The dream is always of escape to an island paradise. From a lush tropical setting with sandy beaches shaded by drooping palms to stark, windswept rocks and a stonewalled cottage with a roaring fire, our fantasies are always the same: seclusion, peace, a chance to think, a chance to work away from disturbance and the polluted, commuted grind of city life.
The same dream holds for writers and artists, for adventurers and cynics, just as it does for villains and mad professors. Yet the reality – at least in the movies – usually turns out rather differently. Those dreams of an island paradise, of tropical laziness or cool Scandi seclusion, soon become nightmares of alienation, while those plans of world domination always end in the mass murder of henchmen and the inevitable welter of explosions. And so the island becomes a vessel for the impending catastrophe or the revelation of something truly terrible.
There is, of course, no single island dwelling – but there is a taxonomy of types. Maybe the one that pops into the mind first is the villain’s lair. The Bond franchise has made an enjoyable cliché of this. It is there in the Thunderbirds TV series too, arguably done even better, but it is Bond that became the archetype and the best example is in Dr No (1962).
The Caribbean locals, we learn, are fearful of Crab Key. Here is an island with every manifestation of 1960s paranoia. There is radioactivity, a fire-breathing dragon tank, a nuclear reactor and a powerful beam to knock out space rockets and missiles. Of course, there is also an indispensable control room. But best of all is Dr No’s subterranean home, which is an extraordinary mash-up of ski lodge, tropical hotel, Portobello Road and swinging London nightclub. It has an aquarium set into the wall, a sunken conversation pit, an open fireplace with huge hood like something from an Alpine resort (this is Jamaica, remember).
There is antique furniture, candlesticks and paintings. There are bearskin rugs, natural rock and a gnarled tree. Dr No’s lair is the work of the brilliant, German-born production designer Ken Adam and it bears the traces of a glamorous post-expressionism. You get the impression that Adam’s tongue is firmly planted in his cheek. Perhaps that’s why the villain’s lair in Skyfall (2012), an abandoned industrial complex, seems more genuinely dark. Its desolation echoes the contemporary trend for the re-inhabitation of industrial dereliction.
Here, what looks like an island fortress turns out to be an abandoned industrial complex. It has shades of Chernobyl or Alcatraz, but it also displays a new face of architectural fear and paranoia. For the 1960s villain it needed to be Tropical Modern; for our age, it’s more Tate Modern.
The desolate island also recalls another archetype, the island as prison – literally. By far the most popular of these undesirable dwellings depicted in the movies has been Alcatraz, the island off San Francisco.
The Birdman of Alcatraz (1962) is the finest example, based on the life of Robert Stroud, who spent more than 40 years in solitary confinement. In its depiction of a prisoner who breeds and studies birds, the parallel architectures of restraint are clear. Burt Lancaster has bars on his window and keeps birds in the cages he makes – hardly the subtlest symbol. But this being Hollywood, the simplest gestures suffice – he frees his birds and watches them fly away.
In Escape from Alcatraz (1979), the action is all about smashing through the structure to escape, so the building becomes adversary. In The Rock (1996), the ludicrous plot involves breaking back in to Alcatraz, now a heavily defended villains’ lair. Far better a film is Papillon (1973), the brutal story of incarceration on the French penal colony of Devil’s Island. Here, the grim, colonial architecture with its rusted corrugated iron roofs is a backdrop to protagonist Steve McQueen’s suffering, much of it in solitary confinement. This kind of island paradise, with its palm trees, blue seas and stunning scenery – the fantasy of an island existence – is subverted by its use as a prison.
At the end, McQueen, apparently a broken man, escapes on a raft and the closing shot is of the now derelict prison being taken over by nature; the inmate surviving the seeming permanence of the architecture.
In Martin Scorsese’s Shutter Island (2009) the island’s secure mental institution in Boston Harbor is a prison of the worst type, in which patients are lobotomised, experimented on and abused. The inmates are stuck in the worst human nightmare and live in a paranoid dystopia. To express the truth is to be labelled insane, while to suffer psychosis and delusions is to become normal.
Another eastern seaboard island is portrayed in Roman Polanski’s The Ghost (2010), in which Ewan McGregor’s journalist character is commissioned to ghost write the memoirs of a Tony Blair-like former prime minister. Visiting his secure home on a New England island, McGregor uncovers sinister revelations and the elegant house becomes a claustrophobic, unsettling place.
The building here presents a departure from the usual island archetypes; the colonial, the sci-fi subterranean and the fearsome prison. Instead, here is an exquisite modern house, coolly detailed in high-end contemporary materials – Japanese-style concrete, floor-to-ceiling windows and flowing spaces. It is presented in contrast to McGregor’s own untidy bachelor pad, but of course, in the movies this kind of opulence and apparent transparency can only mean surveillance and paranoia.
A similarly slick modernism appears in David Fincher’s US version of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2011) as the Hedeby house of the film’s villain, Martin Vanger. The house used is actually the Villa Överby designed by John Robert Nilsson, an exquisite Swedish summer house and location scout’s dream.
The island dwelling is also frequently a cipher for the idea of conspiracy. The protagonist is isolated and alone in an unfamiliar milieu in which the hosts are often outwardly hospitable but with a hostility in reserve – an unwillingness to open up and, almost certainly, with a terrible secret to conceal. The unsettling setting of Summerisle in The Wicker Man (1973) is the fullest exposition of this idea.
There is another kind of movie island. This one is always Italian, a cocktail of paradise and exile and a place of poverty which makes the occasional luxury appear yet more gilded.
In Cinema Paradiso (1989) it is the bleak Sicilian village from which the film director protagonist escapes to make his reputation. Here the house is secondary to the cinema, the church and the piazza which are the real living rooms of the village.
In Il Postino (1994) it is the beautiful island of Procida where the Chilean poet Pablo Neruda is exiled (he actually spent his time on the island of Capri). Both Cinema Paradiso’s projectionist and Neruda are, incidentally, played by a northern Frenchman, the wonderfully wise-eyed Philippe Noiret.
The architecture portrayed here is, for me, one of the most photogenic and hypnotic ever filmed.
The houses seem to be randomly stacked, a teetering pile of blocks which combine Yemen and Morocco with the Italian vernacular picturesque. The interiors are sparse, dark, shaded against the sun and the existence is chiaroscuro, a deliberate moral universe of light and shadow, exterior public space and interior private darkness, an expression of the claustrophobic torment of the soul in a society where everyone knows everything about everyone.
The same island of Procida formed the backdrop to Anthony Minghella’s The Talented Mr Ripley (1999). Ischia is also used, as it was in the first film of the novel, Réné Clément’s Plein Soleil (1959). Here the islands portray a kind of paradise, the carefree existence of the playboy provocatively set against the postwar poverty of the indigenous islanders.
In the Minghella’s version, Dickie Greenleaf’s house is languorously gorgeous, the kind of villa we all dream of, a place of tumbling terraces and subtropical gardens, shaded rooms and al fresco meals. But, like almost all the vernacular houses we see in these Italian island settings, its architecture is somehow anonymous, easily fading from memory.
This is because these island houses are archetypes, they are ideas of houses more than they are physical manifestations. Their reality is in their very fantasy and ultimately that is what the island house in the movie does – it presents an ideal which we all know is unreal but still, somehow, retains its seductive, exclusive allure.
Edwin Heathcote is the FT’s architecture critic