The elevators that make movie magic

The elevator is where it all goes down – or hots up. An enclosed space where sworn enemies face off, passions flare, and shock-filled plot twists are revealed. Countless iconic movie moments have taken place in elevators – so why do they have such power to push our buttons?

Published Oct-31-2023

Everything is more intense in an elevator – love, hate, suspense, thrills, horror, even isolation. It makes the humble elevator the perfect cinematic vehicle for compact drama, intense visuals, and evocative symbolism.

Take a ride with us through some of Hollywood’s most famous elevator movie scenes (contains spoilers!), plus some lesser-known gems.

Dangling by a thread

Elevators ramp up the blazing suspense of Towering Inferno (1974), a landmark disaster film, even if construction experts at the time dubbed it “towering nonsense”. In reality, fire is unlikely to spread in an elevator shaft, and no elevator is held up solely by one cable. But without this early blockbuster, we wouldn’t have the adrenaline-pumping elevator action of Die Hard (1988), Speed (1994) or Mission Impossible (1996), not to mention the harrowing android chase in Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991). Check out how masterfully Martin Scorsese builds nail-biting suspense before the death of Boston undercover cop Billy Costigan (Leonardo di Caprio) in The Departed (2006). Pressure builds until the elevator doors slide open in a thrilling climax – the cinematic equivalent of raising a theatre curtain.

Dark silhouette of a man in a hat in the rain on a night street in a city.
In reality, elevators are much safer than they appear in the movies, where dramatic plot twists use elevators to elevate suspense.

A hellish ride

There’s nowhere to hide in an elevator – and nowhere is this claustrophobic device employed to more spine-tingling effect than in horror movies. Paying tribute to Hitchcock’s Psycho, the artful slasher scene in Dressed to Kill (1980) has been described as one of cinema’s most memorable murders. And if Brian De Palma’s razor-wielding blonde in sunglasses isn’t scary enough, imagine being trapped in an underground elevator with the horrific Hell Lord in Cabin in the Woods (2012). Other unforgettable elevator creep-fests include Hannibal Lecter’s (Anthony Hopkins) gruesome escape in The Silence of the Lambs (1991), the paranormal build-up of The Eye (2002), and Devil (2010), a sinister horror movie set entirely in an elevator, where one passenger turns out to be the devil in disguise. But no elevator scene captures the stuff of nightmares quite as unnervingly as master director Stanley Kubrick’sThe Shining. The blood-filled elevator is brilliantly parodied in The Simpsons: “That’s odd. Usually the blood gets off at the second floor.

No way out – the hero awakens

When things go awry in an elevator, true heroes rise to the occasion. In The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (2013), Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) galvanizes herself before battle after witnessing Cinna (Lenny Kravitz) pulverized through the glass elevator wall. The elevator marks a trap awaiting the hero in Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014). Surrounded by villains, his isolation is symbolized by elevator walls. The tension builds as the doors close and the hero asks: “Before we get started, does anyone want to get out?” – before taking down nine thugs in a space no larger than a broom closet.

Moments of epiphany – truth magnified

You notice details in an elevator – including disturbing things about your fellow passengers. Joe Fox (Tom Hanks) experiences a classic “I want more” moment while stuck in an elevator in You’ve Got Mail (1998). By the end of the ride, he and his shallow girlfriend (whose only thought is “Where are my Tic-Tacs?”) are history. A sudden plot twist also unfolds in Die Hard with a Vengeance (1995) when wisecracking John McClane (Bruce Willis) realizes the “cop” standing next to him is wearing his colleague’s badge, sparking an epic bloodbath in which our hero demolishes the whole crew of villains.

Cropped view of couple holding hands in elevator.
Whatever the emotion, it’s always more intense when it happens in an elevator scene.

