Why Is This Shot from 'The Bonfire of the Vanities' One of the Most Important All Time?

'The Bonfire of the Vanities'Credit: Warner Bros.
Movie shots are hard to figure out, but how did one innocuous one change history?  

If I told you that the movie The Bonfire of the Vanities changed Hollywood forever, you would probably agree. Although not for the same reasons. But maybe for the same reasons—I find myself on a similar wavelength with our readers all the time. 

The movie changed the way we look at satire, big budgets, and casting, and it altered Brian De Palma's career.

This feels like the summer of The Bonfire of the Vanities. There was an incredible podcast, The Plot Thickens S2, based on Julie Salamon's book The Devil's Candy. That brought the movie back to the recent cultural lexicon.

So much of the movie fails that it's easy to forget there are some awesome things about it, as well. You can appreciate anything from the opening oner to the highly inventive camera work and the sumptuous set design.

What I was not aware of was that inside the film is one of the most important shots in cinema history. 

Luckily, I caught the newest video from Patrick (H) Willems and learned a ton. Check it out below and then let's talk about it. 

Why Is This Shot from The Bonfire of the Vanities One of the Most Important All Time? 

I bet you clicked that video thinking it would be about the epic one-shot by Vilmos Zsigmond that starts the movie, but when it transitioned to the Concord landing, I guess I should not have been surprised. That really is a shot that changed Hollywood forever. If you watched the video, you know why, but let me expand. 

When De Palma was shooting The Bonfire of the Vanities, he needed an amazing transition to show Melanie Griffith's character arriving in town. Now, these kinds of shots are usually done by the second unit. His second unit director, Eric Schwab, really wanted to shoot a plane landing. But De Palma was not convinced. He thought all those shots were so boring. But Schwab wanted to prove he belonged in Hollywood. That he could be an artist. 

So he came up with an idea. He wouldn't shoot any plane—he'd shoot a classy Concord. And he wouldn't shoot it at any time, he'd shoot it at sunset, with the Empire State Building in the background. 

De Palma was sure that shot would never make the cut. So he bet Schwab $100 that they'd cut it... and Schwab won that bet. 

Yes, that's the most beautiful plane landing shot maybe ever. But that's not why it's important. 

Here's the level of detail that went into getting it. Schwab calculated the time and day when a runway at JFK would line up exactly with the setting sun, to serve as a backdrop. He discovered that there was only a 30-second window when this would actually even happen. Not on a certain day, but in a given year!

Schwab assembled his team and made it there the day of the big event. They hired a Concord to take off and land to make sure they had it perfectly in the frame. The five-camera shot cost $80,000 and lasted only 10 seconds in the final cut. But it was a wondrous 10 seconds. 

Of course, it made it into the final cut. And Schwab got his $100. But when the movie was released, it was savaged by critics. And the shot was forgotten to time. 

But it should not have been. Because this shot marked a turning point in cinema history. 

You see, you cannot get this shot without a lot of money. It requires time, patience, and several thousand-millimeter lenses that would price out the average person. It also was part of an aesthetic. This movie was about opulence and surrender to capitalism, and it fit perfectly with the grandiose aura. 

And they never made a movie like this ever again. 

The Bonfire of the Vanities cost as much as the Tim Burton Batman movie. But it was not a tentpole, it was an adult movie based on adult themes and ideas. Sure, it wasn't great, but it was bold. There wasn't CGI. Everything was done practically and inventively. 

This Concord shot ended an era. 

After this, studios shifted these kinds of titles down to mid-budget movies only. Today, they are almost non-existent in cinema, relying on television as a platform instead. This was the last time we saw an adult drama with this kind of budgeting and vision. 

De Palma is one of our most important directors and while he has had a long career after this, it would have been nice to see him get the kind of budget that allowed him to explore and experiment the way he did in this movie. 

If you go back and watch it, maybe check it out on mute and just absorb what becomes one of the most enticing visual experiences ever. Even if it doesn't measure up in other ways. And man, does that Concord shot still slap. 

Let us know your thoughts in the comments.      

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1 Comment

Wow...as a 'filmmaker', try opening up a stop or two so we can see your shining face. Your narrative looks like it was shot in a closet. Regarding DePalma's $80k shot...indulgence is the name of the Hollywood game. Always was and always will be.

September 24, 2021 at 10:26AM, Edited September 24, 10:30AM

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Lee Albright
Owner-Albright Films
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