Ever since Aristotle wrote his Poetics breaking down narrative literature into its constituent parts, setting—where and when a story takes place—has been considered one of the fundamental elements of narration. In narrative film, which is essentially a visual art, where the action occurs is if anything even more important than in literature. In the past I've written about the importance of setting in Mon Oncle and also in The Haunting and The Magnificent Ambersons, specifically the houses where those movies take place. In this post I'd like to discuss ten more movies where the setting not only is visually striking and vividly atmospheric, but also plays an important part in the narrative. Here they are, then, in no particular order:
• Citizen Kane (1941). "In Xanadu did Kubla Khan / A stately pleasure-dome decree," wrote Samuel Taylor Coleridge. That Charles Foster Kane named his mansion Xanadu is a good indication of the character's megalomania. The house depicted in Citizen Kane certainly seems to be the residence of a man with delusions of grandeur. And its position high on a hilltop—part fortress, part prison—underscores the isolation of Kane in his later years. Xanadu is the first thing we see in the movie, a light in one window, the window of the room where Kane lies dying and utters that enigmatic last word "Rosebud" as the snow globe slips out of his hand and rolls across the floor. It's also the last thing we see, in complete darkness now with smoke rising from the chimney. What a frisson when we realize exactly what is burning in that massive fireplace in front of which the second Mrs. Kane whiled away the hours with her jigsaw puzzles.
• Lost Horizon (1937). Shangri-La has become synonymous with paradise, and practically everyone, not just moviegoers, recognizes the name. When Frank Capra filmed James Hilton's novel, his set designers came up with an unforgettable vision of that exotic Himalayan home of ageless monks and their Utopian community. The design details could only be called eclectic, an eccentric fusion of modernist, Babylonian, Moorish, and Asian elements, both inside and out, that mirrors the vague East/West mysticism of the monks. The grounds are complete with reflecting pools, wandering ornamental wildfowl, architectonic conifers, and weeping Chinese trees. Dominating it all are the radiant blue skies and brilliant sunlight of Southern California.
• Meet Me in St. Louis (1944). This house could have come right out of a Currier & Ives print, so closely does it conform to the archetype of the upper middle-class American home circa 1900. The movie, all about the tribulations of the Smith family when they learn they must leave St. Louis after the father of the family takes a job in New York City, follows what will be the last few months in their familiar home as the family faces the approaching move with mounting apprehension. This house should be an idyllic place, a place of security, stability, and happiness. And everything about it does indeed convey exactly those feelings of wholesome normalcy. Who could bear to leave a place of such idealized Midwestern homeyness for the uncertainty of life in the big city?
• The Beauty and the Beast (1946). Cocteau's vision of the Beast's home is ravishingly beautiful, strange, and magical. This is a living house, where everything—from the caryatids supporting the fireplace mantelshelf to the candelabra held by human arms that swivel to light Belle's passage down the dark hallway to her room—is alive. The imaginative detail that went into this setting—indeed, into everything about the movie, including its props, costumes, and makeup—is astounding and, once seen, impossible to forget. There has never been anything quite like it in any other live-action movie: a fairy tale vision that easily does justice to the fantastic story it's such a big part of.
• Rebel Without a Cause (1955). One of the first, and probably the definitive, teen alienation movies, with James Dean, Natalie Wood, and Sal Mineo as the alienated teens. Near the end of the movie the three meet at an abandoned mansion and in a poignant sequence role-play the ideal family they long for in their real lives. This is a place of escape and fantasy, and its dereliction suggests the impossibility of their dream world. The actual location used was the Getty Mansion in Hollywood, where those scenes were shot over the course of several nights. This is, coincidentally, the same location used as Norma Desmond's mansion in Sunset Boulevard, and the empty swimming pool with Dean, Wood, and Mineo in it pictured above is the same one in which the body of Joe Gillis floats as he narrates that movie in flashback. This and other filming locations for Rebel are described in a fascinating post at the blogsite Dear Old Hollywood, which is where I located the screenshot above.