Rigged for romance

An elevator is the perfect intimate setting for a “spontaneous” romantic encounter. There’s privacy, proximity, and the pressure to act fast: “I only have seven floors to blurt out how I feel!” Among the many swoon-worthy elevator scenes is the touching moment when elevator operator Fran Kubelik (Shirley MacLaine) pins a flower on the lapel of C.C. Baxter (Jack Lemmon) in The Apartment (1960). Another is the amorous hook-up scene in The Ugly Truth (2009) where Abby Richter (Katherine Heigl) and Mike Chadway (Gerard Butler) reveal their unacknowledged feelings for one another (note the symbolism of the elevator doors being forced open).

The rom-com “sleeper hit” (500) Days of Summer (2009) is remembered for the irresistibly cute elevator encounter between Tom (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) and his crush Summer, who begins humming along to The Smiths song playing on his headphones, helping Tom realize that he has just met the girl of his dreams. Our rom-com tip for the holidays is Stuck with You (2022), in which a boy and a girl on their way to a New Year's Eve party get stuck in an elevator for the entire length of the movie (Spoiler alert! There’s a strong possibility they end up falling in love.)

Close-up of a couple embracing.
Elevators can make an ideal setting for heartwarming or passionate movie moments.

Going up? Lifting the lust factor

In a confined space, secrets are spilled and lust is unleashed. Proximity leads to passion in Drive (2011), but the “boy gets girl” scene goes pear-shaped when Ryan Gosling turns his attention from kissing Irene (Carey Mulligan) to fighting off an encroaching hitman. An elevator sets the scene for even steamier action in Fifty Shades Darker (2017) and Dan Gallagher’s (Michael Douglas) ill-fated encounter with “bunny boiler” Alex Forrest (Glenn Close) in Fatal Attraction (1987), where the viewer becomes the voyeuristic spectator of a hot-hot-hot ride in a wire cage.

Alone in the world

Sofia Coppola uses an elevator as a striking metaphor of estrangement in her award-winning Lost in Translation (2003). In the wordless scene, Bob Harris (Bill Murray) towers above a group of silent Japanese businessmen in a Tokyo elevator, which physically encapsulates his feelings of loneliness and cultural isolation in his foreign setting.

Worlds of whimsy

One of cinema’s most magical moments is the scene in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (1971) where the “Wonkavator” bursts through the factory roof and soars into the sky. The Great Glass Wonkavator – which can go “sideways and slantways and longways and backways and squareways and frontways and any other ways that you can think of” – is the ultimate symbol of adventure, creative exploration and limitless imagination. The whimsical metaphor is reprised in Tim Burton’s 2005 adaptation of the Roald Dahl novel.

Retro style elevator floor indicator and lighting.
Elevators can also serve as a portal to another world or as a metaphor for character transformation.

Portal to another reality

One of the earliest films featuring an elevator is Fritz Lang’s expressionistic masterpiece Metropolis (1927), where it symbolizes the gulf between the poor laborers who work deep underground and the upper classes living high above. Elevators lead to dark recesses of the subconscious in Christopher Nolan’s surreal Inception (2010), and the elevator-as-gateway trope is also central to Elevator Game (2023), based on a ritual game originating from Korea.

Pushing comedy buttons

One of the most hilarious elevator scenes ever made is in Billy Wilder’s black-and-white comedy classic Some Like It Hot (1959) where ageing playboy Osgood Fielding III chats up ‘Daphne’ (Jack Lemmon in drag, who almost steals the show from Marilyn Monroe). As the elevator door closes, the camera tilts up to the floor indicator. The arrow rises, jiggles violently, then starts down. The doors open to reveal Daphne slapping Osgood’s face with glorious comic innuendo. Note the elevator operator in his adorable bellhop hat – this largely obsolete profession was still common in the 1950s.

KONE service technician using smartphone.
And of course, the real heroes in elevator scenes are the people who keep them running smoothly!

Elevator (technician) as hero

No list of elevator movies would be complete without a nod to the 1983 Dutch science fiction horror film De Lift, in which an elevator begins to function intelligently and goes on a killing spree. Why do we at KONE love this one? Because the hero of the story is an elevator technician, of course!


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