Posted by Greg Ferrara on July 30, 2014
Movie locations are often as much a character in a movie as the ones the actors are playing. Location scouts and set designers work together to create physical spaces that work for the movie but also work within the movie, creating something that the actors and screenplay alone cannot. Often these are real locations, adapted for use by a movie crew or used as a basis for a more extensive constructed set, and many times the sensation I get from the location is more powerful than anything else in the movie. But locations are areas whereas buildings are physical spaces, inanimate beasts that, in the best of them, can steal a scene from the best actors in the biz.
I thought of this recently while watching a movie I was assigned to write up for TCM. I’ll get to that in a second but it triggered thoughts of some of the great buildings I’ve visited in movies through the years. The house and motel in Psycho are two of the first that come to mind. Constructed on the Universal backlot, both become powerful yet silent characters in the film, looking on as Marion and Argogast meet their end. Hitchcock sometimes used famous monuments (The Statue of Liberty, Mount Rushmore) in his movies but it’s the anonymous ones; the house and motel in Psycho, the windmills in Foreign Correspondent, the mission tower in Vertigo, the diner in The Birds; that have the biggest impact on me. And again, it’s not location, it’s the physical structure. The locations work their own magic with me, including San Francisco and Bodega Bay, in Vertigo and The Birds, respectively, but the buildings do something more. The buildings occupy the space, as do the actors, and act in it in their own way.
For me, it’s always more interesting when the building in question actually exists in the real world. Somehow, it feels more alive because it’s bringing along its own history with it. Xanadu in Citizen Kane or the modern home in Mon Oncle (or the entire constructed city in Playtime) may be quite impressive sets but they’re not real outside of the movie and, for me at least, that makes a big difference. Some real buildings make their way into more than one film and become known more for their movies than anything else. The Griffith Observatory in California is one that has been used on multiple occasions, most famously in Rebel Without a Cause, and is as famous as a “movie star” as it is as a planetarium. Honestly, the scenes inside the planetarium and on the balcony outside of it, are my favorite parts of Rebel Without a Cause.
The Gare d’Orsay, the former railway station in Paris, is another building of many movies, the two most famous being Orson Welles’ The Trial and Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Conformist. In The Trial, Welles had to use the grand space when no studio sets could be secured and he had to rework the whole feel of the movie since he had written with the intent of small, confined spaces. He made it work and that station is as much a character to me in the film as Anthony Perkins’ Joseph K.
Two great uses, for completely different end results, of famous hotels occur in Somewhere in Time and Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. The Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island in Michigan and the Timberline Lodge in Oregon are both used in Somewhere in Time and The Shining, respectively, to great effect. At least the outsides are. The interior shots for The Shining, for instance, were shot on sets but those sweeping outdoor shots of the hotel work magic. They immediately transform the Overlook Hotel of the film into an isolated, foreboding place. In Somewhere in Time, the exterior shots do the opposite: they establish the Grand Hotel as both out of time and inviting in any time all at once.
But for me, the two greatest uses of an established building to create a sense of character come from two very different sources. One from a novice who never made another movie and one from one of the confirmed masters of the cinema. The first is the Saltair Pavillion used in Herk Harvey’s one and only movie, Carnival of Souls, in 1962. The Saltair Pavillion was in its second incarnation, and abandoned, when Herk Harvey drove past in Salt Lake City, Utah and developed in immediate fascination for it. He filmed Carnival of Souls in three weeks and the Pavillion, spied in the distance as Candace Hilligoss drives into town, makes its presence known throughout. It’s the most important character in the movie as far as I’m concerned because it inhabits the soul of the lead character played by Hilligoss and draws her in to the revelation of her ultimate fate. It’s also very isolated and there’s something about an old, isolated building that sets a mood faster than anything else in the filmmaker’s arsenal. With the waters around it receded, it feels out of place and no longer needed. That it remains seems an unwillingness to leave, to accept its fate. This ties in beautifully with the lead character who, though she doesn’t realize it, is in the same position. The second movie uses an established structure for much the same character revelations. though in a different way. It’s the movie that got me thinking about all of this in the first place. It’s The Music Room, directed by the great Satyajit Ray and released in 1958.
If you’ve never seen The Music Room, I highly recommend it. Starring Chhabi Biswas as Biswambhar Roy, a once wealthy and powerful zamindar who now resides nominally at his palace but in reality, he lives in his music room’s past. For the now decaying palace, Ray scouted a decaying palace known as the Nimtita Rajbari. It had been the residence of Roy Chowdhurys, the actual zamindar who had been the inspiration for the short story upon which Ray based his film. Much like the Saltair, the Nimtita Rajbari is surrounded by the beaches exposed by receded waters. It feels isolated and dying, a last repository of Biswambhar Roy’s most cherished memories. And like the Saltair, it becomes a character in the movie and a very important one. The Music Room’s opening scenes, as I ended up writing in that piece for TCM, are as effective as the opening scenes of Citizen Kane and Sunset Boulevard for relaying to the viewer the feeling of something formerly grand, now desolate. Biswas’ performance works hand in hand with the “performance” of the palace and its surroundings, forming a bond between the two characters that is just as powerful and important as the bonds between Roy and his wife and child, as seen in flashback. The Music Room is a great movie and a great use of a real life structure given new meaning in art.
Satyajit Ray, Herk Harvey, Orson Welles, and others have made once proud buildings shine again as major characters in their works. Of course, art directors and set dressers still have to come in and make those buildings work for the movie they’re in and, no doubt, a good artistic team can create anything on the set or in a computer for use in a movie. But it’s nice to know that occasionally filmmakers use a building that’s already there, waiting for its moment to shine. Sometimes, there’s no substitute for the real thing.
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