This week, two of the most prestigious cultural institutions in the world celebrate anniversaries — the Smithsonian and the Louvre (168 and 221 years respectively). The cultural impact each museum has had on our society is astounding — making them rich locations for filmmakers throughout history. We explored ten scenes in cinema set inside (and around) museums that make use of the cultural and historical sites as beautiful backdrops, but also a metaphorical crossroads of human connection.
Blackmail, Alfred Hitchcock
The climactic chase in Hitchcock’s 1929 thriller Blackmail takes place in the shadowy halls of London’s British Museum. An accused murderer flees from detectives hot on his trail. Ancient monuments are silent witnesses to the scene unfolding. Peeping Tom director Michael Powell worked on set with Hitch taking still photographs. The English filmmaker took credit for the location shoot in his autobiography, A Life in Movies:
I had been thinking of my visits to the British Museum Reading Room to see my grandfather, and the impression that had been made upon me by his bent figure, at his desk, dwarfed by the height of the shelves and topped by the glass dome over the whole vast room, and I went on: “Let’s have him slip into the British Museum at night, and get chased through rooms full of Egyptian mummies and Elgin Marbles, and climb higher to escape, and be cornered and then fall through the glass dome of the Reading Room and break his neck.” . . . So I think I can make a modest claim to being the inventor of the Hitchcock Climax, unveiled to the world through the chase in Blackmail, and which led us all on many a delightful dance from Tower Bridge to Mount Rushmore, from the Statue of Liberty to you name it.
Website IMDb reveals how the scene was captured on film in the low-light environment:
The light levels in the British Museum were insufficient to allow Hitchcock to film the final chase scene in the museum. Without informing the producer, Alfred Hitchcock used the Schufftan process (developed by German cinematographer Eugen Schüfftan). This involved taking still photos of the interior of the museum, then reflecting the photos in a mirror with certain parts of the silvering of the mirror scraped away to allow people (entering a door, for example) to be filmed through the mirror so that they appeared to be present in the museum (in later years, American development of traveling matte and other process photography methods largely replaced the Shufftan process).
House of Wax, André De Toth
The climactic reveal in André de Toth’s eerie tale, 1953’s House of Wax, is a recipe for terror. Uncanny wax figures, a ghoulish Vincent Price, and a hint of body horror had audiences jumping out of their seats.
Manhattan, Woody Allen
One of New York’s cultural landmarks, the Museum of Modern Art, is the site of a hilarious conversation about contemporary art between Woody Allen’s Isaac and Diane Keaton’s Mary. Later, Isaac and Mary visit the Whitney (pictured). It’s arguably the best the museum has ever looked photographed on film — in black and white, even.
Museum Hours, Jem Cohen
Jem Cohen’s gorgeously captured Museum Hours is set in Vienna’s Kunsthistorisches Museum, where a guard befriends a weary visitor. Slant’s Jesse Cataldo expounds on the museum as a site of empathy:
Set in a few different corners of that same museum, Jem Cohen’s masterful Museum Hours espouses an alternate but related viewpoint. Artistic examination still can’t replace human connection, but even as a substitution it has its uses, connecting the viewer to vanished worlds which they can only begin to understand, a state that parallels our inherently incomplete engagement with our own world. This is a film that pushes beyond absolutes of past and present, understanding human lives as a composite of both states, full of buildings, objects, and people which, even when they seem familiar, contain so much more than we could ever understand.
Russian Ark, Aleksandr Sokurov
Shot in a single 96-minute take, a Steadicam glides through the gilded halls of the Winter Palace of the Russian State Hermitage Museum in Alexander Sokurov’s Russian Ark. We travel back in time 300 years, guided by an unnamed narrator, in a transcendent history lesson populated with fascinating figures.
Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, John Hughes
Some of the most famous artworks in the world are featured in John Hughes’ Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (including Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks and A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte by Georges Seurat). Three high school friends take the day off and explore the sights of downtown Chicago. They wind up at the Art Institute for a carefree tour of the museum. Hughes once commented on the scene, calling it:
A self-indulgent scene of mine — which was a place of refuge for me, I went there quite a bit, I loved it. I knew all the paintings, the building. This was a chance for me to go back into this building and show the paintings that were my favorite.
Dressed to Kill, Brian De Palma
Erotic tension mounts between two strangers during a silent sequence in Brian De Palma’s Dressed to Kill. The director’s dizzying camera chases the couple during a flirtatious game of cat and mouse. Although the exterior scenes were shot in New York City, the interior of the museum is actually the Philadelphia Museum of Art (look for the griffin symbol).
Batman, Tim Burton
Tim Burton’s carnivalesque eye, Jack Nicholson’s delightfully hammy villain, and the sounds of Prince cannot be ignored in this scene at the fictional Gotham Museum of Art, where Kim Basinger’s Vicki Vale is the target of a trap.
Bande à part, Jean-Luc Godard
This celebrated scene in Godard’s Bande à part is one of the film’s most memorable set pieces — endlessly charming. Critic Bryant Frazer writes:
This may be the most famous scene in Band of Outsiders — indeed, it’s one of the most remarked-upon in Godard’s entire oeuvre — because their unconventional approach suggests a prankishness and youthful joie de vivre. Yet there are two levels to the joke about their gleeful irreverence: Franz proposes the adventure only because he had read about an American (of course) who made it through in under ten minutes, which must be Godard’s jab at Americans’ behaviour abroad. And then, even as the trio sprints through the museum, we can clearly see them shooting glances at the paintings, taking in the statuary racing by, as if mere seconds might be all that are required to digest those great works of art. Their accomplishment — reducing culture to the basest form of consumerism — is dubious at best and myopic at worst. It’s their unthinking hubris that leads to the picture’s conclusion.
The Stendhal Syndrome, Dario Argento
No snark about it, Stendhal syndrome is a real psychosomatic disorder that causes a person to essentially lose control of themselves while viewing art. They can hallucinate, faint, or worse. Italian director Dario Argento had a personal experience with Stendhal syndrome during a tour of Athens on the steps of the Parthenon. This childhood episode became the basis for his 1996 film, starring his daughter, the director Asia Argento, as a detective hunting a serial killer. Despite being one of Argento’s lesser works, his stylized cinematography is intriguing and haunting.