Blog: Self Contained Films

Making a film set almost entirely in one location is one of the great challenges for directors. It’s a rare occurrence, but there are some great self contained films that manage to pack in all the suspense, drama or comedy of bigger films. Here are some of my faves.

Alfred Hitchcock was a pioneer of the self contained movie, with the entirety of Dial M for Murder and Rope taking place within a small apartment. Dial M opens with a wealthy tennis player murdering his wife, then shows the investigation into the death and how he tries to cover his tracks. I never did trust tennis players.

But he outdid himself with Rope, which again opens with a murder, as two wealthy young men dispense with their friend before having his friends and family round for the evening. Both manage to pack tension and intrigue aplenty into the limited amount of physical space, with Rope adding the challenge of very few camera cuts, allowing Hitchcock a mighty flex of his film making muscles as he makes a suspense thriller without the two crucial tools of camera trickery and music.

12 Angry Men deals with a murder too, but rather than the immediate aftermath it follows a jury arguing over the guilt of a suspect. A lot of heated energy is packed into the cramped room as the jurors squabble over a man’s life. Courtroom dramas often pack a lot in to a small space, but 12 Angry Men takes this a step further, and limits it to the single process of a jury’s deliberation. We are left to work out the details of the crime from the evidence discussed, and purely from the dialogue we get a growing picture of the crime in question, and form our own opinions as to the guilt of the defendant. This is a concentrated courtroom drama, distilled to a single meeting in a single location, and it shows that you don’t need impassioned pleas, aggressive questioning or last minute submissions of revelatory evidence to create a gripping court-based tale.

The court is an ideal setting for self contained drama due to the inherently tense process of deciding the guilt of a person, but another setting that offers the whole spectrum of human emotion is, surprisingly, a salesman’s office. In Glengarry Glen Ross tempers are frayed, laughs are had, deals are made, plots are planned, there’s shouting, crying, personal attacks and police investigations, all over a two day period in a real estate office where the staff are told to sell or lose their jobs. It benefits from its stellar cast, from Alec Baldwin’s aggressive central office rep to Kevin Spacey’s spineless office manager and tops it off some good old fashioned Al Pacino shouting. Jack Lemmon also features, who was in another self contained film: cohabitation comedy The Odd Couple.

Aside from a brief few seconds in Glengarry and 12 Angry Men, all the films so far have been indoors, filmed on a single set, but there are two films I want to mention with a far less theatrical feel. The first is Dog Day Afternoon.

Almost all of the film takes place in or immediately outside a New York bank that hapless criminals Sonny (Al Pacino) and Sal (John Cazale) hold up, while the police, the media and a swarm of spectators look on. With a larger scale than the other films on the list, Dog Day uses the pressure cooker of a hostage situation to examine wider social problems about police brutality, the treatment of Vietnam veterans and LGBT rights that were hot issues at the time. This is the second film here to include Al Pacino and also the second to be directed by Sidney Lumet (the other being 12 Angry Men). Are they some kind of self contained experts?

But in terms of limited space, it’s hard to get more constrained than a phone booth. The most recent film here, Phone Booth uses a hostage situation, but one where all is not as it seems, as Stu (Colin Farrell) is held hostage by a sniper, while the surrounding police and media believe he is responsible for a killing. This is the only film mentioned here to be set entirely outside, and was shot over a miniscule 10 day period. Joel Schumacher packs in enough drama to rival the master of suspense himself in a film which takes its proud place in the pantheon of self contained cinema.

What are your favourite self contained films? Comment below.

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