Winter 2007/2008

Overstaying Your Welcome

The popular critic and author wonders if movies are getting too long.


Shakespeare’s Hamlet said, “Brevity is the soul of wit.” If we were to use that as a definition, I’m afraid we’d have to describe many contemporary films as witless.

An alarming number of films are taxing their audiences’ patience—and rear ends—by running between two and three hours. More often than not I come away thinking that they would have been better if they’d only been shorter. But pruning and tightening don’t seem to be high on some directors’ list of priorities.

When that sage of Old Hollywood, producer Samuel Goldwyn, was asked, “How long is a good movie?” he reportedly replied, “How long is a movie good?”

That says it all. If a movie has captured your interest, you lose track of time. If it’s meandering, or redundant, you can’t think of anything but.

Some movies need to be long—from Spike Lee’s Malcolm X to Sean Penn’s Into the Wild. On the other hand, I can name some 90-minute pictures that seem to go on forever.

Paul Thomas Anderson has expressed his admiration for The Treasure of the Sierra Madre and John Huston’s ability to tell such a rich story in such a compact package. In fact, the 1948 classic is one of Huston’s longer films, running just over two hours; The Maltese Falcon is 101 minutes, The African Queen just 105.

We’re told that moviegoers have shorter attention spans than ever, yet some of today’s most popular popcorn films run 2.5 hours or more. Isn’t that a contradiction in terms?

Here’s another paradox: In days gone by, a director felt it necessary to show every step of a character’s progress from, say, closing a car door to opening a front gate, walking along a path, ringing a doorbell and going inside a house. Today we accept visual shorthand. And still, movies are longer than ever.

In 1949, All the King’s Men ran 109 minutes. The 2006 remake was 128 minutes long.

In 1957, 3:10 to Yuma ran 92 minutes. In 2007, 117 minutes.

In 1971, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory ran 100 minutes. In 2005, it was 15 minutes longer.

In 1976, Assault on Precinct 13 took just 91 minutes to unfold. In 2006, it took 109 minutes. And so it goes. Are the newer versions better because they’ve taken longer to tell their stories?

For decades, when projects came along that demanded a bigger-than-usual canvas, Hollywood provided audiences with an intermission. What a concept! Four hours is an awfully long time to sit, but split in half, Gone With the Wind is a wonderfully entertaining experience. The same is true for Lawrence of Arabia and many other epic films.

I had occasion to ask Peter Jackson if he’d considered putting an intermission in any of the Lord of the Rings movies. He told me that he was on the verge of inserting one into his final installment when it looked as if it were going to run three hours and 20 minutes, but when he trimmed it to three hours and nine, he decided to let it stand. Too bad. At the showing I attended, people missed entire scenes because they were trooping to and from the restrooms—or refreshment stands. (Apparently, audiences overseas did get a breather midway through the film, but Americans did not.)

Jackson also faced a problem that many directors confront: having to deliver a film for a pre-set release date. That means less time to ponder and reflect.

Yet I can’t help but feel that ego plays a part in this process, too. Why are director’s cuts on DVD so often longer than the theatrical versions? (The Coen Brothers earned the admiration of many critics when they reissued their first feature, Blood Simple, and decided to shorten it.)

Some years ago I ran into Sydney Pollack as I was writing an essay on this subject. I asked if he thought movies were too long. “I know mine are,” he responded candidly. He went on to explain that he had shown studio executives his latest film and they were enthusiastic. But when he told them he wanted a few more weeks to trim about 10 minutes, they pooh-poohed him and said it was fine just the way it was.

With no imperative to tell a story concisely, why should directors aim for that standard?

The answer is simple. If we are still concerned with film as an art form and a storytelling medium, then it should be treated as such. A great writer turns out many drafts, refining and polishing as he goes along. A great director should do no less.

I recently was privileged to host a screening of the 1953 movie Hondo in 3-D at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Adapted by James Edward Grant from a Louis L’Amour story, it was directed by John Farrow and stars John Wayne. The use of two projectors running simultaneously for 3-D in the 1950s meant that films had to have an intermission, and couldn’t run longer than four double-reels. Because of this, Hondo weighs in at a mere 83 minutes. It played incredibly well to a packed audience at the Academy’s Goldwyn Theater. I don’t think anyone left feeling shortchanged. In point of fact, the film’s characters are extremely well-drawn.

John Wayne’s Batjac company produced another Western a few years later called Seven Men From Now, starring Randolph Scott. It was written by Burt Kennedy and directed by Budd Boetticher. This title was locked in a vault for many years and finally made a welcome return in the year 2000. I got to introduce it at the Telluride Film Festival, and made a point of trumpeting its conciseness. Here is a film that embraces elements of action, setting, and character in an enormously satisfying piece of entertainment running just 78 minutes.

A few days after its premiere showing, I ran into French filmmaker Barbet Schroeder and asked what he was going to see. He told me Seven Men From Now.

“But I saw you at the first screening,” I said.

“Yes,” he replied with a smile, “But I have so much to learn from it.” I wish others would follow his example.

Leonard Maltin is best known for his annual paperback reference, Leonard Maltin’s Movie Guide. He has written many other books and articles about film, and has appeared on television’s Entertainment Tonight since 1982. He publishes a quarterly newsletter for old-movie buffs called Leonard Maltin’s Movie Crazy.

Critic's Corner

An open letter from prominent critics to Guild members about the craft of directing from their point of view.

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