Top 6: Movies With a Strong Sense of Place

Posted in Top 6 at 4:59 am by Sam

For Episode 36, our Top 6 segment is about movies with a strong sense of place. As often happens, we each interpreted the topic a little differently. Stephen took a broader view, selecting films that are evocative of larger areas and times — Los Angeles in the 1980s, for example — while Sam thought more in terms of individual sets that create a specific mood. Either way, the point is that the setting of the story must be so compelling and crucial to the film that the story could not be transplanted anywhere else without fundamentally changing its feel. In such cases, sometimes it is said that the setting, whatever it is, is a character in the story.

Do you have favorite movies that are inextricably tied to their settings? Let us know!

As always, we recommend listening to the episode before reading further.

  1. The Third Man (1949)
  2. Open City (1945)
  3. Lawrence of Arabia (1962)
  4. Ikiru (1952)
  5. Network (1976)
  6. Short Cuts (1993)
  1. One, Two, Three (1961)
  2. The Battle of Algiers (1966)
  3. Fargo (1996)
  4. Mimic (1997)
  5. A Fistful of Dollars (1964)
  6. Sleuth (1972)


  1. Ferrick (140) said,

    June 5, 2007 at 1:57 pm

    It is driving me crazy deciding whether or not this topic is easy to pick or hard. I can think of lots of movies where the location/setting is a character in the film but then I have to think about whether or not the setting can be moved elsewhere without affecting the story.

    I was thinking about The Birds. There are small, coastal towns all over the place in California so you could obviously move the setting but it would still be the same. But you could also move it to another small, semi-isolated town in mountains and do the same story, for the most part.

    But, ultimately, having a small seaside town near San Francisco is important not only for the location but for the types of birds they can have. So, the setting seems to have a strong sense of place.

  2. joem18b (231) said,

    June 5, 2007 at 2:10 pm

    Yes, at first the topic seemed impossible because after all, every movie happens somewhere, so…

    (btw, did The Birds have seagulls?)

    Then I switched over to movies with exotic locations, so my list reflects that. Had to replace Lawrence of Arabia with a different desert movie. And I disallowed films with bogus locations (e.g., Fistfull of Dollars/Spain, Hill Have Eye/Morocco, Beowolf and Grendel/Iceland).

    1. Saltmen of Tibet

    2. Flight of the Phoenix

    3. Aquirre, Wrath of God

    4. Yor

    5. The Fast Runner

    6. The Naked Prey

  3. Ferrick (140) said,

    June 5, 2007 at 2:24 pm

    Why is Fistful of Dollars a bogus location? It was filmed in Spain and Italy but isn’t the setting the American Southwest? It definitely was in the third movie.

    If you require the setting to be the actual setting, that rules out plenty of movies. Alien is one of my picks for setting with a strong sense of place. They obviously filmed on a set.

  4. Ferrick (140) said,

    June 5, 2007 at 2:43 pm

    A short list of movies that I have decided have a setting that is essential to the film and could not be changed without greatly affecting the story:

    Alien: The monstrous spaceship in the middle of space with only a quick trip to the surface of a planet

    Chinatown and L.A. Confidential: The story and characters could only exist in Los Angeles.

    The Shining: The massive hotel, completely isolated because of location and weather. And the spookiness.

    Die Hard: I guess this could be in another high rise building so this is debatable but I love the Nakatomi, still under construction. And having it in L.A. allowed the building to be fairly isolated and not surrounded by hundreds of other buildings in the flat wasteland of the city.

    Swingers: L.A. nightlife among the struggling actors and other hacks. Oh, and Las Vegas.

    Ocean’s 11: Where else but Vegas?

    El Mariachi/Desperado: I guess this could be in any little town in Mexico but it has to be that little town in Mexico.

    Dog Day Afternoon: Like many movies in the ’70s, set in the hot, desperate, bleak summer of New York City. NYC is a character that you can’t take lightly if it is your film’s setting.

    Do the Right Thing: Hot. Desperate. Bleak. NYC.

  5. joem18b (231) said,

    June 5, 2007 at 5:01 pm

    My first thoughts were about movies set in specific locations, but whenever the cowboys gallop around in the Leone movies, I can’t help thinking “Spain.” So instead I was going more Monument Valley and John Ford-type locations for westerns.

