3x3: movies that best establish a sense of place

This week’s 3x3 begins at the 44-minute mark of our Clash of the Titans podcast.

3. Session 9
2. The North Face

  1. Barton Fink

Kelly Wand
3. Alien
2. McCabe and Mrs. Miller

  1. Gummo

3. The Abyss
2. Das Boot

  1. Diner

American Graffiti
The Wizard of Oz

I’ll take this challenge two steps further and name three movies that all do a fantastic job of establishing a sense of the same place.

  1. Adventures in Babysitting - Nice Chicago and shitty Chicago. And bus stations! And Bradley Whitford! With his own real life Camaro. With his own real life douchey license plate, SO COOL. Douche! Not quite as landmark packed as #2 and #1, but let’s be honest here, there’s a scene with a small child dangling off the edge of the Smurfit-Stone building. That’s a hella Chicago building! Also, Thor really does live in Chicago, but he’s not Vincent D’onofrio.*

  2. The Fugitive - When I went to Chicago as a kid, one of the things I most wanted to do was a tour where you went and saw the different places that The Fugitive was filmed. When I want to feel Chicago, I pop in The Fugitive. It helps that it’s also a great flick. It’s got all the best Chicago stuff. Cook County Hospital, the Picasso sculpture, the Hilton Chicago. The Fugitive would probably be my #1, but that dam is in North Carolina! What the hey, guys? Still, does it get any more Chicago than the St Patrick’s Day Parade?** No, it doesn’t! Not unless it’s…

  3. Ferris Bueller’s Day Off - …and he’s disrupting Chicago’s own Von Steuben’s Day Parade. This despite the fact that said parade is in September and FBDO presumably takes place much later in the year, since it’s Ferris’ 9th sick day. Still, we gotta forgive them for that since it features the Sears Tower, the Mercantile Exchange, Wrigley Field and the Art Institute of Chicago. It’s just missing the Shedd Aquarium to be a full-on tour of Chicago. Hughs called it his love letter to the city, and he succeeded.

  • Yes, I know some of it was filmed in Toronto. Movie magic! If that really disqualifies it, replace with The Relic and replace ‘Thor’ with ‘giant drooling monster’ and replace ‘he’s not’ with ‘he is’.

** If they can dye the river green today, why can’t they dye it blue the other 364 days of the year?

Saving Private Ryan
Children of Men.

(yeah, I might elaborate later… I just wanted to put something down before just going ‘me too’ to everybody elses great picks. Without even listening to the podcast - no fear of spoilers this time, though - I totally agree with Alien, Das Boot and deliverance and could have picked those too)

Excellent, Bahim, even if your math skillz suck worse than mine!


Edited. Now no one will ever know what you were talking about! Ha HAH!

That you numbered them 2,2,1?

I tried to think of movies where the place was kind of like another character. Or at least a movie where you couldn’t easily relocate it somewhere else. So here’s my list:

Hanzii scooped me. But this is probably my most obvious pick. How iconic are those snowy northeastern fields and roads and parking lots?

The Straight Story
This is the movie I always think of when I think about middle American countryside. I don’t think you could have this movie anywhere else - you totally get the sense that the place itself has shaped the main character and all the little towns and people he encounters on his trip through it.

Lost in Translation
I’ve never been to Tokyo, but this movie definitely made me feel like I had been there. Even her lonely trip out to a buddist temple contrasted the crazy alien/urban feeling of the downtown area.

  • Nick

Great picks! I even remember a line from The Fugitive about dying the river green for St. Patrick’s Day, which I think is a uniquely Chicago thing?

Tangent: How well do you think High Fidelity evoked Chicago? Because I remember that movie having a great sense of place, which is all the more impressive since the book was set in London. But I’ve never actually been to Chicago, so I’m not sure.

  • Nick
  1. Seven Samurai. East side, West side, all around the town. The old man lives in the old mill; Kikuchiyo clowns around. Everyone harvests together. Horses can’t get over the hills. Kambei plans the defense of some village in Japan.

  2. Children of Men. One of the best effects of Cuaron’s extra-long takes is knowing where everything is. From the floorplan of some country cottage to a number of city blocks around Bexhill’s Piedpont Tower, the audience couldn’t get lost if they tried. (Curse you Hanzii, you stole mine!)

  3. City of God. Rio! The shittiest parts of Rio! If you watch this movie, congratulations, you’re now a citizen. Your life expectancy is short but at least you know the guy who’s going to shoot you.

In no particular order, here goes:

The Taking of Pelham One Two Three. Please note I’m talking about the original as I haven’t seen the remake. I’ve always been intimidated by NYC’s labyrinthine subway system and this movie gets deep into how the system works – not just for the everyday joes on the job but for the criminals who take a train car hostage. It digs a bit into police procedure as well as city-level politics to create a movie that, for my money, is New York more than any other. It is a movie of its location, not just set there.

The Princess Bride. I love that it this film exists in a weird hodge-podge of real locations (Vizzini is mentioned as being Sicilian, Inigo is a Spaniard) and fantastical (the nations of Gilder and Florin, the Cliffs of Insanity, the Fire Swamp). These are all wonderful places to adventure through. I think most people get stuck on the characters on this movie, quite rightly. But though the locations all look like movie sets they all have a sense of place, that they are mapped – that they exist.

