Surely one reason why New York City has a lock on our imagination is that we have seen it on the big screen so many times. Yes, Los Angeles also does this (often, however, on a “back lot” of manufactured place), but for pure energy and distinctiveness, New York City wins hands down every time. LA became LA and a major movie headquarters (ironically, taking over from New York) in the early 20th century in part because of the weather, in part because it was away from the old guard and in part because it could stand in for just about anywhere. Some things have not changed much.
A number of books capture different elements of New York and film. One of my favourites is Murray Pomerance’s edited collection City That Never Sleeps: New York and the Filmic Imagination (Rutgers University Press, 2007). Pomerance points out that there are so many ways to view New York: as a geographic entity; a “cultural production with a history and power structure”; a “political residue”, with reference to Robert Caro’s The Power Broker, the classic book about Robert Moses; a place where politics plays out (Boss Tweed, Fiorello L Guardia, Robert Moses, Robert Wagner, John Lindsay, Rudy Giuliani and Donald Trump – and add to that Ed Koch, David Dinkins and everyone else); or even an urbanisation case study which profound world impacts.
For Pomerance, New York City is a “dream and not a place”, and he identifies not one but three different New Yorks on film. The first is the classic, older New York, which is:
tough minded and (where) aggressive explorers work their way through an urbanised jungle that is flooded with beams of arc light, flickering with neon or with the luminescence of fast-moving traffic at night or in a shadowy constant twilight – all this raised up as far as the eye can see with monuments to a sleek and arching modernism, vast avenues, countless eager windows and vitrines … where multitudes always seem to be scrambling …, where elevators seem always to be whisking the dignified and the stylish to private aeries halfway to the clouds … where big business everywhere accelerates zeal, pressure, movement and rhythm, where endless riveting is piously undertaken to make endless miles of skyscrapers, and where a burgeoning traffic wafts up and down the proud rivers moving the spirit of the place outward, over the ocean, until it meets the world.
Films in this New York include Miracle on 34th Street (1947), The Philadelphia Story (1942), Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942), The Fountainhead (1949), Grand Hotel (1932), Spellbound (1945), North by Northwest (1959), The Band Wagon (1953), Living it Up (1954) and even recent films such as Peter Jackson’s King Kong (2005).
He identifies a second New York, one of the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, a “serious” New York, the city of The Manchurian Candidate (1962), Wall Street (1987), All That Jazz (1979), The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (1974) and even the comedies Barefoot in the Park (1967), Plaza Suite (1971) and – my all-time favourite – Annie Hall (1977).
Finally, his third New York is the “contemporary” or “anxious” New York, one of “close up experience and diffuse stress”, with “fashionable clothing, witty talk, and psychological neuroses of people trying to get through the day in what seems an interminable and indefinable war”. Think of Six Degrees of Separation (1993), Marathon Man (1976) and the 1980s and 1990s work of Woody Allen, On page 9, Pomerance writes, “There is no place like New York that is also not in fact New York. New York City, then, is a true personality of the silver screen, even more than a star.”
There are other wonderful books about New York and film, notably the fabulous guidebook New York: The Movie Lover’s Guide – the Ultimate Insider Tour of Movie New York by Richard Alleman (Broadway Books, 2005) and the lavishly illustrated Celluloid Skyline: New York and the Movies by James Sanders (Bloomsbury, 2001; check out the book’s fascinating website here). More on these two engaging books at another time. (And here is a link to a nice bibliography.) Also try Sanders’ later Scenes From the City: Filmmaking in New York (Rizzoli, 2006).
In the two months I spent living in New York City last year, I spent many hours each week wandering the streets – not quite aimlessly, but not quite purposefully either. Part of the fun was looking for the tell-tale posted signs announcing a film shoot – usually with a generic title that tries not to give away too much (and thereby avoid the inevitable crowds, if, for instance, one was labelled “Godfather, Part 4”).
Unlike Gertrude Stein’s (in)famous dictum about Oakland, California – in which she pronounced “There’s no there there”, New York is well and truly “there” and in fact has so many “theres” that it sometimes is in danger of being overwhelmed by its powerful sense of place. Maybe that’s why I can feel suffocated in New York, but maybe that’s just me, the suburban New Jersey-born guy who was never fully, 100%, completely at home in the “city”, as much as it fascinates, thrills and excites my imagination. So with that said, here are some “theres” that are well and truly lodged in my imagination, in part because they have appeared on film so many times and in so many different stories over so many years that they have taken on a certain life of their own.
So here, as a beginning, are some of my favourite New York City landmarks which appear on film. That there are so many is a testament to how rich New York is with iconic images and to their power to plant themselves in our imagination, even when we (sometimes) have never seen the real place.
The Brooklyn Bridge – I first walked over the Brooklyn Bridge just over a year ago, the “right” way – from Brooklyn to Manhattan – the more exciting way to watch the skyscrapers of Manhattan loom in front. Movies include The Siege, Enchanted, Godzilla.
The Plaza Hotel (Fifth Avenue), for its romance and setting (across from Central Park), and which has featured in The Way We Were, Barefoot in the Park, Plaza Suite (of course), Bride Wars, Home Alone 2, Crocodile Dundee, Big Business and The First Wives Club.
Katz’s Delicatessen (Houston Street) – When Harry Met Sally, Enchanted, Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist, Across the Universe. Yes, this is the one with “THE SCENE”, where Meg Ryan fakes an orgasm (to Billy Crystal’s intense embarrassment) and Estelle Reiner (mother of director Rob Reiner), sitting nearby, says the classic movie line “I’ll have what she’s having.”
The New York Public Library (Fifth Avenue, between 42nd and 40th Streets) – In the film The Day After Tomorrow, a group of characters survive a terrible ice storm by – horror! – burning the library’s books to keep warm; a true advertisement for the printed word – I don’t think that computer disks will warm in the same way in an emergency.
Metropolitan Museum of Art (When Harry Met Sally, Keeping the Faith, The Nanny Diaries, Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps)
Tiffany and Co: Breakfast at Tiffany’s of course – and of course all of Fifth Avenue as seen in Tootsie (a personal favourite), Crocodile Dundee, Ghost Town, Gentleman’s Agreement … I could go on.
Washington Square Park – and the “Arch” (When Harry Met Sally, I Am Legend, Searching for Bobby Fischer)
Empire State Building (An Affair to Remember, King Kong x 2, Sleepless in Seattle)
Flatiron Building (I Am Legend, Spiderman)
Grand Central Station, still a marker of the “old” New York, and featured in North by Northwest, I am Legend, the Gossip Girl television series, The Taking of Pelham One Two Three, Revolutionary Road, Duplicity, The Fisher King, Superman, Madagascar and the list goes on.
Interested in reading more? Check out the “On the Set of New York” website top forty locations an unbeatable website resource.