    But moving on, other topics like those already listed (cities, subways, hotels, tall buildings, banks, space):

    1. Endless Summer - Surf

    2. Das Boot - Small places (Panic Room, Tape, The Descent)

    3. Big Night - Restaurants

    4. The Devil’s Miner - Mines

    5. Night at the Museum - Museums

    6. Fantastic Voyage - The human body

  6. Jaguar (22) said,

    June 5, 2007 at 5:03 pm

    I only thought of a few:

    Eight Below, with it’s frigid antarctic landscapes.

    Die Hard: Nakatomi tower. The characters are trapped there, and we follow John McClane through every nook and cranny in the building… even the air ducts! I love it.

    The Abyss: the undersea station. In this movie, you become intimately familiar with the facility, the moon pool, the hatches, the doors… similar to the Nakatomi building in Die Hard, the characters are trapped there, evoking a feeling of claustrophobia, and intensifying the thrill, suspense, and emotion.

    I also thought of Alien for similar reasons, but it’s been a long time since I saw it, so I don’t remember it that well.

    I’d like to pick a movie with a mountain setting, but I can’t pick one I’m really satisfied with… The Last Samari: Mountains of Japan. Good movie, but I don’t feel the sense of place as well as say: The Third Man on the Mountain… not nearly as good of a movie, but the sense of place (the Swiss(?) Alps) is much stronger.

  7. joem18b (231) said,

    June 5, 2007 at 6:23 pm

    I heard someone say recently in an interview that he was driving through Spain and came upon the Fistfull of Dollars town movie set. If I’m remembering correctly, he said that it was so well built that it’s still just standing there, abandoned.

  8. Sam (405) said,

    June 6, 2007 at 10:03 am

    I think some of you are thinking this through more critically than we did. “Bogus location” is fine, so long as the location is still a palpable part of the movie’s impact. And I’d have been fine, too, with a movie that just has to take place in a coastal California town (or a Mexican city, or an English manor) but not necessarily any *specific* coastal California town (or Mexican city, or English manor). Of course, so much the better if a movie really is tied to one specific one. But my point about transplanting is more along the lines of, you can’t transplant this story from a coastal California town to Amsterdam, or the Moon, or the Chunnel. And even then, maybe you *can* transplant the story, just not without severely changing its impact.

    A Fistful of Dollars is exactly what I’m talking about. Not only *can* the story be transplanted, it has been, and that wasn’t even the story’s original setting. The novel Red Harvest was about gangsters. Yojimbo was about samurai in Japan. A Fistful of Dollars was a dystopian western. The Warrior and the Sorceress (horrendously bad, by the way) was a medieval fantasy. Last Man Standing brings the story back to the world of gangsters.

    The story works in all of these (except The Warrior…, where the setting wasn’t the problem), but the difference in their impact is so great that you might not necessary even recognize that they’re all based on the same novel. In particular, I thought the effect of A Fistful of Dollars on the viewer was inextricably tied to the American West, and not even the more traditional American West we see in actual American westerns, but the more closed, more uncivilized, more inescapable version of Leone’s.

  9. Jeffrey (84) said,

    June 6, 2007 at 10:37 am

    ChungKing Express - Hong Kong
    Doctor Zhivago - Russia
    Gone with the Wind - the Deep South
    La Haine and Amelie - Paris
    Manhattan (and most Woody Allen movies) and Taxi Driver - New York
    City of God - Rio de Janeiro
    Trainspotting - Edinburgh

    Do places in fantasy/sci-fi films count? eg Lord of the Rings and the Wizard of Oz

  10. joem18b (231) said,

    June 6, 2007 at 11:15 am

    Red Harvest took place in Personville.

  11. Ferrick (140) said,

    June 6, 2007 at 11:36 am

    Sam, I think all movies should be remade and set in the Chunnel. Especially Pulp Fiction and Citizen Kane.

  12. Ferrick (140) said,

    June 6, 2007 at 11:46 am

    Yes, after thinking “less” about it, I came to more of your understanding of the theme. With a movie like Primer, the setting can be moved because it isn’t really a character in the film. The setting is pretty generic. But something like Gosford Park wouldn’t work in an apartment building in Indianapolis.

