: The unbroken five-minute shot that begins the movie and introduces Willis’ character, journalist Peter Fallow.
I’ve been waiting for this episode. After the first couple episodes of The Plot Thickens, I decided to take a look at The Bonfire of the Vanities for the first time in over a decade. (It’s currently streaming on HBO Max.) The movie was about as uneven and frustrating as I remembered, but that opening long take was even longer and more complicated than I recalled. Which is why I wanted to hear how it was conceived and executed.
That, in turn, that got me thinking about the far more well-known long take in Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas, the so-called “Copa Shot.” The two scenes have a lot in common. They’re both from films released in 1990 by well-respected directors from the “New Hollywood” generation. They both take place in New York City, and follow characters as they pass through a maze of underground hallways to gain access to an exclusive high-society enclave. And they were both shot by the same cameraman: Larry McConkey, one of the most respected Steadicam operators in the business.
The Bonfire Steadicam shot is nearly twice as long as the one in Goodfellas, and it’s far more technically complex. Yet the Goodfellas Copa sequence has become one of the most famous shots in Hollywood history while the Bonfire shot remains basically unknown to everyone except hardcore cinematography nerds and De Palma fans. Granted, Goodfellas (which is also currently streaming on HBO Max) was a critically-acclaimed hit and The Bonfire of the Vanities was a notorious flop. But people talk about great shots in unloved movies all the time. Nobody much cares for Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope yet people still debate its use of long takes. For sheer bravura technique, people should talk about Bonfire more, and they don’t.
To find out why, I decided to take another look at both shots side by side. Let’s start with The Bonfire of the Vanities. It is the first shot in the entire movie after the opening credits. The long take begins in an underground garage and follows Willis’ character as he drunkenly stumbles out of a limo, onto an electric cart, down a hallway, up through a service elevator, and then out into a banquet hall, where an enormous crowd of fans and paparazzi are gathered to give him an award.
The shot lasts just under five minutes. In The Plot Thickens, McConkey tells Salamon that the Bonfire long take was “the single-most expensive shot I’ve ever been a part of times ten — times 50!’” It was not the film’s scripted opening either. De Palma originally conceived of a high-energy montage that would showcase the excitement of life in Manhattan during the greed-is-good ’80s. The production spent tens of thousands of dollars securing the locations for the sequence, only for De Palma to scrap the entire thing just before cameras were set to roll.
The sequence that replaced it, according to Salamon, was based on a memory of De Palma’s. “Brian had been at a literary dinner one time when Truman Capote walked in, a little inebriated,” Salamon says. “It’s the kind of thing that’s both funny, and, well, embarrassing. Bonfire would play on that.” Willis certainly looks drunk in the scene. He carries a bottle of liquor with him the whole time — at least until he trades it for a glass of champagne. Then he grabs a fistful of salmon mousse off a buffet cart, takes a big bite of it, and flings the rest against a wall, where it defies gravity until Willis wanders away.
There are a few bites of food here or there in the Goodfellas Copa shot — it does circle a kitchen after all — but no salmon were harmed during the making of the sequence. In it, Henry Hill (Ray Liotta) takes Karen Friedman (Lorraine Bracco) out on their first real date. They arrive at the Copacabana nightclub, where the line to get in stretches around the block. Instead of waiting, Henry takes Karen by the hand and sneaks in through the back entrance. They wind their way through the Copa’s hallways and arrive at the front of the line — where the maître d’ immediately recognizes Henry and signals for a table to be brought in. The camera follows the table as it’s carried into place right in front of the Copa stage.
“What do you do?” a dazzled Karen asks Henry. “I’m in construction,” he replies just as legendary standup comic Henny Youngman takes the stage and launches into his “Take my wife, please!” routine.
One of the most interesting elements of the Copa shot that most people miss on the first or second viewing is the fact that Henry and Karen have absolutely no reason to walk through the club’s kitchen. It’s actually a needless detour; they turn left into the kitchen, walk in a big circle, and exit out the way they came in before entering the club’s showroom. No one ever notices because the shot is so long and complex through an unfamiliar space that it’s easy to become disoriented. But watch carefully and you’ll see it. The telltale sign is a hose. It’s in the background on the wall as Karen and Henry turn into the kitchen...
...then Henry and Karen take a lap around the kitchen...
...and when they leave the kitchen, they turn left and then make a quick right, where they spot the maître d’. As they make that last right, they walk past that same hose that was in the background as they entered the kitchen (for no reason).
