Monday, October 26, 2009

Movie Houses: Memorable Homes from Ten Classic Films


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, 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 and where so many memorable scenes take place. 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.
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30 comments:

Raquelle said...

Excellent post! This was very informative. I never thought about how much a home could play such a significant part in a film.

MrJeffery said...

what a cool post!

hal0000 said...

I'm amazed you didn't put a Bergman film in. His settings lend such an important atmosphere that really is his trademark. Through a Glass Darkly is my favorite of these:

Through a Glass Darkly
Cries and Whispers
Fanny & Alexander

Other houses:

A Woman Under the Influence: A simple set that we inhabit so thoroughly for 2.5 hours. I feel like I know every inch of that strange house. Somehow, it seemed larger on a first viewing. Maybe the kitchen doubles as Mabel and Nick's bedroom. Not an easy movie to watch, but an important 70s picture (even though I prefer Cassavetes' Opening Night).

Rear Window: Can't leave out my favorite movie, can I? It's not just a gimmick creating a film on a single set. It's an allegory for the filmic experience.

In a Lonely Place: This picture doesn't seem to get the attention it deserves, but Dixon Steele's flat is one of those memorable places; a sanctuary and a prison enveloped in layers and isolating its characters.

Pickup On South Street: Skip McCoy's ramshackle house over the East (?) River lends the film its edge. It's a strong atmosphere that makes the picture, for me, one of my favorite film noirs.

The Pornographers: Not sure there's a specific house in here, per se. The film deserves more attention than it gets, although I realize it's not for everyone. Imamura has a knack for focusing on the seedy underbelly of society that I find fascinating.

Repulsion: Like Rear Window, it shacks the audience up in an apartment, but they're quite different. Nevertheless, both pictures do play with imagination, even if the former is by suspicion and the latter is by psychosis. Just an exceptional picture with a dominating atmosphere, even if I can't yet write about it critically.

Brand Upon the Brain!: I saw this over the weekend. It's really unlike anything I've seen (and I mean it). Maybe Inland Empire comes close, but not really. The lighthouse is the catalyst for evoking Guy's memories in a nightmarish torrent of quick shots and sketchy scenes.

The Decalogue: I'd be remiss if I didn't mention the Warsaw housing project. Tall, imposing, and uniform, the ten films here show beneath the austerity a community where human dilemmas are every bit as relevant as a Bergman film.

The Royal Tenenbaums: Wes Anderson has an uncanny knack for visual delight. His middle name must by "mise en scene." It is through these quirky, meticulous visuals that he supports his characters.

Modern Times: So far, my favorite Chaplin movie. The cute little ramshackle home deserves part of it. It's really how Chaplin is able to maximize the use of each set, regardless of how simple. I could've gone with The Gold Rush too.

Not really houses/homes, but other cinematic sets:

Dog Day Afternoon: I love these movies using mostly one set. Al Pacino's finest moment? A set that actually supports its characters to where we care for them.

12 Angry Men: Lumet again, this is one of those pictures that never lulls.

I'm sure I'll think of more, but that's all for now. Goodnight.

Carine said...

And what about the Overlook hotel in Kubrick's "Shining" ?

Anonymous said...

How about the house in Fight Club...

Karla said...

I agree with the Overlook. Also, what about Norma Desmond's mansion on Sunset Boulevard? That's a pretty impressive set - grand and full of relics of her long-dead career. Also the apartment building in Rosemary's Baby.

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Kenny said...

I keep thinking about the houses in A Clockwork Orange.

Domdster said...

I'm shocked not to see 1428 Elm Street on here, since it is far more recognizable than most on the list (not more than the Bate's home though, that's just flat iconic).

hal0000 said...

My goodness I must've been tired last night. Chalk it up to exams.

I regards to A Woman Under the Influence, it's a dining room that doubles as their bedroom.

And how could I have forgotten The Apartment and, as mentioned, Sunset Blvd.?

Speaking of Sunset Blvd., remember the utterly claustrophobic house in What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? ? Nightmarish place that perfectly enhances Bette Davis' batty performance.

Kubrick-wise, I'd go with the sets in Eyes Wide Shut. Warm palette juxtaposed with icy blues lend the film a paradoxically cold intimacy. The various mansions, costume shops, and apartments lend to the film's dissection of class division. In some ways, this is reminiscent of Imamura's work.

Patricio said...

HI, GREETINGS FROM CHILE. CONGRATULATIONS. I´M TOTALLY AGRRE WITH YOU, AND I COULD ADD SOME HOUSES TOO: THE SHINING FROM KUBRICK. KUBRICK HAS A SEVERAL IMPORTANT HOUSES: BARRY LYNDON, A CLOCKWORK ORANGE .... BERGMAN HAS CRIES WHISPERS ...

