Thursday, November 23, 2017

Elevators in Classic Movies

“Take the stairs! Take the stairs! For God’s sake, take the stairs!” proclaimed the ad line to 1984’s The Lift. In general, that’s advice that should be heeded by most film characters. Angie Dickinson played a housewife that was brutally murdered in an elevator in Brian De Palma’s Dressed to Kill (1980). In another psychological thriller, the inferior Scissors (1991), Sharon Stone survived an elevator attack. The killer in The List of Adrian Messenger (1963) successfully booby trapped an elevator before the opening credits even rolled. In The Lift, an elevator with a mind of its own (well, courtesy of an experimental computer chip), bumped off apartment dwellers in imaginative, gory ways. Even Steve Martin’s wacky comedy The Man With Two Brains (1983) featured a mysterious villain known as The Elevator Killer.

Olivia de Havilland trapped in her elevator.
Malfunctioning elevators have stranded their passengers between floors in films such as Ingmar Bergman’s Secrets of Women (1952), The Elevator (1974), and Out of Order (1984). Olivia de Havilland played a wealthy invalid trapped in her home elevator and threatened by psychotic teens in Lady in a Cage (1964). Another psycho, played by Dennis Hopper, threatened to blow up passengers stuck in a high-rise elevator at the beginning of Speed (1994). A villainous Charles Laughton fell to death in an elevator shaft in The Big Clock (1947). Michael Rennie plunged to his death aboard a malfunctioning elevator in Hotel (1967). Rennie fared far better as the alien Klaatu in The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951). When an elevator abruptly stops between floors, he explains to a frightened Patricia Neal why he has “neutralized” the Earth’s electricity.

In more fantastical films, elevators have been used to travel between planets (Dream One), travel through time (Time at the Top), and fly through the air (the “Wonkavator” in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory).

Bruce Willis climbing the elevator shaft.
Many film characters, such as Bruce Willis’ police detective in Die Hard (1988), have used elevator shafts as shortcuts in large buildings. Johnny Depp spent a lot of time traveling in glass elevators in Nick of Time (1995) and Sean Connery as James Bond looked very stylish standing atop an exterior, moving elevator in Diamonds Are Forever (1970). A woman had a child resulting from an elevator encounter in Between Heaven and Earth (1992), while a nude woman unexpectedly exited from a lift in Allen Funt’s What Do You Say to a Naked Lady? (1970).

Elevator operators have been relegated to supporting roles in most films, although they played significant roles in Jimmy Boy (1935), Don’t Bother to Knock (1952), Confessions of Felix Krull (1957), and Living Out Loud (1998). Our favorite elevator operator is Fran Kubelik (Shirley MacLaine) from The Apartment.

Here's a representative list of pre-2000 films featuring elevators:

Jimmy Boy (1935)
Secrets of Women (aka Waiting Women) (1952)
Don’t Bother to Knock (1952)
The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951)
Confessions of Felix Krull (1957)
Lady in a Cage (1964)
The List of Adrian Messenger (1963)
Hotel (1967)
What Do You Say to a Naked Lady? (1970)
Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (1971)
The Elevator (1974 TV movie)
Dressed to Kill (1980)
The Man With Two Brains (1983)
Dream One (aka Nemo) (1984)
The Lift (1984)
Out of Order (aka Abwärts) (1984)
Die Hard (1988)
Scissors (1991)
Between Heaven and Earth (1992)
Speed (1994)
Downtime (1997)
Living Out Loud (1998)
Time at the Top (1999)

Reprinted with the authors' permission from the Encyclopedia of Film Themes, Settings and Series.


  1. Rick, I would add The Shining for all that blood that come pouring out and Thoroughly Modern Millie for the tap dancing Julie Andrews and Mary Tyler Moore as the elevator goes up.

  2. Great list. I would add The Towering Inferno as another film with memorable moments involving a lift. Maddy from Maddylovesherclassicfilms