A DAY IN THE LIFE – SIX OF THE BEST #13 – FILMS SET IN A DAY
With a cursory Google search there’s a few of these articles around concerning films set in one day or a twenty-four hour period. But it’s something I wanted to explore from a narrative perspective in order to understand how it can help a screenwriter with their story. Indeed, as a writer a twenty-four hour period could be a seen as a limitation for one’s story but it can also create a hell of a lot of suspense, drama and comedy.
Of course, in some cases it can also increase the need for an audience to suspend disbelief with many events occurring in such a short space of time. For example, in the classic TV show 24, we kind of know that it’s totally unlikely that our hero Jack Bauer is going to suffer THAT many bad days but we still root for him to save the his family, the dog, his neighbours, and the world. Yet, the distillation of narrative incidents also raises the dramatic stakes, providing much fun and tension for the audience.
As well as creating entertainment the structural benefits of setting a film in one day can provide a “ticking clock” or race against time scenario. Moreover, fixing a time scale or limit conjures up a dramatic sense of containment for the characters. They are trapped within this day and must survive it and whatever fate throws at them. As time moves on during the day suspense is funnelled to a striking denouement as sun-up moves toward sunset. It’s a grudging acceptance of life’s incessant clock of fate as our existence flickers along to the inevitable end.
There are many films which have been set during a one day period and a lot of them are bona fide classics. Here is SIX of what I consider the best or at least my favourites from a story perspective. I have not included one of the greatest comedies of all time Groundhog Day (1993) because, while that is set in the same day, it actually repeats its day in a Sisyphean and fantastical never-ending situation. Thus, the films here are all set in a fixed period so no temporal loops or time travel movies are included.
**MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS**
DO THE RIGHT THING (1989)
Spike Lee’s incendiary look at the day in the life of a Brooklyn neighbourhood finds a variety of characters coping with both rising temperatures and simmering racial tension. Lee’s brilliant script is fully of boldly written and brightly sketched characters presented via a succession of hilarious and dramatic vignettes. The formal excellence on show too from Lee is to be applauded as he uses devices from: music video and cinema to tell his rich stories. The day does not end well as the neighbourhood erupts into tragic violence with Lee proving himself adept at balancing humour, politics and tragedy in equal measure.
DOG DAY AFTERNOON (1975)
Sidney Lumet really was a terrific director. Moving from stage and television to film and his first cinema production was rather incredibly 12 Angry Men (1957). This film was ostensibly set in one location over one intensely dramatic period and he would revisit the day-structure for the equally intense bank-robbery-gone-wrong film Dog Day Afternoon in 1975. Lumet directs Al Pacino and John Cazale as ill-fated and inexperienced criminals who rob a New York bank and get deep in over their heads. Once again the set-in-a-day structure creates a bottle-neck effect, squeezing the drama to a suspenseful denouement. As these empathetic and hapless criminals find themselves surrounded by law enforcement Al Pacino’s performance as Sonny dominates, becoming more and more animated and emotional. Incredibly, this original heist movie was based on a bizarre, true story and was another compelling addition to Lumet’s fine directorial C.V.
FALLING DOWN (1993)
Michael Douglas is, in my opinion, a very well rated movie star but also a very under-rated actor. He proved it again in Marvel’s Ant-Man films that he is an altogether reliable on-screen presence, while his staggering performance as Liberace in Behind the Candelabra (2013), garnered deserved praise. Similarly he is in career-best territory as “D-FENS” – named so after his number plate – whom begins his day in a sweltering, polluted traffic jam, before deciding enough is enough. What follows is a violent and explosive rampage both bleak and darkly comic that highlights the anger an individual can feel at being discarded by society. While “D-FENS” actions are appalling it’s clear he has had a mental breakdown and gone over the edge, in this damning and compelling indictment of capitalist society.
FERRIS BUELLER’S DAY OFF (1986)
John Hughes was arguably the definitive creator of what came to represent iconic 1980s Hollywood teen and comedy cinema. It may have pretty conservative dealing with, on the main, middle-class American characters and their lot; however, he always had affection for the geek, outsider and under-dog. Yet, it is important to note that Ferris Bueller is not a geek or an underdog but rather a narcissistic, lying, brash, confident and handsome youth trying to rail against the school system. But in the hands of Matthew Broderick’s standout performance he is also very cool. Because as well as skipping school he is a risk-taker and cheeky and amazingly talks directly to the audience too. During his day off school he crams all manner of crazy things into the day while trying to outwit the school Principal because as he (Hughes) says: “Life moves pretty fast; if you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it!”
HIGH NOON (1952)
Not only is this classic Western set in one day but it’s pretty much shot in real time. It makes the most of the ticking-time-clock scenario, anchored by Gary Cooper’s noble sheriff and fine direction from Fred Zinnemann. The story is very simple. Marshal Will Kane (Cooper) is about to leave town with his wife, Amy (an early role for Grace Kelly), finds out a vicious gang of outlaws are coming to town out for revenge. Kane’s choice is to flee or stay and fight. Guess which one he chooses? Ready to face the outlaws on his own he tries to enlist the help of the townsfolk of Hadleyville, but he is admonished at every request. The suspense and drama are palpable as the clock slides toward noon and the gunfight. The film received many awards and nominations and is a truly humane examination of duty and courage under fire. It could also be seen as an allegory for the McCarthy and Communist “witch-hunts” occurring in Hollywood at the time. However, one could easily see it as a conservative validation of law and order too and the individual fighting for justice against a common enemy.
TRAINING DAY (2001)
David Ayer’s career as a filmmaker has taken a few critical body-blows lately on big budget Hollywood productions; notably his over-blown mess of a franchise trifle that was Suicide Squad (2016); and the odd mix of fantasy and cop thriller that was Bright (2017). While Suicide Squad really did not make any sense it made loads of dough and Bright was actually pretty decent entertainment. Indeed, it actually had a similar structure to Ayer’s brilliant cop drama Training Day. Ethan Hawke is the in-awe trainee to Denzel Washington’s fierce narcotics officer, who has taken his younger charge along to see if he has what it takes to join his team. What I love about this superior genre film is, aside from the brilliant plot and characterisation, is the day unfolds so dramatically with their two respective characters beginning as master and student only to find the respect between the two eroding and a violent power game ensuing.