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Intimacy And Isolation: The Power Of Elevators On Screen

03/03/2017 12:31 GMT | Updated 03/03/2017 12:31 GMT

The humble elevator has been used to create new levels of intimacy, drama and anticipation in some of Hollywood's most memorable movies. So what is it about elevators that make for such powerful scenes?

Why are elevators such an effective plot device?

An elevator ride is a transition between points A and B (or scene 1 and scene 2) which makes the elevator itself a transitory space. It's this suspension of all other activity and connection with the outside world that, supposedly, affects behaviour when we step inside a lift. In this private, unchanging environment we have freedom to express ourselves and act on deepest impulses within a narrow window of time.

This intimate private-public space can also create uncomfortable interactions. Social etiquette is unclear in this unique situation.The fact we experience profound psychological effects when travelling in elevators goes some way towards explaining their popularity in communicating powerful moments on screen. However, there are much simpler, aesthetic factors which make them such an effective cinematic tool.

Whether it's an antique, manually-operated elevator or a high-tech luxury lift, the engineering and design of this spaces can create dramatic installations. This is evident in the numerous iconic lift scenes in Grand Budapest Hotel, and in Michelle Pfeiffer's unforgettable entrance in Scarface.

Creativity in architecture and appearance means lifts often take centre-stage both on and off screen. As technology in this field continues to advance, so too does the inspiration for movie-makers. The world's fastest elevator could inject any film a shot of adrenaline, while some ranges of ultra-modern luxury lifts are worthy of any Bond villain lair.

The elevator as an intimate space

The romantic potential of the lift space features in countless Hollywood blockbusters, and TV shows alike.

Grey's Anatomy and sister show Private Practice have both used the elevator to reveal and develop romantic relationships between characters, staging important scenes of intimacy and love inside the concealed spaces.

Elsewhere, the elevator is representative of a temporary lapse of inhibitions. In the 2011 season finale of The Good Wife, as Will and Alicia take the ride up to their hotel rooms, the elevator doors slide open and give the audience a snapshot of the couple sharing a passionate embrace.

The elevator as an isolated space

The elevator scene in Lost in Translation articulates Bob Harris's isolation and cultural difference in one wordless moment. Here, the elevator ride is a visual representation of just how out of place this character feels as he goes about his day in a foreign land. For this character, the ride is where the outside world stops and he is able to take stock of his loneliness.

Elevators make a much more volatile appearance during 2010's Inception. Joseph Gordon-Levitt's character spends the film's most climactic moments trapped in an elevator which is riding the force of an lift-well explosion. In a film that takes the audience on a journey through different layers of reality, the use of elevators - which also carry characters, in a sense, through time, by transporting them through their memories - is significant.

And it's important mention the countless thrillers and horror films which have left characters trapped, suspended, and total alone in elevators. The film Devil sees four people trapped in a elevator with the devil - in disguise, while Japanese horror The Eye has been credited with creating one of the scariest elevator scenes of all time.

The elevator as an escape

As much as the lift forces us to focus on the small space within, often, it is the barrier lifts create between this space and the outside world that makes them such an effective device.

In My Favorite Wife, the closing elevator door provides us with one of the greatest moments in slapstick comedy. From within a lift, Cary Grant's character catches a glimpse of a previous wife he had presumed dead. The doors come to a close before can can fully comprehend the sighting, or it''s implications, and Grant falls flat on his face trying to peer through the closing gap.

The sense of suspense we feel as we watch a race to catch a lift door as it closes is much the same as another 'down to the line' trope: running for a train as it departs the station. Whether or not the characters make it in time often determines the shape of the plot, and of the lives of the characters involved. From romantic dashes to catch a moment with a love interest, to running-for-your-life sprints away from the enemy, as seen in The Terminator.

Of course, there are some lift sequences which are as unremarkable as our real life experiences. For the most part, though, they are pretty impressive. When the elevator doors slide shut, we're invited to see the best and the worst in people. Aside from the dated fade outs and wipe transition, the sliding doors are Hollywood's best answer to the closing stage curtain.