• Rebecca (1940). "Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again." Nobody who has seen this movie will forget that line. Nor will they forget the spooky seaside mansion where Maxim de Winter takes his shy, unassertive second wife, a house that is in a sense haunted by the dead Rebecca, the charismatic first wife of Maxim de Winter. At Manderley the second Mrs. de Winter's isolation is not only physical but also social. A former paid companion, she is intimidated by the responsibility of being in charge of such a large house and staff (especially the resentful, domineering Mrs. Danvers) and by trying desperately to fit in with the idle rich with whom her new husband socializes. Alfred Hitchcock, himself the son of a greengrocer, makes Manderley a representation of the profoundly ingrained class system of pre-World War II Britain and makes it easy for the viewer to identify with the class insecurity of the timid young bride unaccustomed to the privilege and wealth of her new social position.
• Gone with the Wind (1939). So essential is Scarlett O'Hara's plantation Tara to the movie that composer Max Steiner actually gave it its own musical theme. Tara represents an idealized vision of the antebellum South. Its destruction in the Civil War devastates Scarlett, and her obsession with restoring it to its previous glory becomes the driving motivation of her life. To achieve this she marries two men she doesn't love for their money and even kills. At the end of the movie, after she has lost everything else, she returns to Tara and vows to make it the Edenic place it once was. In its way, Tara is nearly as essential to the plot of the movie as any of the main characters. In a movie of lavish expenditure, clearly not a dollar was spared by David O. Selznick on making Tara the image of everything it stands for in Scarlett's memory.
• Last Year at Marienbad (1961). Shot at several palaces in Bavaria, this movie would be inconceivable without its locations. Remove those and what would remain? Little but enigmatic characters and an impenetrable fugue of a plot. It's the look of this movie that makes it an unforgettable one of a kind: those people encountering one another in baroque salons encrusted with elaborate ornamentation or in mind-bending halls of mirrors, or standing about like statues in those absolutely symmetrical, geometric French-style gardens. Forget the people, forget trying to make sense of the plot or the dialogue. Just lose yourself in those timeless, hallucinatory images. Location, location, location—that's what this film is all about.
• A Streetcar Named Desire (1951). While most of the other homes I've written about are rather grand places, the setting of this film is just the opposite. Located in a run-down building ironically named Elysian Fields, the home of Stanley and Stella Kowalski is a shabby, cramped apartment. The set designers (who won an Oscar for their work) actually turn the movie's stage origin to its advantage by creating a claustrophobic vision of poverty that looks all the more stark in the film's black-and-white cinematography by Harry Stradling, better known for opulent movies like The Picture of Dorian Gray or Technicolor extravaganzas like The Pirate and My Fair Lady. Here he perfectly captures the bleakness of the Kowalskis' apartment, with its sparse furnishings, overstuffed appearance, harsh lighting, and hanging electric cords snaking across the top of the frame. Stanley Kowalski, in his sweaty T-shirt, looks right at home here, but his fantasist sister-in-law Blanche du Bois, in her frilly, virginal Southern belle frocks, seems completely out of place in this absolutely realistic vision of limited resources and frustrated hopes.
• Psycho (1960). How else could I end this post but with what is probably the most identifiable movie house in all cinema? Old-fashioned, a bit dilapidated, and in need of a fresh coat of paint it may be, but once you've seen what goes on inside, that ordinary-looking old house looming eerily on an isolated hilltop will be burned into your memory, the ultimate image of creepiness, menace, and perversion hiding behind an innocuous facade—just like its inhabitant, Norman Bates. Who but Alfred Hitchcock could have taken such a hackneyed idea and made it so thoroughly convincing and so thoroughly entertaining?
I've limited myself to ten memorable movie homes drawn from my favorite era in cinema, some of the ones that made the strongest impressions on me. If anyone would like to add favorites of your own, please do leave a comment.