A cinema of space oddities

Great movies don't need to span the globe. Kaleem Aftab looks at how films from Rear Window to the new Sundance hit Buried have taken inspiration from the limitations of one location
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The Independent Culture

Remarkably, a coffin is the only location in Buried. Ryan Reynolds plays a contractor in Iraq who has been kidnapped and buried alive with only a cell phone at his side, which he uses to communicate with the outside world as he tries to raise a $5m ransom before he dies underground. Rodrigo Cortes' Sundance hit is the ultimate one-location movie: a box big enough to hold one man is where all the action takes place.

The one-location drama is usually seen as the preserve of theatre. The advantage that cinema has over the stage is that the action can be cut: scenes and adventures can take place in numerous locations, just like in real life, without the need for cumbersome scene changes. It's often thought that movie directors use single locations because of budgetary constraints. One thing that handbooks for low-budget film-makers always agree on is the need to keep locations to a minimum, as it reduces costs and makes it easier for the director to control the set.

Yet there are many other reasons to make one-location films: it encourages strong characterisation; an extra emphasis is placed on the acting; the plot needs to be well paced to hold interest; and the action usually takes place over a short amount of time for the film to feel realistic. These reasons are partly why Alfred Hitchcock made four such films, Rear Window, Lifeboat, Rope and Dial M for Murder.

Movies thought of as one-location films will predominantly take place in that location, establishing shots or brief introductions not withstanding. For example, Clerks, which takes place in a convenience store, can be considered a one-location film even though a couple of incidental scenes take place away from the shop. In contrast, Reservoir Dogs is excluded from the genre because Quentin Tarantino built in flashbacks that show scenes outside of the warehouse meeting point. Dog Day Afternoon's airport-set finale makes it another borderline case, but usually the single location will have to be an indoor one to be considered.

What's noticeable when looking at these films is that certain locations, such as a courthouse or haunted house, are frequently used.

'Buried' opens on 1 October