Star Wars. Probably stealing one of Christien’s picks here, but the early part of the movie where we see Luke at home with his aunt and uncle longing to make his way in the universe and find adventure, leading up to his looking into a twin sunset – it seemed like someplace we’ve all been, even if it was on a faraway planet.

Hey Xtien! Bone to pick: Local Hero takes place in Scotland.

EDIT: Which means, of course, that it wasn’t that great at establishing a sense of place. ;)

There’s a secret quiz in my picks. See if you can guess what element each of these has in common:

Fellini’s Amarcord. A marvelous, almost plot-free movie about one year in a small coastal Italian town during WWII. Because it’s Fellini, the geography of the place isn’t as important as his own memories of the town (the title means “I remember…”) intermixed with local myths, tall tales, and weird flights of fancy.

Black Narcissus. Maybe Powell & Pressburger’s best movie, although it’s in some rarefied company: what begins as a seemingly innocent story about a convent of nuns nestled way the hell up in the Himalayas shifts, slowly and methodically, into something much darker and weirder. Not just a movie with a breathtaking location, but a movie about how the exotic sensuality of a place can affect those living there, all shot in ridiculously gorgeous Technicolor.

Rear Window. How much can you really do with one location, shot from a fixed vantage point? If you’re Hitchcock, lots. Like many of his great movies, Rear Window gets better every time I watch it, even as it cleverly chastises me for wanting to watch.

Oh, and PS: Kelly Wand totally wins with McCabe & Mrs Miller.

Brokeback Mountain: This was the first thing that popped into my head when I read the thread title. I haven’t watched it since shortly after it came out, but I vividly remember the landscapes, and the final shot in particular.

Amelie: Masterfully evokes a pseudo-Paris. As with Brokeback, I remember Amelie’s apartment, the cafe where she works, the greengrocer’s, and other locations years after having last seen it and probably better than I remember the plot and many of the characters.

Solaris (the Tarkovsky one): The effects certainly don’t hold up, yet it still manages to create a hauntingly weird environment, and the final shot is brilliant in that regard.

Oh good lord. What an idiot I am. I was totally conflating it with that show Ballykissangel.

Thanks for setting me straight, Frank!


“Normal. Extra normal.”

To Dingus’ credit, at least Scotland isn’t a vehicle instead of a place.

Pogue, I just watched the original Taking of Pelham, and I would take issue with that one. It has a solid set-up, but the sense of place mainly comes from dudes in a control room talking. There’s a really cool scene where they police have to quickly run the ransom money across town, and I really liked the scope of that sequence. But otherwise, Taking of Pelham might as well have been a parlor room drama. I guess there’s some good subway platform footage, but there are so many movies about New York that actually get out into New York more.

Excellent call, DJ S.C. Man, on Children of Men (Hanzii doesn’t count, since he just dumped a list and ran). Cuaron really does a fantastic and economic job of creating an alternate reality in that movie. That’s some great sci-fi world building, isn’t it? Just Julianne Moore’s line about “what happened in Los Angeles”, or whatever the line was, says so much.

Madkevin, I want to take your quiz, but I only know Rear Window, and I’ve only seen it once. Do all the movie’s lead characters have broken limbs?


If great sci-fi world building is an acceptable criterion, then I’m going to have to at least mention Blade Runner.

Now that I think of it, though, Children of Men and Blade Runner share certain elements that I think really lend their respective environments a great sense of realism than your average sci-fi flick. Primarily, both take place in grubby, grimy, lived-in locales that have neither the gleaming grandeur of utopia nor the abject squalor of the post-apocalypse. They’re futuristic enough to be new, but with enough well-worn, anachronistic touches to be familiar.

That would have been way funnier, but sadly no. They’re all movies about specific places that are almost entirely shot inside a studio.

Amarcord was shot at Cinecitta like most of Fellini’s movies - actually, a better pick would have been Roma, where he recreates the Coliseum inside Cinecitta even though the real one was basically down the street.

Black Narcissus was (except for a single aerial helicopter shot, I think) entirely at Pinewood Studios in Britain, a fact which is way more impressive if you’ve seen Black Narcissus, because you’d never know it was a studio shoot unless somebody told you.

While I take your point, I think the thing I like about Pelham’s location is how it takes you to a place you wouldn’t normally have access to, kind of in the way political thrillers can take you into those smoky back rooms where all the decisions are made. There are lots of '70s movies that evoked ‘New York’ but I was trying to dodge the usual suspects (Woody Allen, Spike Lee, etc.) in making it a movie about a location.

I can’t really agree with you about how it could have been a parlor room drama. Sure, Walter Matthau and Jerry Seinfeld’s dad spend pretty much the whole movie in that control room, but I don’t think you can drop the whole subway car tension and the mayor’s and policemen’s race to get the money and be left with very much at all. For me at least, it all comes together into a really cool '70s crime stew.

I didn’t literally mean that it could be a parlor room drama. I just meant that most of the movie was rooted to the control room and the subway car. To me, that just can’t compete with stuff like Serpico or French Connection when it comes to 70s crime dramas evoking New York. But it’s your pick and it’s a perfectly cromulent choice!

By the way, I’ve got the Tony Scott remake on the way, and I’ll bet you dollars to donuts he finds some stupid half-assed contrived way to make the settings more dynamic by ranger father and wider across New York. And I bet he fails to evoke any sense of place every bit as much as he did when he shot that terrible time travel thing set in New Orleans.