Catch-22 (1970) and its technically stunning use of long takes

Share this Article:

Director Mike Nichols followed The Graduate with the anti-war satire Catch-22 in 1970. A misfire at the time, its use of long takes is still technically stunning today.

History’s littered with filmmakers who, after the runaway success of one movie, banked their reputation on an outlandish follow-up project. David Robert Mitchell made the acclaimed horror It Follows, then returned with the singularly odd Under The Silver Lake; Ari Aster followed the more crowd-pleasing Hereditary and Midsommar with his self-described “Jewish Lord Of The Rings,” Beau Is Afraid. Neither follow-up film performed as expected, either critically or financially.

Decades earlier, filmmaker Mike Nichols made a similar swing for the fences following the Oscar-winning success of The Graduate in 1967. That film’s critical and financial glory was such that Nichols could have made just about anything he wanted in its wake, and the project he chose was Catch-22 – an adaptation of Joseph Heller’s sprawling, febrile anti-war novel that, on the face of it, was unlikely fodder for a Hollywood movie.

Together with screenwriter Buck Henry (who co-wrote The Graduate), though, Nichols took his own, bold approach to adapting Heller’s book. Its dizzying cast of characters – almost all American pilots stationed on a fictional Italian island in World War II – were slimmed down considerably. Its plot – mostly about Captain John Yossarian’s desire to survive the concept by any means necessary – was simplified and made more linear.

Most bravely of all, Nichols didn’t attempt to echo the book’s mile-a-minute, satirical tone. The black comedy is still present, but it unfolds at a pace that’s more measured and hypnotic; in fact, Catch-22 contains some of the most subtle yet technically impressive long takes of its era.

Nichols sets the tone from the film’s opening: a time-lapse shot of the sun rising behind a parched landscape segues to a squadron of B-25 bombers readying for take-off, their propellers kicking up great clouds of dust and sand. The sound of the engines is deafening – so deafening, in fact, that as the camera tracks in to introduce Captain Yossarian (Alan Arkin) deep in conversation with his two scheming superiors Colonel Cathcart (Martin Balsam) and Colonel Korn (Buck Henry) we’re unable to hear what they’re saying.

From this opening scene onwards, Catch-22 feels wilfully opposite from Nichols’ previous films. The Graduate and his debut Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf?, were intimate, interior films prized for the quality of their performances; for Catch-22, Nichols and cinematographer David Watkin pull their camera way back, dwarfing their subjects against the desolate landscape. At several points, much like the opening described above, tracts of dialogue are partly drowned out by the roar of engines. (Tellingly, there’s almost no music in Catch-22 – its soundtrack is the din of its lumbering bombers.)

At times, then, Catch-22 feels like a movie deliberately holding its audience at arm’s length, even if just about every shot looks absolutely exquisite.

Even sequences filled with dialogue are given a cinematic, widescreen twist. An early scene where Doc Daneeka (Jack Gilford) explains to Yossarian the meaning of Catch-22 – anyone who says they’re unable to fly a mission due to mental ill-health must be sane, and therefore must carry out the mission regardless – unfolds as a two-minute take which first establishes the sprawling air base, and then closes in to capture Yossarian clambering into the back of a bomber as it taxis by on the runway.

These days, a film like Catch-22 would probably use CGI for its aircraft (even Top Gun: Maverick, much lauded for its practical flying sequences, used more computer wizardry than you might think). Nichols, meanwhile, managed to get his hands on no fewer than 17 air-worthy bombers for its production, and a fair chunk of its then-huge $17m budget was spent on acquiring all those planes and filming them to its Mexico filming location.

To this day, those sequences remain mind-boggling to behold: you can almost sense the heat radiating from the engines as the bombers rumble into the sky. It’s a wonder whether Francis Ford Coppola might have seen Catch-22 before he set off to make his own anti-war film, Apocalypse Now – those shots of planes disappearing into a shimmering haze anticipate Coppola’s squadrons of attack helicopters by almost a decade.

