The opening shot of Sam Mendes second James Bond movie, the 24th iteration ‘Spectre’, appears to be an unbroken take of about seven or eight minutes. This is a fluid master shot which at first that appears to have made using a Steadicam, although later in the take it may have fairly seamlessly cut to a drone shot (as there are elements to this shot which would have been impossible with a crane).
Anyhow this particular opening piqued my curiosity, because unlike many action movies which use lengthy takes made with a steadicam in a fairly predictable linear manner to emphasise the dynamics of the action. This one seemed to weave in and out of the location, and suggest something else.
Then I remembered then that Ive seen this kind opening to a movie shot in Mexico before. It seemed to me that we have a homage here, or perhaps a cheeky challenge. There is a clear reference being made to Welles’ celebrated opening shot from Touch of evil begins with a single hugely complex and magnificent long take, ending with an explosion in Mexico, just as the Bond movie does. Both shots take in apparently trivial detail of the journey towards their explosions.
But Mendes’ version has been typically ‘Bondised’. Welles’ off-screen explosion is replaced with the demolition of an entire city block. But before their explosions both shots seem to establish narrative streams which are ultimately irrelevant to the main storyline.
I think the intention in both is to suggest how corruption and crime weave themselves in and out of the everyday. In Welles’ case this may reflect the institutional and casual racism of Hollywood in relation to Latin America, but especially at meeting points of cultures (ie the Mexican border, as later explored in Ridley Scott and Cormack McCarthy’s collaboration ‘The Counsellor’ US 2014). In Mendes’ movie, this weaving of corruption and crime is inflected by the event which the shot is set during el Día de Muertos, the all souls holiday in Mexico, which also fall on Hallowe’en. It has a more glamorous spin and includes ideas of casual murder as part of its universe.
The Welles original was celebrated and extraordinary, not just because of the monumental task of rehearsing and organising gaffing, lighting crews and sound recordists to move just ahead of the camera rig, but also for the stunning movement of the camera itself. Robert Altman’s The Player (US 1992) pays homage to it but places an ironic spin, representing it as being lauded among studio executives, who have little understanding of the monumental accomplishment this shot actually represents, or Wells’ intentions in including it. Thus he chose to have his version shot on a steadicam (rather than a crane), with all the short-cuts and cheats which the flexibility that camera platform offers.
Mendes’ Bond movie, also has distinct technological advantages, but I doubt if he’s making the same kind of point that Altman did. His choices were more likely to have been determined by budget considerations. Given the budget of a Bond film there is a strong likelihood of the crew including the best steadicam and drone operators available. It also had the advantage of motion controlled photography, which permitted the seamless editing of the steadicam to the drone shot. Again this is something of a cheeky short-cut, but with the budgets involved, I doubt Eon productions would have permitted him to mimic Welles’ accomplishment in its entirety, with the huge trucks, and mobile teams of lighting technicians and sound recordists.
With all of the advantages available to him, and given the location, you can’t blame Mendes for showing off.