When a movie's design is the star -- In movies like "Blade Runner," Alien," and "A Clockwork Orange," the sets stole the show

By Lawrence O'Toole
January 20, 1995 at 05:00 AM EST

The Shadow knows it isn’t the first film whose sets steal the spotlight. Since as early as 1919, with the distorted streets and interiors of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, art direction has taken a leading role in creating drama. Here’s a sampling of other films whose designs were rich in character.

Lost Horizon (1937, Columbia TriStar) Author James Hilton’s paradisiacal valley of Shangri-La seems as corny as Kansas today, but Stephen Goosson’s set — an Art Deco lamasery that has as much to do with the Himalayas as Martha Stewart Living does — is a bygone eyeful of streamlined beauty that glamorized spirituality as only Old Hollywood could, claiming an Academy Award for Interior Decoration (what would later be called art direction).

A Clockwork Orange (1971, Warner) Director Stanley Kubrick’s horrorshow adaptation of Anthony Burgess’ book is intensely visual, from the Korova Milk Bar where Alex and his droogs hang out to the ultramodern white-on-white house where they commit their most unspeakable acts of ultraviolence. This ripe, cartoonish film features a color design that foretold postmodernism and an attitude that presaged punk.

Alien (1979, FoxVideo) Swiss artist H.R. Giger won a Visual Effects Oscar for his design of Ridley Scott’s outer-space thriller, whose nightmarish visions of decay and putrefaction found their way into pop consciousness as the crew of the Nostromo screamed their heads off. Never has the color scheme of brown and gray been so creepily effective.

Quintet (1979, Fox Video) Robert Altman’s otherwise dense, pretentious murder mystery set during the advent of a new Ice Age boasts a chilling design by Leon Ericksen — a universe of stalactites and unremittingly ugly industrial high-tech that was actually Montreal’s ’67 Expo arena.

Blade Runner (1982, Columbia TriStar) This flawed but fascinating view of 21st-century L.A. — where a Chandleresque cop tracks down murderous replicants — got a taste of Tokyo and New York City from production designer Lawrence G. Paull, who conjured a phantasmagoria with the pulse of neon and the bombed-out glamour of a starving artist’s loft.