I've mentioned before that I've been watching a lot of film noir. Naturally, those kinds of Netflix searches lead one to watching a lot of fedora-filled films, and revisiting anything of Alfred Hitchcock's that happens to be online. Watching everything from Gilda to The Man Who Knew Too Much in a very short period of time has led me to jump to a silly conclusion --film locations used to be a lot more exotic. The films of the 1930s, '40s, 50s, and even 60s are set in all kinds of fabulous locations: Brazil, Buenos Aires, Shang-Hai, Istanbul, Cannes, Casablanca. Characters travel languidly and carelessly to all four corners of the Earth without thinking too much of it, which is pretty remarkable in a time when few people left their hometown, let alone their country.
Most of these "locations" are never seen, of course. (A huge exception is always Hitchcock, who plunks everyone right there on the streets of Istanbul or Rio de Janeiro) I don't think there's anything remotely Argentinian about Gilda (the South American casino looks like it reused the walls of Tara), but it oozes exoticism all the same. You never see the Shang-Hai of The Lady From Shang-Hai, but the fact that the blonde beauty speaks fluent Chinese just adds that extra bit of mystery. Plus that film sees them sailing all over the place via the Panama Canal, as if that's something everyone with a yacht does every summer. But even if the exotic locales are nothing more than a name drop or a bunch of stock footage, it makes the film far more sensual than if it's simply set in San Fransisco or Miami.
Of course, that's why they did it. To pre and postwar moviegoers, nothing could be more exotic than a story set in Brazil or Cannes. I imagine few people stuck in tiny Midwestern towns* had even heard of those places prior to the lights going down in their theaters, and they wouldn't even question the authenticity of a setting or the people's business there. They're kind of like the "foreign" scenes of Team America and based purely on stereotypes and myths, and shaped around what audiences imagined those places to be like.
Nowadays, Hollywood doesn't bother with that kind of thing. It's too expensive, for one thing. Why set something abroad when Toronto can stand in for any city in America? Why does it matter? A story is a story. Plus, the world has become smaller, people globe-hop as much as film noir characters ever did (though not with as much style), and moviegoers are more sophisticated. You can't fake Buenos Aires with just four casino walls and an alley. It's also rather fraught with peril. If you set a film in Argentina or Shang-Hai, you better show it, represent local culture, and do it all with reverence or run the risk of having people complain that it insinuated something nasty about the place. Let me stress that I don't want to see stereotypes, but hey, right now most foreign locations are used purely because there is rampant war, terrorism, drugs, and sexual slavery present. Wouldn't it be nice to have a movie showcasing an African or Middle Eastern country that lacked those problems?
But I wish they'd bring back all those lush, exotic locations even if it was just via old fashioned name-dropping. That's what makes the Bond, Bourne, and Transporter films so darn addicting -- they stray from Toronto, London, and New York into genuinely interesting and attractive places. Why not set more stories in Moscow, Casablanca, or Cairo? Even if you had to resort to stock footage and sets, at least it would be different, and be vaguely more romantic than seeing Montreal or Toronto again. It would be nice to see foreign locations that weren't disupted by shaky-cam, disguised into another city, or framing war or the sex trade. People clearly love seeing far-flung locales -- much of the praise directed at Mamma Mia! was because of its Grecian backdrop, same with Under the Tuscan Sun and the recent Angels and Demons. If nothing else, we could stand to see a little more of the world because its getting smaller, and it would do moviegoers good to see something outside of a Chicago street.