Our basic human fear of solitude is a subject matter that has inspired story-tellers for centuries. The transformative effects of a period of isolation have set many a soul on the path to a better understanding of themselves and what is truly important. Here are five of our favourite films on the subject of isolation.
No other film deals with the creeping madness of isolation as brilliantly or as accurately as this classic thriller from the master of suspense, Alfred Hitchcock.
Trapped at home with a broken leg, globe-trotting photographer L.B. Jefferies, played by the brilliant Jimmy Stewart, has nothing to do to while away the hours but to spy on his neighbours from the window of his New York apartment. He peers into their lives like a living soap opera giving the characters nicknames like Miss Lonely-heart and becoming ever more obsessed with their lives. Not even a visit from his beautiful, socialite girlfriend, played by the wonderful Grace Kelly, is enough to distract him. Things take a sinister turn when, one rainy night, Jefferies is awoken by a stifled scream. Later he observes one of this neighbours leaving his apartment with a heavy suitcase, only to repeat this strange errand twice more during the night. The next day Jefferies notices the man’s invalid wife has disappeared from their apartment.
What follows is classic Hitchcock, the director invites us to play along with Jefferies suspicions that a grisly murder has taken place just across the courtyard. He offers us no hard evidence just a series of tantalising possibilities then repeatedly disappoints us with a string of red herrings and dead ends before finally rewarding our dedication with a typically thrilling finale.
Rear Window brilliantly captures how the endless monotony of isolation can cause our minds to wander down dark alleys and even play tricks on us. It doesn’t do to spend too much time observing other people, who knows what you might see….
Wait Until Dark
This is a film that deals with isolation of an altogether different and much more terrifying sort. Audrey Hepburn, in one of her best dramatic roles, plays Suzy, a blind woman who is terrorised in her own home by a criminal gang determined to retrieve from her a doll stuffed with illegal drugs which has accidentally fallen into her possession. The gang ruthlessly play upon Suzy’s vulnerability until she manages to cleverly turn the tables on them by smashing all the lights in the apartment and plunging them into darkness. A state in which Suzy holds the advantage.
The film features one of the most terrifyingly nail-biting climaxes in movie history, one that has been copied so many times in later films that it feels almost clichéd by now but this is the original and still the best. Hepburn’s incredibly authentic portrayal of blindness brings the audience completely into her world allowing us to experience the fear and doubt of real isolation.
Birdman of Alcatraz
John Frankenheimer’s masterful biopic of the famous Birdman of Alcatraz demonstrates the rejuvenative power of nature on the human spirit. Burt Lancaster plays John Stroud, an angry young man convicted of murder, who commits a second murder while in prison, that of a guard. Stroud is initially given the death penalty but his sentence is commuted to life in solitary confinement. To relieve the boredom of isolation Stroud adopts an orphaned sparrow, and so begins his life-long obsession with birds. His cell is transformed into an aviary; a collection of cages within an even larger cage. When his birds fall ill with a mysterious disease, Stroud develops a cure using the most rudimentary scientific equipment, and lovingly nurses them back to health. He becomes an expert on bird diseases and even publishes a book on the subject. Stroud however is forced to give up his birds when he is transferred from Leavenworth prison to Alcatraz. An interesting fact, that the famous Birdman of Alcatraz was never permitted to keep birds while imprisoned on the island. The film is a contemplation on the nature of confinement and isolation from the outside world and both the formidable and precious nature of time.
At the centre of the film is Lancaster’s towering performance as Stroud. He demonstrates with incredibly subtlety the infinite complexity of the human soul by creating a character that seems equally capable of taking a man’s life as caring for the wellbeing of a tiny bird, so small it is dwarfed within the palm of his massive hands.
This modern re-working of the ultimate tale of social isolation, Robinson Crusoe, sees Tom Hanks as a busy executive, obsessed with time who suddenly (through one of the most terrifyingly realistic plane crash sequences ever seen on screen) finds himself cast away on a desert island.
Hanks’ character, Chuck Noland, very quickly learns that he is ill-equipped to cope with life in this strange new environment and he must quickly learn to adapt in order to survive.
Hanks’ only companion on the island, his Man Friday, comes in the form of a volley ball with a face painted on it, in his own blood, who he names Wilson. Their relationship gives the film its emotional depth. Through the brilliance of Hanks performance and some clever editing they take on all the characteristics of an old married couple, constantly bickering but ultimately completely dependent upon one another.
Chuck eventually chooses the very real probability of death over a continued life in isolation. He builds a raft and together with Wilson they escape to sea. One of the most heart rending moments of the film comes when Wilson is lost over board and Chuck is forced to let him drift away or lose his own life.
Like so many tales of isolation our hero learns the true value of time and of companionship by being forced to embrace a crippling abundance of one and a complete absence of the other.
There have been plenty of recent films on the subject of isolation but few can offer the sheer overwhelming optimism of Wall-E. The story of the last remaining relic of the human race left alone on planet earth, Wall-E is a trash collecting robot still diligently going about his duty amidst the rubble of a planet long abandoned by his creators. Despite being a mere machine Wall-E displays some very human characteristics. He passes his time collecting unusual objects, watching old movies and caring for his pet cockroach; but Wall-E is alone. He longs for another creature like himself to share his world.
His solitary existence is transformed when he encounters Eve, an infinitely more advanced robot, sent to Earth to probe for signs that the planet is once more capable of sustaining human life.
Wall-E falls in love with Eve and follows her back to her mothership were we discover what has become of the human race. Seven hundred years from now the last humans are morbidly obese passengers aimlessly floating through space on a sort of interstellar cruise ship where their every need is catered for by machines. Instead of interacting with one another they get all their entertainment and information from a screen just a few inches from their face. Wall-E’s arrival on board the ship causes a mini-revolution in both man and machine that breaks down the barriers of isolation and sets in motion a chain of events that leads the orphaned humans back to their mother earth.
Wall-E is a film with many levels, it plays enjoyably with the story of creation as Eve carries inside her the beginnings of new life on Earth. It also packs a powerful messages about waste and how we as humans treat our home. But at its heart it is a story of two souls who find love in the vast emptiness of space and who are willing to risk everything to hold on to it.
Wall-E is a filmic masterpiece equal to Chaplin’s best work in films like The Kid. It represents the high water-mark of a creative team that also produced films like Toy Story and UP. It is ironic that a story about a cartoon robot should teach us so much about our own human need for companionship and community.