This week’s theatrical release of ‘Gravity’ is the latest in an intriguing genre of films that take place primarily in a single location with a small cast of characters. If you think that sounds like an incredibly narrow and limited criteria to define a movie by, you might be amazed at how many of these there are when you think about it, from ‘Alien’ to ‘Reservoir Dogs’ and countless more. For this week’s Roundtable, we look at some of our favorite movies set in confined locations.
Some rules: Some of these confined-location movies may only have one or two characters (like ‘Gravity’ or ‘Open Water’, for example). Others may have a larger group (such as Luis Buñuel’s surreal masterpiece ‘The Exterminating Angel’). It’s OK if the movie has a few establishing or cutaway scenes to other locations, but the main action over the course of the story should take place in one spot. It is not required that the characters be trapped in the location, just that (for whatever reason) they mostly stay there. Some coming and going is acceptable.
The unbelievable tension of ‘Rear Window‘ is directly related to the claustrophobic feeling you have while watching it. This sense of helplessness ties your stomach in knots no matter how many times you’ve seen the movie. The entire film is viewed from the confines of L.B. Jefferies’ apartment, which overlooks one of cinema’s most memorable movie sets. The genuis of this set-up is that the story can be confined to one space while still showing a variety of things happening. Hitchcock understands what makes the idea of anonymous voyeurism so titillating. He perfectly conveys the excitement and, in contrast, the utter helplessness that comes from L.B.’s situation. I honestly can’t think of a movie that uses the idea of a confined location better than ‘Rear Window’.
Michael Spike Steinbacher
Although Alfred Hitchcock’s brilliantly demented 1948 classic ‘Rope‘ wasn’t shot in one continuous take (not technically even possible at the time), it was edited in a way to appear so. Two brilliant and possibly nihilist dandies commit cold-blooded murder to put Nietzsche’s Superman philosophy to the test. They meet their match when their old headmaster Rupert Cadell (James Stewart) pieces things together at a macabre dinner party and – horrified to discover that HE was their inspiration – sees that they pay the price for their hubris. The short movie plays out in their luxurious apartment, and Hitchcock’s brilliant use of time and space makes for a unique, tense, almost seemingly real-time thriller.
My favorite movie set primarily in a single location is director Sidney Lumet’s 1957 masterpiece ‘12 Angry Men‘. Aside from a short scene at the beginning and a short scene at the end, the film takes place exclusively in a courthouse jury deliberation room, where the temperature in the claustrophobic setting is matched only by the heated tension of the jurors themselves. The screenplay was originally written for and broadcast on TV in 1954, and was remade for television again in 1997, but Lumet’s version remains the definitive telling of the story.
I’m a big fan of a little 1997 Canadian psychological thriller entitled ‘Cube‘. The movie is about seven people who awaken and find themselves trapped inside a massive, wall-shifting cube with no apparent way out. As they desperately search for freedom, they’re killed off one-by-one and slowly learn things about each other that cause mistrust among the group. Everyone is a suspect and everyone is to blame, creating a unique and highly tense sci-fi film like no other.
‘September‘ is one of those Woody Allen movies that you never hear anyone mention, which is a real shame, because it’s a true Allen treasure. Set in a Vermont country house at the start of fall, the film follows a multi-generational cast comprised of Mia Farrow, Diane Wiest, Elaine Stritch, Sam Waterston, Jack Warden and the always wonderful Denholm Elliott as characters who are all in and out of some form of love. That’s it. It couldn’t be simpler. Yet as with anything Woody makes, there are more layers here than initially meet the eye. By the time you’re done roaming the insides of this old house, you’ll likely have seen or heard something that will remind you of the loves — young, faded, undying or unrequited — in your own life.
I’m quite a big fan of Danny Boyle. Before it was released, I kept hearing worried and skeptical buzz about the story of ‘127 Hours‘, the big-screen depiction of Aron Ralston’s horrific true story, but I never doubted it. I’d hear, “How can a movie about a guy being stuck behind a rock be entertaining?” I’ll tell you how – you let Danny Boyle direct it.
