Touch of Evil, the great cross-border crime picture by Orson Welles, from 1958, starts with a close-up of a briefcase-sized bomb wired to a kitchen timer. A man winds the clock and hides the bomb in the trunk of a convertible, and we watch through laced fingers as a laughing man and woman, unaware of any danger, enter the car, start the engine and drive down a crowded city street—until, three minutes later, the couple and their convertible explode.
It’s an exhilarating scene, and not least because Welles shot it from beginning to end in one take, the camera swooping up and ducking down to track the action. It wasn’t the first time a director made a show of long takes: Hitchcock did it a decade earlier with his chamber thriller Rope, which concealed its cuts to look like a 90-minute play. But Touch of Evil seemed to throw down a gauntlet. Since then tons of directors have accepted the long-take challenge, and more so lately than ever before (see: Spectre, True Detective, Creed and of course Birdman, which appears to be one take from start to finish). We’ve reached a point at which the elaborate one-shot stunt has become a cliche.
Daredevil’s second season arrived on Friday, and already the one-shot extravaganza that closes its third episode has already been thoroughly discussed, debated and dissected. That’s hardly surprising: The Netflix series’ first season had a dazzling hallway fight scene that appeared to be shot in a single take, and for weeks it seemed that was all anybody watching Daredevil wanted to talk about.
The showrunners have been upfront about the desire to outdo themselves for season two. It feels that way.
This time the fight—which moves from a hallway to a set of stairs, for the sake of variety—is bigger, longer, more intricately staged. Charlie Cox, the actor behind the mask and horns, has been calling it the hallway fight “on crack.” That’s not an inaccurate assessment, nor is it exactly a compliment. That “same, but more” sentiment is what seems to drive long-take ambitions everywhere. The long take is treated as something for filmmakers to brag about—a brash display of mine-is-bigger machismo. We’re meant to be awed and humbled by the sheer brilliance of the stunt, even though, with the advent of digital cameras and inexpensive CGI, pulling it off is easier than ever.
I’m sure Daredevil’s season two fight involved a great deal of effort on the part of its stuntmen and choreographers. But it isn’t quite true to call it a “one-take” scene at all: It’s a near-certainty that the take has been stitched together digitally. (You can see the seams, so to speak, when the camera moves and a body or wall completely blocks the view.) In any case, difficulty is not synonymous with artistry. The one-take drive that opens Touch of Evil is notable for its complexity, but the excellence of that scene has more to do with the tension Welles cultivates and the effect it has dramatically.
But in the case of Daredevil, it just seems like showing off.
More Daredevil coverage here.