By Craig Leask
This is the second in a series of articles on great cities in the movies. This one focuses on movies filmed in and showcasing The Big Apple – New York City – famous for its diverse neighbourhoods, the Great White Way, delis, Central Park, and New Year’s Eve celebrations. Due to the length of this piece, I will be posting it in 2 parts.
NYC has been the setting for numerous television programs: I Love Lucy (1951-1957), The Odd Couple (1970-1975), Rhoda (1974-1978), Cagney and Lacey (1981 – 1988), Seinfeld (1989-1998), and Sex in the City (1997-2004) to name but a very few. In song there are a practically unending number of musical numbers devoted to the city and it’s beloved Broadway – everything from “New York, New York” to “42nd Street” to “New York State of Mind”. And there have literally been hundreds and hundreds of movies set in New York City, but as in my article on San Francisco, my focus is on those movies that showcase the city as a character in the movie. The following are my top 10 movies, in no particular order.
King Kong (1933)
RKO Pictures King Kong, has been remade and “sequelled” an absurd number of times: (The Son of Kong (1933); King Kong vs. Godzilla (1962); King Kong Escapes (1967); the Rankin/Bass Production of The King Kong Show (1966–1969); a modern remake of the original film in 1976 directed by John Guillermin; King Kong Lives (1986); another remake of the original by Peter Jackson set in 1933, starring Jack Black released in 2005 and, most recently Kong: Skull Island (2017) set in 1973. A crossover sequel, Godzilla vs. Kong replicating the 1962 movie, pitting the characters against one another, is currently planned for 2020, and who knows what is being considered beyond that. This of course, does not include the spin offs (Mighty Joe Young in 1949 and 1998), cartoons, books, video games and theme park rides.
The original King Kong is the one that resonates for me due to its iconic focus on vintage NYC and the fact that in this version, the special effects (in this case a giant monkey) had to be physically created and then animated to be believable – i.e. no CGI. This involved the extensive use of Stop Motion Photography by Willis O’Brien. There is continuous suspense and mounting tension surrounding the unknown awaiting the crew as they approach the island, that crazy tall wall protecting who? And from what? The kidnapping of Ann Darrow from the boat by the natives followed by the stressful, unseen approach of Kong to receive Darrow – all timed and set brilliantly to that amazing score by Max Steiner. The uncertainty, the pace, passion and tension all combine into one great thrill ride.
Although not filmed in NYC, the city is a great focus for the movie as it becomes a true urban jungle, a substitute to the natural jungle Kong was familiar with as this home. Aside from the scenes on Skull Island, which were filmed in the caves at Bronson Canyon, about a quarter of a mile from Griffith Park, just outside of Hollywood, CA. The New York City scenes were filmed locally around Hollywood and in studios. The New York theatre in which Kong is initially on display is actually the Los Angeles Shrine Auditorium, 649 West Jefferson Boulevard, south of downtown Los Angeles.
The studio and scale model sets were cutting edge for the time. These include: the brilliance of Kong’s face as he peers into several of NYC’s many apartment building windows searching for his love, Ann Darrow, finally reaching in and extracting her from her bed when he does locate her. The High Line railway located in Manhattan’s Lower East Side, which Kong derails and destroys (The High Line is now a popular linear park with the last train having run on the tracks in 1980). Of course, it’s atop New York’s iconic 102 story Empire State Building, at the time the world’s tallest building, where Kong finally meets his end.
Miracle on 34th Street (1947)
This is the well-known and often recreated film (1947, 1957, 1973 and 1994) about a tender older gentleman claiming to be Santa Claus who is declared mentally incompetent and defended in court. But Miracle on 34th Street is much more than that. It is a movie about what is truly important, even when one’s beliefs are being re-examined. It’s about believing in faith and in not giving up on childhood fantasies.
The beauty of this film, and why I have included it on this list of films which feature NYC, is the realism of the movie thanks its location shots – both in the numerous scenes filmed in the actual Macy’s department store as well as scenes filmed at the 1946 Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. The parade not only sets the tone for the movie, it introduces Kris Kringle (Edmund Gwenn) and establishes his character and that of Doris Walker (Maureen O’Hara). For the parade scenes, the actual parade was filmed in its entirety to ensure usable segments were captured. 20th Century Fox placed cameras throughout the parade route to capture the event as well as to film the integral components surrounding Kris Kringle’s introduction, for which they only had only one opportunity. Retakes were out of the question since the parade they were filming was live.
On the Town (1949)
On the Town is the musical film adaptation of the 1944 Broadway musical of the same name. It stars Gene Kelly (who also directed and choreographed the film), Frank Sinatra, Betty Garrett, Ann Miller, Jules Munshin and Vera Ellen.
What makes the movie unique and included on my list is the location shooting which was extremely rare for films in this era. The decision to utilize on-site filming to support studio scenes was the result of director Gene Kelly’s insistence on utilizing New York City location shots within the film. On the Town is generally considered the first feature musical shot on location. The most iconic scene is the “New York, New York” number early in the film, set in the sunken plaza at Rockefeller Centre in front of the gilded bronze statue of Prometheus. In the scene you can see the crowds of on lookers lining the top of the granite wall behind the statue, staring at the stars as they were filming the scene.
Aside from Rockefeller Centre, location scenes in On the Town include segments filmed at: the American Museum of Natural History, the Brooklyn Bridge, Federal Hall, Wall Street; Liberty Island, and Washington Square Gardens.
Interestingly, all the shots filmed in NYC were completed in just five days and, to expedite the filming and avoid the crowds, the cast and filmmakers relied on taxis to move between filming locations and insisted on cameras being hidden in order to complete the film on schedule.