Ralston, of course, became famous for cutting off his own arm after five days of being crushed and pinched between an 800-pound boulder and a slot canyon wall. The naysayers were not only worried about the film’s isolated and solitary location, but the against-the-grain casting of James Franco as the film’s lead. With Boyle’s track record, there wasn’t any doubt in my mind that he could make it work – but could Franco carry it? Yes! He earned an Oscar nomination for his performance. Together, Boyle and Franco turned this limited non-fiction story into a work of art, a triumphant tale that places you between a rock and a hard place along with its central character. Knowing the horrific act that has to come by the end of the story, you dread it. There’s a tangible tension about it. But because Boyle and Franco make you fall in love with the desperate character, when it comes to that grisly point, you’re ready for it. You’ve been prepared. You can handle it. The way that the movie is filmed makes you feel like you’re there by his side. You’re rooting him on. You know the ending and you know that he’s capable of it, so you become Ralston’s cheerleader. There are very few films that have pulled me in as much as ’127 Hours’, and for that, I love it.
Few directors understand how to convey the feeling of confinement better than Roman Polanski. ‘Death and the Maiden‘ features three characters who, upon entering a house together, become embroiled in a vicious pursuit of truth, justice and vengeance. Their struggle is dangerous and self-perpetuated, but their extraordinary circumstances offer no alternative. It’s hard to say more without spoiling the plot, but Sigourney Weaver and Ben Kingsley devour their respective roles. The film is an adaptation of a play, and thus the confined setting aids in enforcing the various emotions and themes of the story.
Based on David Mamet’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play, James Foley’s ‘Glengarry Glen Ross‘ mainly takes place in a nondescript office owned by two unseen figures known as Mitch and Murray. Four salesmen, Shelley Levene (Jack Lemmon), Dave Moss (Ed Harris), George Aaronow (Alan Arkin), and Ricky Roma (Al Pacino), work in that office, and most o them are underperforming.
To motivate them, Mitch and Murray send over Blake (Alec Baldwin, delivering the performance of his career in a scene that runs just a few minutes and was written by Mamet specifically for the film). After being told the bottom two performers of the month will be fired, the next morning finds the office broken into, the leads stolen, and everyone a suspect.
The cast is brilliant as they deliver Mamet’s outstanding dialogue. There’s no action but talking, yet the actors make it completely captivating.
My pick is ‘Russian Ark‘, which, and I do not exaggerate here, is one of the most incredibly ambitious cinematic undertakings ever put to screen. The film not only takes place in one location (the enormous Hermitage museum in St. Petersburg, Russia), it’s also just one continuous 99 minute take, involving 2,000-plus actors hitting their cues perfectly. As we move from room to room, we also travel through different periods of Russian history, from Catherine the Great to the Second World War, with only a curmudgeonly French nobleman to guide us. I know this may be a tough sell for some, but ‘Russian Ark’ is one of those rare films that reminds us of the breathtaking powers of pure cinema. If you haven’t’ seen it, you’re missing out.
As Brian mentioned, Roman Polanski is a master at dealing with the dynamics of characters trapped by their environments. Most emblematic of this is his famed “Apartment Trilogy,” comprised of three narratively-unrelated but thematically-connected movies about people going nuts in their homes. In Polanski’s first English-language feature, ‘Repulsion‘, Catherine Deneuve slowly loses her mind when her sister leaves her alone for a two-week vacation. In ‘Rosemary’s Baby‘, Mia Farrow becomes convinced that her neighbors are devil-worshippers who want to steal her child.
Perhaps the most flawed but also most intriguing entry in this trilogy is ‘The Tenant‘, which stars Polanski himself in a male-perspective reworking of the first, ‘Repulsion’. Produced not long after the murder of his wife and just prior to his personal scandal, the film can be read as a look into the torment and psychosis going through the director’s own head during the most tumultuous period in his life and career.
What other examples of movies limited to a single location can you think of? Tell us in the Comments.