Art and Film: Claustrophobia

James Stewart in Rear Window (1954). Courtesy of Alfred J. Hitchcock Productions.

Contributed by Jonathan Stevenson / People in lockdown on account of a pervasive but invisible biological enemy might be perversely drawn to movies broadly about pandemics, like Steven Soderbergh’s coolly wise Contagion (2011), Alfonso Cuarón’s elegantly melancholy Children of Men (2006), or the rather silly but occasionally unnerving Outbreak (1995). Some could also resort to the few biological-invasion entries in the Cold War paranoia genre, such as The Omega Man (1971), The Andromeda Strain (1969), and all three worthy versions of Invasion of the Body Snatchers (Don Siegel, 1956; Philip Kaufman, 1978; Abel Ferrara, 1993). Perhaps the most immediately resonant movies, though, are those about physical confinement, due not only to their obvious circumstantial relevance but also to their depiction of the focus and determination that small spaces can evoke.

Still from Contagion (2011). Courtesy of Warner Bros.
Still from Outbreak (1995). Courtesy of Warner Bros.

Hitchcock’s jauntily macabre Rear Window (1954), in which James Stewart’s convalescing photographer snoops on his neighbors from his courtyard apartment in Greenwich Village and figures out one of them has killed his wife, has to chime with countless bored New Yorkers yearning for constructive intrigue while housebound. Atmospherically darker are films depicting agoraphobics fettered by their own neuroses. If Roman Polanski’s Repulsion (1965) is the extreme case, presenting Catherine Deneuve as a sexually troubled manicurist, Alastair Banks Griffin’s 2019 film The Wolf Hour is a more relatable one, featuring a blocked, traumatized writer (a fine Naomi Watts) challenged by the 1977 Summer of Sam blackout to maintain her isolation in a squalid Bronx apartment.

Then there is a still bleaker subset of movies about hellish imprisonment and sociopathic abuse. If one obvious standard-bearer is Rob Reiner’s black comedy Misery (1990), from Stephen King’s book, Dutch director George Sluizer’s cult movie The Vanishing (1988) may represent the thoroughly unfunny extreme. Nearby on that spectrum is Lenny Abrahamson’s Room (2015), for which Brie Larson won an Oscar: a man locks a woman in a shed for years, repeatedly raping and eventually impregnating her, yet her psychological perseverance on behalf of her son is improbably inspiring. So too are the intrepid rockers (endearingly played by Imogen Poots and the late Anton Yelchin) who escape the clutches of neo-Nazis led by a creep courtesy of a winking Patrick Stewart in Jeremy Saulnier’s Green Room (2015), a scabrous ode to grunge. More straightforwardly, David Fincher’s Panic Room (2002), in which home-invaders descend on a mother and daughter (Jodie Foster and a young Kristen Stewart), offers existential and political insight as well as triumph over adversity.

Catherine Deneuve in Repulsion (1965). Courtesy of Compton Films.
Still from Alien (1979). Courtesy of Brandywine Productions.

Melding claustrophobia with alien attack is Ridley Scott’s original Alien (1979), while a number of other space movies – in particular, Duncan Jones’s soulful Moon (2009) and Claire Denis’ sardonic High Life (2018) – provide more subtle contemplations about the agony of solitude and abandonment. The audaciously twisty 10 Cloverfield Lane (2016) features an arch John Goodman as a slippery predator who, proving that bad guys aren’t always entirely bad, coercively protects his captive – portrayed by Mary Elizabeth Winstead, the thinking man’s scream-queen – from nastiness outside.

Cramped spaces arise in many fine war movies, including Henry King’s Twelve O’clock High (1949) on air combat, Wolfgang Petersen’s Das Boot (1980) on submarines, and David Ayer’s Fury (2014) on tanks. And of course Kathryn Bigelow tackled the psychic insularity of combat – for some unbearable, others seductive – in The Hurt Locker (2008). But captivity and escape may constitute the most relevant theme, on which the definitive World War II flick is John Sturges’ The Great Escape (1963). It involves the mass flight of allied soldiers from a German prisoner-of-war camp through tunnels they have arduously dug. Charles Bronson’s Lieutenant Danny Valinski – “The Tunnel King” – is literally claustrophobic, and digs obsessively in defiance of his fear. But the most reassuring character in the film is the irreverent Virgil Hilts – “The Cooler King” – an American officer and motorcycle buff played by the aggressively laconic Steve McQueen in a cut-off sweatshirt. He keeps trying to escape over the wire and is invariably caught and returned to solitary, where he methodically throws a baseball against the wall, driving his Nazi guards to distraction with the monotonous sound. After the titular escape, he is captured again and told that fifty others were summarily executed. As he walks steely-eyed back to solitary, a comrade tosses him his ball and glove. He catches it without breaking stride, re-enters his cell, sits down, and resumes his metronomic torment of the guards.

Still from Moon (2009). Courtesy of Sony Pictures.

There the movie ends. Cooler than cool, Hilts represented the quintessential citizen soldier, from a time – in the postwar afterglow, before Vietnam blew up – when the American myth was still fresh and fairly intact. Americans didn’t have to strut in order to walk tall; they just had to be what they were and do what they did. Given the bearing and performance of our present national leadership, though, the more cogent film may be John Huston’s Key Largo (1948). In a vicious turn, Edward G. Robinson is Johnny Rocco, a murderous big-time mobster returning from exile. A hurricane has trapped him and his entourage in a hotel on the eponymous island. Accustomed to having his way through intimidation, he now cowers before a force of nature. Humphrey Bogart’s war veteran Frank McCloud, one of Rocco’s captives, having wished aloud that the toil of war had forged “a world in which there’s no place for Johnny Rocco,” sees him sweat. With a sarcastic sneer he says, “You don’t like it, do you Rocco, the storm? Show it your gun, why don’t you? If it doesn’t stop, shoot it.”

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