Claustrophobes Need Not Apply: 16 Single Location Movies

Features
by The Playlist Staff
November 4, 2010 4:08 AM
7 Comments
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One of the basic tenets fledgling filmmakers are taught and encouraged towards in film school, at least when they're starting out, is to pick a simple, ideally single-setting location for practical reasons: budgets and lack thereof, permits, control, lighting ease, etc. If you're a broke film student with little means, the easiest way to make a film is to set it in one environment where you ideally have total control.

To wit; Quentin Tarantino set his heist picture "Reservoir Dogs" within a warehouse and never actually showed the heist, instead choosing to keep the inside as an interior shoot save for a few scenes outside that were probably shot in day or two. Interestingly enough, of our list of the best single-location films, almost all these filmmakers set these films in a single setting by creative choice and not because they were forced to. The methodology behind it isn't far removed from Jack White's less-is-more manifesto within the White Stripes: forcing yourself to be creatively inventive by subtracting all the toys you normally have at your disposal and returning back to basics.

Danny Boyle's "127 Hours" hits theaters today in limited release, and while it's not strictly set in a single location, the vast majority of the film is set in a single, claustrophobic canyon, with canyoner Aron Ralston trapped under a boulder. Boyle uses every trick in his cinematic vocabulary to keep the situation fresh, but we thought we'd examine how other filmmakers, from Alfred Hitchcock to, most recently, "Buried" director Rodrigo Cortes, have dealt with a single location.

"Rope" (1948)
In "Rope," based on the real life case of Leopold and Loeb, two university students who believed in Nietzsche's Übermensch theory of murder as the ultimate act of intellectual superiority, Alfred Hitchcock throws up a number of technical hurdles in his way in bringing the story (based on the 1929 Patrick Hamilton play) to the big screen. In addition to the single location setting, an apartment, Hitchcock plays out the film in (more or less) real time (watch the sun change position outside the window throughout the film) and attempts to present the film as one uninterrupted take thanks to some clever editing. While the technical gambits don’t always work and are at times distracting, the overall effect can’t be denied. With terrific lead performances by John Dall and Farley Granger as the murderous duo, and the always reliable James Stewart as their suspicious teacher, “Rope” is a wickedly fun cat-and-mouse game that raises the stakes by keeping all the players in the frame for the entire run time. Dall in particular is a standout as Brandon, a bundle of giddy joy combined with a perverse sense of accomplishment while Granger holds his own as the much more nervous and guilt-ridden Phillip. Even if you know just how their “perfect crime” is ultimately revealed, “Rope” is still great fun to watch. The verbal sparring is delicious and the streak of homo-eroticism running through the film is remarkable for its time. Not many of the single setting films on this list attempt as much as Hitchcock juggles here, but for the most part it works, and more importantly, the story quickly becomes much more fascinating than the novelties used to tell it. [B+]

"12 Angry Men" (1957)
Pedants, stand down - while the film is bookended with scenes outside, and the bathroom is briefly featured, “12 Angry Men” is at heart a single-location film; everything of import happens, enclosed in time and space, in a sweaty, featureless jury room where the 12 men of the title are sent to decide the fate of a man accused of murder. Based on (and apparently differing little script-wise from) a teleplay of the same name, that the film never feels anything but cinematic, despite its TV roots and the deliberate theatricality of its staging (witness the beautiful choreography of that devastating moment when the ranting racist reveals himself, and each of his fellows one by one stands and turns his back) is in large part due to the blistering performances, marshaled by a never-better Sidney Lumet throughout the course of an arduous rehearsal process. Special mention must go to Henry Fonda, whose work here is a masterpiece of understatement and restrained intelligence and promotes the film from a meditation on liberality, the judicial system and the meaning of justice (interesting) to a keenly-observed essay on the mechanics of power and manipulation (interestinger). Yes, some of the details may seem trite now - a witness GASP wasn’t wearing her glasses; an old man SHOCK drags his leg - but more often it’s not the ‘facts’ that change minds, instead each man is proven wrong by exposing his hubris, bias and pettiness to the rest, and to himself. This perhaps is the film’s most remarkable achievement; it is a towering monument to the idea that the ‘ordinary man’ is at heart good and kind -- it’s just that sometimes he need a little reminding. [A]

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7 Comments

  • Olu | March 16, 2014 5:02 PMReply

    Arsenic and Old Lace is definitely as good as u remember. it is one of my all time favorite films and Cary Grant did a brilliant job as Mortimer Brewster as did Frank Capra as Director.

    Brit Film EXAM is great too. lovely debut.

  • Gene | November 4, 2010 11:33 AMReply

    Tape is such an exciting movie. Hawke is not bland; he's nuanced. Never saw his stage performance, but he is a great actor.

  • Ian | November 4, 2010 10:13 AMReply

    It's been a while since I saw it, but Radha Bharadwaj's "Closet Land," starring Alan Rickman and Madeline Stowe, managed to work the one set angle pretty well.

  • Bryan | November 4, 2010 8:07 AMReply

    Kudos on this piece. Good stuff. And do see Arsenic and Old Lace again. The reliably awesome Cary Grant is great fun.

  • jl | November 4, 2010 5:23 AMReply

    What about The Killing Room - really takes place in only the main room and the observation room.

  • cirkusfolk | November 4, 2010 5:19 AMReply

    I'm glad to see Tape was remembered, but wasn't both versions of Sleuth set only in the house? I can't remember.

  • Stuart Hazeldine | November 4, 2010 5:02 AMReply

    Er... guys, you forgot my film EXAM, which is entirely set in one room and happens to hit U.S. DVD in a couple of weeks (Nov 16th) from IFC Films.

    It may be a small movie, but... you know... BAFTA nominated, won the Santa Barbara Film Festival, sold to twenty countries... not an insignificant movie.

    S'okay... I forgive you...

    Stuart

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