Beginning this Friday, Gene Siskel Film Center will screen the new documentary Always at the Carlyle, about the famed New York City hotel. This got us to thinking about the long, rich history of fictional films set in hotels, from Georges Méliès in 1897 to Wes Anderson in 2014. We’ve selected five iconic ones below (and yes, we know, there’s also The Shining).
The Last Laugh
The 1924 film in which F.W. Murnau freed his camera from its stationary tripod and took it on a flight of imagination and expression that changed the way movies were made. Cameras had tracked and panned before, but never to such a deliberate and spectacular degree. Emil Jannings is the hotel doorman whose life is ruined when he is shunted to semiretirement as a lavatory attendant and his beautiful uniform is taken away from him. The film was a great international success and secured a Hollywood contract for its German director—although a president of Universal, according to legend, complained that the story made no sense because everyone knew that washroom attendants made more money than doormen. 87 min. —Dave Kehr
Mr. Hulot’s Holiday
The reedy, pipe-smoking Mr. Hulot spends a week’s vacation at a slightly battered seaside hotel, where he battles inanimate objects and thinks—long and hard—about flirting with a pretty girl. Jacques Tati’s 1953 masterpiece features some of the funniest and loveliest slapstick imaginable, yet it is also a work of impressive formal innovation, casting off the tyranny of a plotline in favor of loosely associated tones, episodes, and images. (Tati would find the visual correlative of this technique in his great 1968 Playtime.) The soundtrack, in which dialogue is subsumed by sound effects, is a masterful piece of musique concrete; Tati rerecorded and embellished it in 1961. In French with subtitles. 86 min. —Dave Kehr
Jerry Lewis’s first feature as director as well as writer, producer, and performer (1960) already signals his distance from Frank Tashlin, his mentor, by concentrating on gags that are funny in the sense of peculiar rather than funny hilarious or satirical. A low-budget black-and-white effort shot in and around Miami Beach’s Fontainebleau Hotel, this resembles Lewis’s later Cracking Up in that it’s much freer of continuous narrative than his other pictures: just one idea after another, each stranger than the last, with the formal properties of the medium (sound, editing, frame lines, offscreen space, mise en scene) frequently highlighted. Milton Berle and Walter Winchell put in cameo appearances, and there’s some especially unwelcome footage from a slapstick hillbilly group shoehorned in as filler; but in general this is Lewis’s purest and most formally inventive feature, and probably his most experimental work. 72 min. —Jonathan Rosenbaum
Jim Jarmusch’s 1989 feature gives us three stories occurring over the same day in a sleazy section of Memphis: a young Japanese couple (Youki Kudoh and Masatoshi Nagase) visit the rock shrines of their demigods; an Italian woman (Nicoletta Braschi) whose husband has just died on their honeymoon shares a hotel room with an American woman (Elizabeth Bracco) who has just left her English boyfriend; and the English boyfriend (Joe Strummer) hangs out with two buddies (Rick Aviles and Steve Buscemi) and shoots a clerk in a liquor store. There’s some thoughtful work in the selective color of Robby Müller’s cinematography that neatly matches the formal play with narrative. The lack of familiarity with Memphis makes too many of the secondary characters and gags seem like New York transplants, but the charm of Kudoh, Nagase, and Braschi helps to compensate for their partially replaying notions about foreigners that we got in Jarmusch’s earlier movies. 110 min. —Jonathan Rosenbaum
Joel and Ethan Coen (Fargo) go to 1941 Hollywood in an oddball 1991 horror comedy about a blocked New York playwright (John Turturro) with a studio contract and the apparently normal insurance salesman (John Goodman) who lives next door. This creepy satire is full of laughs and flaky twists, but by the end you may still be scratching your head. As usual the Coen brothers brandish their adolescent smarminess and comic-book cynicism—in this case trumpeting their apparent superiority to Clifford Odets (Turturro), William Faulkner (John Mahoney), and Jewish studio heads (Michael Lerner) while showing a middling ability to ape the moods and stylistic mannerisms of Roman Polanski, Stanley Kubrick, and David Lynch. Very competently mounted and acted (there are also juicy parts for Judy Davis, Tony Shalhoub, and Jon Polito), this is basically a midnight-movie gross-out in Sunday-afternoon art-house clothing. 117 min. —Jonathan Rosenbaum