Nine Movies That Take Place in Real Time

High Noon

We've all seen movies that take place over a day, a month, a year, several years, even several million years. But I enjoy the sense of urgency in pictures where the story takes place in the exact amount of time it takes to watch the film. This narrative device isn't often used, so here's a list of those films that employ it. (My second feature Claustrophobia takes place mostly in real time.)

  1. High Noon (1952, Fred Zinnemann). One of the most famous "real time" movies, this Western, inspired by the anti-Communist witch hunts of the 1950s, was an ordinarily-paced drama – at first. After initial test screenings proved unsuspenseful for audiences, editors Harry Gerstad and Elmo Williams inserted shots of clocks counting down the real minutes to the film's titular showdown. It worked, and Gerstad and Williams won Oscars for their quick thinking.
  2. Nick of Time (1995, John Badham). Less successful was this suspenser, starring Johnny Depp as an average Joe whose daughter is kidnapped by Christopher Walken. Paramount used its real-time storytelling device as a marketing gimmick. Audiences declined.
  3. Rope (1948, Alfred Hitchcock). Another film more famous for its gimmick than for its content, Hitchcock's experiment with real time is better remembered for the director's idea to shoot it nominally in one continuous take (but actually more like eight, including hard cuts for reel changes).
  4. What Happened Was... (1994, Tom Noonan). This spin on the real time mini-genre was cooked up by indie filmmaker/actor Noonan, who made a droll little urban comedy about two coworkers who decide to go out on a date. The camera never strays from the star-crossed couple as they struggle through their often painfully uncomfortable evening together.
  5. Cleo from 5 to 7 (1962, Agnes Varda). This French drama follows two hours – 90 minutes, actually – in the life of its eponymous heroine, a young singer who, fearing she may have cancer, walks around Paris, thinking about her life as she awaits her biopsy results.
  6. The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (1974, Joseph Sargent). The original classic about a team of hijackers (led by the late, great Robert Shaw) who hold a New York subway car hostage, demanding a million dollars within an hour. Full of great character actors, including Walter Matthau, Martin Balsam, Hector Elizondo, and Jerry Stiller.
  7. Two Girls and a Guy (1997, James Toback). Many of these "real time" movies take place in fast-paced New York City. Draw your own conclusions. Toback's stagy comedy-drama unfolds in the apartment of a two-timing lout (Robert Downey Jr.) whose girlfriends show up at his door at the same time, both hungry for revenge.
  8. Fail-Safe (1964, Sidney Lumet). Overshadowed by the movie that spoofed it, Dr. Strangelove, this film would have been even more forgotten had it not been for George Clooney's 2000 TV update, which was broadcast on national television not only in real time, but live and in black and white. Can't beat Henry Fonda as this film's president, though.
  9. Timecode (2000, Mike Figgis). One-upping – or, rather, four-upping Hitchcock's Rope experiment, Figgis took advantage of digital technology and its ability to record over 90 minutes of uninterrupted footage by dividing his screen into four quadrants, with four different cameras following some sleazy Hollywood characters simultaneously, with no edits. A triumph of form despite a silly story.