Aki said...

The Klopek house in The Burbs, definetly.

Anonymous said...

Amityville house? Hello?

Anonymous said...

The house in the MONEY PIT :)

Anonymous said...

Classic films people, fight club and nightmare on elm street are not classics!

Anonymous said...

The spectacular Frank Lloyd Wright inspired house (actually a matte painting) near Mount Rushmore from "North By Northwest" and the Biltmore Estate from "Being There" (and many other films) come to mind immediately.

Captainzub said...

A few more suggestions:

Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House for obvious reasons.
Ealing comedy classic The Ladykillers (not its appalling remake)in which the "lopsided" house plays a central part.
Spanish comedy La Comunidad in which all the residents of a Madrid apartment block turn on each other.
Oh and I know Polanski's Rosemary and Repulsion have (rightly) been mentioned but how about The Tenant as well.

The Former 786 said...

I still find it amazing that the Psycho house is so simple, and yet it's so memorable. The house becomes a character!

Well done!

http://theformer786.blogspot.com/

Yolanda said...

The house in "House on Haunted Hill" with the legendary Vincent Price.

Anonymous said...

You should have picked Dorothy's farmhouse from "The Wizard of Oz". It not only took her to Oz, it fell on top of the Wicked Witch of the East and killed her.

Anonymous said...

What about the house from The Addams Family?

Anonymous said...

and what about Casa Malaparte in Godard's Le Mepris?

Andrew said...

What about the Maitland's house from Beetlejuice?

movieclassics said...

This is a wonderful posting, RD - has got me thinking about how important the landscapes and houses are in so many classic films. I especially like your perhaps surprising choice of 'Streetcar' - yes, that oppressive little home with the washing hanging around is so important to the atmosphere. Judy

Chris P Campo said...

For an honorable mention I would nominate the frat house in "Animal House." Perhaps not a top 10, but most assuradly a top 25 house.

Mason said...

cool post but your rebecca segment consisted of zero analysis, and instead consisted of just a series of spoilers. cmon now thats just weak.

Anonymous said...

There are many many movies where a house plays a more central role, since you have added movie like beauty and the beast and meet me in St Louise to the list, like Kind Hearts and Coronets, The lady Killers, Life as a house, Cider house Rules, A shot in the dark, Murder by Death etc. But Memorable houses I dont know...you could have have had sunset boulevard, A clockwork orange - has more than one memorable house, LA Confidential, North by Northwest, Sleeper, Ferris Bueller's Day Off, Panic room, Weekend at Bernie's, Blade Runner, The Amityville horror, the silence of the lambs, the exorcist, METROPOLIS and many more ....

John said...

Great post R.D.

The atmosphere created by these larger than life settings make the homes a character in the movie. How different Psycho would be if not for the famed hilltop house that is "burned into your memory" looming over the entire landscape. Polanski’s use of The Dakota Apartment building in Rosemary’s Baby is another example I can think of, as well as each of the ones in your list. I did not know that the mansion used in Rebel without a Cause and Sunset Blvd were one and the same.

R. D. Finch said...

Thanks to everyone who left thoughtful comments and additions. Perhaps I should have clarified that by "classic" I meant approximately pre-1965. "North by Northwest" and "Rear Window" were serious contenders, but I already had two by Hitchcock. "Sunset Blvd" was also an early possibility, but since the same location was used for "Rebel," I decided to go with it instead. I was also drawn to the Bishop's Palace in "Fanny and Alexander" but didn't feel I should include it without the Ekdahls' house and summer home, and it was outside the time period under consideration. I recently saw "The Virgin Spring" and was impressed by the farm in that film.

Mason, your criticism of "Rebecca" (which was indeed the weakest segment) was well-founded and inspired me to think more deeply about the meaning of Manderley. I have gone back and rewritten that part in a burst of perfectionism. Better late than never.

Thanks again to all who took the time to leave a comment.

Sam Juliano said...

Yes indeed John, you took the words out of my mouth. The seetings are characters in and of themselves, and I must say R.D. has truly outdone himself with this utterly extraordinary post, one that I was late getting too, but one I have sat here and truly adored. The stills, the selection, the astute analysis, the concept, the passion are all exemplary. Yes, we all have other titles we can add, but I'd be hard-pressed to comprise a list this appropriate and or outstanding. Your continued creativity here in generating posts with some originality is astounding.

George said...

Interesting post... I can see that you put a lot of hard work on your blog. I'm sure I'd visit here more often. George from romantic films.