What’s most striking about Catch-22’s scale and grandeur is that it’s still, ultimately, a pitch-black satire. At least two of the film’s most memorable long takes also include some ingenious sight gags. The first comes roughly 15 minutes in: the ruthlessly entrepreneurial Milo Minderbinder (a perfectly-cast Jon Voight) accosts Balsam’s Colonel Cathcart, and starts pitching him his latest money-making scheme. As the pair talk, the camera follows them as they stride down the edge of a runway, oblivious to the gargantuan bomber streaking in next to them with its engine on fire.

We hear a screech of tyres as the plane crash lands, and the camera swings round to show the craft partly embedded in the ground and on fire – mere feet from Milo’s jeep. Minderbinder and the colonel continue talking as they clamber into the vehicle and drive off; the scene concludes with the plane exploding right behind them, the force of the blast blowing the hats clean off their heads.

With scenes this technically complex, it’s easier to see why the six weeks of shooting originally planned for Catch-22’s plane-related sequences ended up taking six months. And if these scenes look as though they were dangerous to film, it’s probably because they were; on the 16th May 1969, second unit director Johnny Jordan, known for his daredevil approach to getting the shots he was after, tragically died when he fell some 2,000 feet from his plane during filming.

Not that all of Catch-22’s long takes involve planes. One sequence sees Yossarian, recovering in hospital from a shrapnel wound, talking to Anthony Perkins’ likeably ineffectual Chaplain Tappman. Their precisely-framed yet singularly awkward exchange elides seamlessly into a bizarre moment of comic horror straight out of Heller’s book: a patient in a full body cast whose empty drip is casually replaced with the urine bottle at the other end of the bed.

Other visual jokes are entirely of the filmmakers’ devising. A lengthy scene in which the terminally anxious Major Major (Bob Newhart) paces up and down his office, ranting at his underling Sergeant Towser (Norman Fell), sees a framed portrait hanging on the wall change from the likeness of Franklin D to that of Winston Churchill and then Joseph Stalin.

Again, it’s all one long take, which means a crewmember would have had to have rushed in and switched the pictures around as the camera pans left and right. The dialogue in the scene is so fast-paced – and funny – that it’s a wonder how many movie-goers even noticed the background trick being played on them.

Not that movie-goers went to see Catch-22 in the numbers its distributor, Paramount, had anticipated. Where The Graduate was a generation-defining phenomenon, Nichols’ anti-war film only just made its money back. Middling reviews may have harmed its prospects somewhat; that Catch-22 was released the same year as Robert Altman’s own anti-war satire, M*A*S*H, didn’t help, either.

In his book Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, author Peter Biskind wrote that, while Catch-22 was in post-production, Nichols and his producer John Calley decided to take in a screening of M*A*S*H, knowing that it had a similar premise and tone. The pair were floored: Altman’s film, made for a relatively cheap $3m, was fast-paced, nimble and full of sparky, off-the-cuff performances. In other words, it was the stylistic opposite of Nichols’ controlled, expensive, technically complex Catch-22.

“We were waylaid by M*A*S*H,” Nichols said in the book, “which was much fresher and more alive, improvisational, and funnier than Catch-22. It cut us off at the knees.”

Just three years earlier, Nichols had captured the 60s zeitgeist with The Graduate. By 1970, compared to the fleet-footed Altman, he might have seemed self-indulgent and out of step. A Time magazine profile of both Nichols and the making of Catch-22 noted its ginormous budget and stated that much of its costs were “invisible onscreen.”

It’s a harsh assessment, not unreasonably based on the chaotic way the film’s production unfolded: around 1,000 hours of aerial footage were said to be shot, but only 10 minutes appeared in the final film. Hundreds of extras were brought in, but Nichols thought it made the shots look too cluttered, so he fired them all. An extravagant set was built for one scene, but Nichols then decided to use a single bed shoved into the corner of a cramped room.

Catch-22 was therefore something of a disappointment at the time, and remains relatively obscure today. But while it’s a flawed film, it’s also a captivating one. Its cast is uniformly excellent, right down to a glowering cameo from Orson Welles as General Dreedle. Visually, it’s aged spectacularly. And, as its wry, circular humour gives way to despair, it’s arguable that Nichols succeeds in capturing the spirit of Heller’s book.

The author, at least, approved of Nichols’ adaptation. “He didn’t try to make it just an antiwar movie or an insane comedy,” Heller said at the time. “He caught its essence. He understood.”

Share this Article:

More like this