The first James Bond film, Dr No, was released 60 years ago this year. President John F. Kennedy requested a private screening at the White House, which kept him from running the country for an hour and 49 minutes. At the time, aside from the sword-and-sandal epics, this counted as quite a long movie.
If, on the other hand, Joe Biden had asked to see the latest Bond film, No Time To Die, he would have had to take two hours and 43 minutes out of his busy schedule.
The thing is, cinematic storytelling has gotten much softer since 1962, and has reached ridiculous levels in recent years, with directors (and writers) more concerned with indulging themselves and flexing their egos than serving their audiences.
JFK watched Dr. No at the White House and needed an hour and 49 minutes – which in 1962 was a feature film. If Joe Biden wanted to watch No Time To Die, he should have taken two hours and 43 minutes out of his busy schedule
House Of Gucci – about the murder of fashion titan Maurizio Gucci by his ex-wife Patrizia – lasted two hours and 38 minutes, roughly the length of a train journey from London to Newcastle
The worst miscreants are big-name directors, because too few studio executives will stand up to them and order a cut.
Sir Ridley Scott’s recent home of Gucci is a good example. At the London premiere, pictured star Lady Gaga wore a dramatic purple Gucci dress with an extravagant train. It looked good from the front, but went on forever in the back. It symbolized the film perfectly.
House Of Gucci – about the murder of fashion titan Maurizio Gucci by his ex-wife Patrizia – ran for two hours and 38 minutes, roughly the length of a train journey from London to Newcastle.
He should have stopped at Darlington. With half an hour less, it would have been a much better movie.
But the producer was Giannina Facio, whose husband of nearly seven years is . . . Mr. Ridley Scott. As far as we know, she might tell him to cut his nails, but apparently he lets her keep his movies as long as he wants.
The irony is that before Scott made movies, he did TV commercials, like the famous Hovis commercial from 1973 with the delivery man pushing his bike up a steep hill. At the time, he understood the art of telling rigorously concise stories. Even his 1982 sci-fi classic, Blade Runner, came in under two hours.
Psycho by Alfred Hitchcock, in 1960, 1h49
Quentin Tarantino’s 1992 classic Reservoir Dogs was one hour and 39 minutes
But 40 years later, it’s a different, much longer story. Before Gucci came The Last Duel, Scott’s film about a rape accusation in medieval France, starring Matt Damon and Jodie Comer.
This too lasted more than two and a half hours. Scott, 84, is a wonderful filmmaker with a few standout films to his name. But that doesn’t mean he’s allowed to do exactly what he wants.
Of course, there have always been feature films, and there are still short films. Next week will see the release of Belfast, Sir Kenneth Branagh’s beguiling autobiographical drama about a boy growing up in The Troubles. It won Best Screenplay at the Golden Globes last weekend and is a Best Picture favorite at the Oscars. But here’s one more crucial detail: it only lasts 97 minutes. Branagh tells his story with tremendous charm and, just as importantly, admirable economy.
Unfortunately, too many famous directors have forgotten that economy matters. Maybe as corporate giants they feel compelled to make gigantic movies.
Another offender is Martin Scorsese. His 2019 film for Netflix, The Irishman, about a Philadelphia mobster played by Robert De Niro, is three and a half hours long. In places, it’s like watching a layer of concrete dry.
It’s true that Francis Ford Coppola’s 1972 masterpiece, The Godfather, is just under three hours long. But it never drags. Every image, every line of dialogue advances the story.
Even Michael Curtiz’s 1942 film Casablanca is an hour and 42 minutes long.
It doesn’t happen anymore, or at least not enough. So why are movies getting longer and longer? According to Scottish director Jon S. Baird, whose delightful 2018 pic Stan & Ollie, about Laurel and Hardy, was another gem of brevity, it all starts with the script.
“I think we don’t pay as much attention to scripts as we used to,” he says. One reason for this is that most feature films today are shot on digital video rather than film.
“Before, when you were shooting a movie, you had to be very disciplined because it was very expensive,” says Baird. “Everything you shot had to have value, and a 35mm film magazine would only last so long before it ran out.
‘But digital will record forever. So now when you’re shooting video, you can do take after take after take. But there are many other factors at play, including drug tests falling out of favor.
Some directors these days are apparently too powerful and too arrogant to allow their movies to be judged by random audiences, even though there are countless examples of test screenings making great movies greater.
For some, James Cameron’s 1997 epic Titanic seemed to last as long as the ill-fated voyage itself, but if it hadn’t been for test screenings, the film would have required even more scrutiny. bladder.
Cameron cut no less than ten scenes after testing poorly and collecting 11 Oscars.
If there were more test screenings now, this daunting trend of longer and longer films would surely be reduced. After all, watch TV. There are hour-long episodes of big dramas like HBO’s hit Succession, with a cohesive beginning, middle, and end, that could almost be satisfying little movies in their own right.
They’re made with greater discipline than feature films, largely because they have to fill a time slot. The films we see in theaters are not subject to any of these constraints, which should be positive, but too often negative.
But television is also part of the problem. With so many fantasy dramas available to us in our living rooms, especially since the advent of subscription streaming services, movie outings are lengthened in the mistaken belief that if we are to be persuaded to leave the house, we need more for our money.
In fact, we need less bang, ideally for less money. Data released this week suggests that Britain is currently the tenth most expensive country to go for pictures.
Encouragingly, the film industry has already survived existential crises, notably when television became a mass medium in the 1950s. If it has to be done again, especially after the devastating blow of the pandemic, directors must be less complacent and stop assuming their wares are worth so much of our time.
The seemingly unstoppable wave of superhero movies over the past decade hasn’t helped. Marvel’s 2019 behemoth Avengers: Endgame ran over three hours and has so far grossed over $2.7 billion at the worldwide box office.
Every major studio exec loves the sound of this equation and seems to have concluded that we all love sitting on our backs so much we will, endlessly, even for movies that aren’t about saving the galaxy.
Jon Baird, however, prefers the sound of another, much simpler equation. “If you can’t tell your friends a story in five minutes in the pub, you shouldn’t be a filmmaker. Because making movies is just an extended version of this discipline. . . That’s the whole story.’
Unquestionably, he is right. Sixty years ago, in Dr No, James Bond by Sean Connery observed that “our asylums are full of people who think they are Napoleon or God”.
It would be a little unfair to suggest that modern editing suites are too. But we need filmmakers more willing to prioritize our entertainment over their own egos. Otherwise, cinema as we know it might be over.