  13. siochembio (82) said,

    June 7, 2007 at 8:30 am

    I wonder, do y’all think “Gone With the Wind” works for this? To my mind, this is a pretty obvious one where location and time is SO important, especially because it influences the main character so much. It was the first film that lept to my mind.

  14. LaZorra (60) said,

    June 9, 2007 at 6:24 pm

    Gone With the Wind came to my mind, also, although I suppose it might be possible to transplant the story to another war-torn time and place. I don’t really see how, but you never know . . .

    The Sound of Music was another that I thought of. Like Gone With the Wind (ignoring the biographical side of SoM), you could probably transfer the basic story to any war-torn area (or even New York, as the TV show The Nanny was loosely based on it), but Austria comes through so strongly that it influences the characters more than anything else does. All you have to do to see this is watch the performance of “Edelweiss.” That is one of the few movie moments that has nearly brought me to tears, and does every time I see it.

    I’d argue that LoTR could actually be transplanted to a different setting without much hassle as long as you keep the characters the same. You do have certain landmarks (like Moria), but the story itself is much more character-driven than setting-driven. For all Tolkien’s love of description, the settings are usually pretty generic. Forest. Mountains. Lair of evil. More forest. Bogs. (Someone’s bound to disagree with me on this, I’m sure.)

    So my list goes thusly:

    1. Sound of Music — Occupied Austria
    2. Pirates of the Caribbean — the title says it all, really.
    3. Roman Holiday — Sure, this could ostensibly be set in any gorgeous city, but it simply would not be as charming if it were not set in Rome.
    4. Back to the Future II — I’m a bit fuzzy because it has been YEARS since I’ve seen this. IIRC, it simply would not work outside of its dystopian, violent, grungy, futuristic setting.
    5. Hidalgo — Another desert movie! I’m having a difficult time imagining it set elsewhere than the sands of Arabia.
    6. Shanghai Nights — the entire comedic value of this movie consists of Jackie Chan’s stunts and the American misfit characters in Britain. I suppose you could adapt it to a number of locations, but if you want to do that, then make your own darn list. ;-)

  15. LaZorra (60) said,

    June 9, 2007 at 6:24 pm

    Gee willikers, I write long comments.

  16. siochembio (82) said,

    June 11, 2007 at 12:15 pm

    Interesting, LaZorra! I think you make an interesting point about the generic-ness of Tolkien’s settings. I like your descriptions of them!

    I must disagree with Roman Holiday, however, because, in my mind, they DID take the story and set it somewhere else, yet it remained relatively similar: It Happened One Night. Heiress/princess escapes binds of life. Advantageous reporter to the rescue. Hilarity (and charm, and romance) ensues.

  17. Sam (405) said,

    June 11, 2007 at 2:20 pm

    Wow, that’s a really interesting comparison. I never really thought about Roman Holiday and It Happened One Night as having the same sort of story. You’re right, they do.

    But I’m going to have to side with LaZorra on this one. Despite having similar stories, the two movies feel absolutely totally different to me. It Happened One Night is laden with Americana, not just with its environment but the attitudes and supporting characters and comic style. With Roman Holiday, on the other hand, the weight of the ancient institution of royalty and European history is remarkably tangible. Roman Holiday’s most powerful scene, the final one, would never work in It Happened One Night, where you’d just never buy the importance of maintaining the decorum of social tradition.

  18. Jen (2) said,

    June 30, 2007 at 2:01 am

    I think you guys had good lists. The only one i could realy think to add is Taxi Driver. I don’t you could have moved that anywhere else. it needed to be in sleazy, disgusting, crime ridden 70’s New York. The city realy was another character.

  19. Stephen (221) said,

    June 30, 2007 at 1:42 pm

    That’s a wonderful pick. My favorite thing about Taxi Driver is that environment.

  20. pschles08 (1) said,

    February 7, 2008 at 11:12 pm

    Some others I was thinking of were:

    Dogville: (more metaphorical, but the town becomes a virtual character)
    The Village: (small insular community main focus)
    Paris Je T’aime: Many different views of Parisian neighborhoods
    L’Auberge espagnole: Barcelona
    Stepford Wives: The Utopian community
    Crash: Intersecting lives in Los Angeles

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