The French Connection (1971)
William Friedkin’s The French Connection is a police drama set in New York in the early 1970’s when NYC was gritty and basically on the brink of bankruptcy. The story follows two tough New York City police officers trying to intercept a heroin shipment arriving from France. The film provides one of the most gripping and memorable car chase sequences ever filmed and shows off NYC at its gritty best. In the film the city’s sad and tragic demise is featured in nearly every scene: empty, graffiti covered buildings; abandoned cars; trash covered vacant lots; and crumbling elevated highways.
The real New York locations added a necessary feel of authenticity giving the characters and the action a sense of purpose and determination. The site selections also give great insight into the personalities and back stories of the characters – both on the police side and the side of the traffickers. For instance, the seedy bar where ‘Popeye’ Doyle (Gene Hackman) gets drunk is on South Street at Market near the Manhattan Bridge. Sal & Angie’s Restaurant, where Doyle and Buddy Russo (Roy Scheider) meet is at 91 Wyckoff Avenue in Brooklyn. The well-known Santa Claus suit chase begins in front of what was the 2,000 seat Loew’s Broadway Theatre at 912 Broadway and Myrtle Avenue in Brooklyn (demolished in 1988) and continues by foot in a geographically impossible route throughout lower Manhattan, finally ending with apprehension in a vacant lot in East Harlem.
Other sites include: The Roosevelt Hotel, 45 East 45th St. (where Russo first encounters Alain Charnier “Frog One” (Fernando Rey); a stakeout at Kosher Deli Ratner’s Restaurant at 138 Delancey St. on the Lower East Side (closed in 2002); The Westbury Hotel, East 69th St., (Frog One’s hotel); Marlboro Housing Project on Avenues V, W and X at Stillwell Avenue in Brooklyn is Popeye’s home; The Doral Park Avenue Hotel at 70 Park Avenue at 38th St. and Grand Central Station are the setting for another foot chase.
The famous car chase scene begins at the Bay 50th St. Station where Popeye commandeers a passing Pontiac Le Mans and chases Pierre Nicoli (Marcel Bozzuffi) beneath the Bensonhurst Elevated Railway for 26 blocks of Brooklyn’s Stillwell Line to 86th St. Interestingly, the chase was filmed over a five-week period, at full speed, among real pedestrians and traffic (a feat which would be impossible to accomplish today), though several staged stunts were incorporated into the film.
The French Connection was the first R-rated movie to win the Academy Award for Best Picture, as well as winning for Best Actor (Gene Hackman), Best Director (William Friedkin), Best Film Editing, and Best Adapted Screenplay (Earnest Tidyman). In 2005 the film was chosen by the Library of Congress for preservation in the National Film Registry as being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant”.
Woody Allen is well known for his numerous movies centered around his love for his home city, New York. The list of movies he has filmed in NYC is extensive and includes: Broadway Danny Rose (1984), Hannah and her Sisters (1986), Radio Days (1987), and Manhattan Murder Mystery (1993). Allen also has the exceptional ability to incorporate the city and its unique personality into the story and plot lines of each of his films. Although I could devote this entire article to each of his movies, I am going to limit my focus in this article to Allen’s Manhattan.
In the film, Allen plays Isaac Davis, a neurotic, twice-divorced 42-year-old TV comedy writer who, while dating the 17-year-old Tracey (Mariel Hemingway), falls in love with his best friend’s (Michael Murphy) mistress Mary Wilkie (Diane Keaton). Complicating things further is his ex-wife Jill Davis (Meryl Streep) who left him to live with another woman, while completing a confessional book about her relationship with him.
Manhattan uses New York City as the perfect back drop to the story, showing off the city through black-and-white cinematography supported by a musical score by George Gershwin, even opening the film with a montage of images of the city to Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue”.
Filmed in and around NYC, Allen incorporated famous locations into the story line, including: Boating Lake in Central Park; Sutton Square and Sutton Place; Bloomingdale’s; The Chelsea Hotel; Art Galleries and Museums (The American Museum of Natural History, The Guggenheim, the Metropolitan Museum, the MoMA, and the Whitney Museum); Greenwich Village; the Lincoln Centre; Madison Avenue; the Staten Island ferry; numerous random street scenes and carriage rides through Central Park.
The iconic bridge scene under the Queensboro Bridge on the East River, was shot from Sutton Place Park. The bench Allen and Keaton rest on was brought in for the shoot as there were no benches in the park at that time. This famous shot, which ended up being used in all the posters and marketing materials for the film, was filmed at 5 a.m. to ensure the two sets of “necklace lights” on the bridge were lit showing off the bridge’s architecture in all its glory.
There are films shot in New York City every year and on every other street corner. But Woody Allen’s love for the city shines through – his films personify New York. Allen has the unique ability to make the city itself become one of his characters on-screen.
From as far back as Craig can remember he has been passionate about architecture and the atmosphere that can be created through a well-designed building. In movies, he fulfills this passion by gravitating to films where the production infuses the location into the plot as one of the characters. Be it the long dark shadows of mysteries and haunted house films, to classics of the 40’s and 50’s set in big old houses, grand Italian plazas, or remote villages. It’s the locations Craig is drawn to, so much so that, on occasion, he has even been accused of overlooking plot failures and weak directing, having been so engrossed in the set design and location. What he hopes to accomplish with his writing is to share this passion and encourage others to see for the first time – or revisit – movies where the architecture plays as pivotal a role as a character in the plot.