Even with the trickery — according to Glenn Kenny’s Made Men: The Story of Goodfellas “to add to the illusion, prop placers put stacks of empty plastic creates against the wall that was bare when the actors entered the kitchen” — the Copa Shot is far simpler than the comparable sequence in Bonfire of the Vanities. Scorsese follows his characters as the walk down a flight of stairs, through some hallways, and then into the club. It certainly wasn’t easy to do, but the shot’s a lot shorter and less intricate than what De Palma pulled off in Bonfire that same year.
De Palma had McConkey take the Steadicam onto a golf cart, ride it for a few hundred feet, then loop around Willis as he makes his way into an elevator. (For added difficulty, one of the dim underground corridors is lit entirely by photographer’s flash bulbs.) After Willis exits the elevator (with a fistful of salmon), he does a costume change during the shot, pulling on a fresh tuxedo shirt and jacket just as he emerges into a crowd of his adoring fans.
The timing and precision are remarkable. And basically no one has ever cared about this shot.
Viewing the scenes together offers a few possible reasons why one became legendary and one got forgotten. The Bonfire Steadicam shot is incredible, but it doesn’t really suit the material. It introduces Willis’ character, but then he vanishes from the movie for the rest of the first act, which is shot in a more traditional style. A film’s opening is supposed to set a tone for the scenes to follow. Bonfire’s opening sets a tone, then nothing else onscreen matches it. Five minutes in, Bonfire has already peaked.
It also tells us almost nothing about the characters involved. Yes, it makes it clear that Bruce Willis is a drunk. But the viewer already understands that as soon as he falls out of his limo with a bottle of booze. After that, the remaining four minutes and 45 seconds are redundant. Even with all that screen time, De Palma never explains why Peter Fallow needs to come in through the banquet hall’s underground entrance. Is he hiding from someone? Did he drunkenly give his driver the wrong directions? Who knows. Flashy as the sequence is, it serves no larger purpose than giving the audiences something interesting to look at. (Tom Hanks and Melanie Griffith, the film’s other protagonists, are also nowhere to be seen.)
Compare that with Goodfellas, where the unbroken take is absolutely in the service of the storytelling — namely, to show the allure of the gangsters’ lifestyle. On their first date, Henry sweeps Karen up in a whirlwind of excitement; the disorienting nature of the shot as it winds through the Copa’s underground halls reflects not only Karen’s entrance into the criminal underworld but also her own bewildered reaction to being escorted to the best seat in the house at the coolest nightclub in New York City by a guy she barely knows.
Even if the Copa Shot is Goodfellas’ visual highlight, there are other impressive feats of camerawork that follow, like the famous diner scene between Henry and Robert De Niro’s Jimmy Conway where a simultaneous zoom in and tracking shot backwards creates a vertiginous effect. The tour of the Copa is one standout moment among many in Goodfellas, not the only highlight from an otherwise disappointing film.
The Copa Shot also tells us a lot about its two main characters; Henry’s confidence and connections, Karen’s surprise and curiosity. And it does it with far less dialogue than De Palma’s sequence, another key difference between the two shots. Henry exchanges a few words here or there with the people he passes in the halls, and he tips $20 to everyone on the Copa staff. But the soundtrack is largely dominated by the Crystals’ “Then He Kissed Me.” The only significant conversation comes after Henry and Karen are sitting at their table in front of the Copa stage, when she asks him what he does for a living. The viewer observes Henry and Karen and absorbs the information communicated by the images.
The Bonfire of the Vanities Steadicam shot, in contrast, is non-stop talking. Security guards yell into walkie talkies, fans profess their deep admiration for Peter Fallow, and various assistants offer him praise, advice, and directions. The talking splits the audience’s attention. Listening carefully to the conversations distracts from the camerawork, which in turn makes it hard to focus on what the characters are saying. What the sequence shows and what it says work against each other.
There’s a lesson here. It’s not quite “less is more”; Scorsese’s Copa Shot is hardly “less”. But the Copa Shot is a case where form follows function, sweeping the viewer up in the thrill of scoring the best table at a club without having to wait for it. The rush the audience gets watching that incredible Goodfellas shot mirrors what Karen feels entering the Copa. Bonfire’s long take is formally spectacular without serving any larger function in the film. The audience might be awed by De Palma’s dexterous direction, but that feeling is at odds with Peter Farrow’s total disinterest in his opulent surroundings.
In the end, Fallow’s indifference foreshadowed audiences’ reaction to The Bonfire of the Vanities. What remains is a very cool shot and a cautionary tale about long takes. They might look glorious, but if they don’t speak to the film they are in, they are nothing more than the devil’s eye candy.