My Top 5 New York Films

5 Apr

New YorK

I’m going to New York in September (trust me, I’ll be mentioning this in an increasingly excited tone of voice more and more often as we near the departure date), and this got me thinking about New York movies. Like no other medium I can think of, films allow the city to become practically a character in its own right, and few make their presence felt on film more forcefully than New York.

Here, then, in chronological order, are five of my favourite New York movies. These aren’t just great films set in New York – there are plenty more of those. These are the movies that simply couldn’t be set anywhere else.

1) King Kong (1933)

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Until King Kong, horror movies were set largely in cobwebby, Gothic castles bestruck by lightning and crawling with bats, rats and women who wore too much eye shadow. King Kong, while not strictly speaking a horror movie, really changed all that. Here was a movie following in the tradition of exotic adventure (like Conan Doyle’s The Lost World or H. Rider Haggard’s King Solomon’s Mines and She) and given a monster movie twist, but its greatest innovation was its modernity. Sure, the Skull Island sequence could be set in any era, but the minute the action moves to New York we are right in the here and now of the 1930s.

Famously, the film’s climax takes place atop the Empire State Building, then only 2 years old, and it gave us the iconic and unsurpassed image of a prehistoric monster scaling one symbol of the modern age and battling another – the aeroplane. Semiotics and symbolism aside, King Kong is a cracking adventure and touchingly poignant, and Willis O’Brien’s stunning animation heralded a whole new era of movie special effects that would last until the arrival of CGI more than 50 years later.

2) Sweet Smell of Success (1957)

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Ealing veteran Alexander Mackendrick (The Ladykillers) may have made an unusual choice of director for this acerbic, noirish drama, but it’s arguably his greatest film. Sweet Smell of Success pits Tony Curtis’s sleazy PR man Sidney Falco against tyrannical newspaper columnist J.J. Hunsecker (a career-best Burt Lancaster), in a dark and twisted tale of corruption and blackmail. The script is by playwright Clifford Odets, and based on a short novel by Ernest Lehman (North by Northwest), so as you may expect, the dialogue is to die for. One critic – I forget who – said this isn’t how New Yorkers actually speak, it’s how they wish they spoke, and it’s razor sharp throughout. Sweet Smell of Success is a remarkable, near-perfect film with an astonishing score by Elmer Bernstein and crisp, expressionistic photography by James Wong Howe.

3) Taxi Driver (1976)

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Arguably the greatest New York movie of all time, and certainly one of the bleakest, Taxi Driver gives us a vision of the city as Hell on Earth. Vietnam Vet Travis Bickle (an incredible performance from a very much pre-Fockers Robert DeNiro) works nights driving his cab around the city. Slowly he begins to envision himself as an avenging angel, sent to “wash the scum off the streets”, and ultimately launches a one man mission to rescue underage prostitute Iris (an amazing Jodie Foster, then only 14) from a small army of pimps and gangsters. Almost 40 years after it was made, this remains one of Martin Scorsese’s finest and most powerful films. Michael Chapman’s gritty photography ensures New York never looked more beautifully seedy, with Travis’s yellow cab gliding through a haze of steam, neon lights and rain-drenched streets, and though Bernard Herrmann’s score (his last) may seem a little bombastic on first viewing, it suits the film’s heightened, infernal atmosphere to a tee.

4) The Warriors (1979)

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Walter Hill took Sol Yurick’s reasonably gritty and realistic 1965 novel about gang violence, and turned it into a cartoonish, dystopian and larger-than-life riff on Xenophon’s Anabasis, the semi-legendary story in which an army of Spartans battle their way home through hostile territory. Here, the Spartans are replaced by the titular Warriors, a gang of Coney Island street toughs in (vaguely homoerotic) leather waistcoats, pursued by such bizarre themed gangs as the Riffs, the Turnbull ACs, the genuinely eerie Baseball Furies, and the murderous, all-female Lizzies. Much of The Warriors was shot on location, and although set in the “near future”, it’s a similarly grimy, hostile city to the one seen in Taxi Driver. The climax, on the bleak, dilapidated Coney Island seafront, is the stuff cult movies are made from.

5) Ghostbusters (1984)

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It almost feels unnecessary, spending a whole paragraph telling you why Ghostbusters is an amazing film because, dear reader, you are human, gifted with a human heart and soul, and therefore fully aware of how amazing it is. For those of you born too late to have appreciated it at the time, Ghostbusters heralds from an era when film studios funded family-friendly, comedy action films that weren’t based on pre-existing novels, comic books, movies or TV shows. Ghostbusters’ only pedigree, when the script landed on some studio head honcho’s desk, was that it would star Bill Murray and Dan Ackroyd as likeable schlubs who rid New York of its ghosts, operating out of an old downtown fire station, and driving around in a converted, beat-up old ambulance. And somebody green-lit that. The 1980s were an amazing time. (See also Gremlins, Back to the Future.)

One of the things that makes Ghostbusters work is its setting; it really couldn’t be set anywhere but New York. The plot hinges on a spooky old gothic skyscraper, and New York has them in spades. The scenes of city folk cheering on the Ghostbusters as they head off to challenge Gozor the Gozarian just wouldn’t have worked in, say, Los Angeles. What’s more, I can guarantee that if you love Ghostbusters as much as any sane person should, you will spend at least 2 hours of a holiday in New York looking for the locations, just so you can pose in front of them doing your “scared” face while a friend Instagrams that shit. I know I will.

Purple is "Spook Central", green is the Library, and "A" is the firehouse. You're welcome.

Purple is “Spook Central”, green is the Library, and “A” is the firehouse. You’re welcome.

NOTE: I know. I didn’t pick any Woody Allen. How dare I? Well… If it wasn’t for the last 10 minutes I’d have happily put Manhattan on this list, but seriously… The minute Allen married his step-daughter that movie became intensely creepy.

"Age ain't nothing but a number..." Woody Allen (44) and Mariel Hemingway (18) in Manhattan. Made 13 years before Allen began a relationship with his 19-year-old stepdaughter.

“Age ain’t nothing but a number…” Woody Allen (44) and Mariel Hemingway (18) in Manhattan. Made 13 years before Allen began a relationship with his 19-year-old stepdaughter.

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2 Responses to “My Top 5 New York Films”

  1. Frivolous Monsters April 5, 2013 at 9:25 pm #

    You picked the right King Kong. That’s so much better than the Peter Jackson remake! And, from memory and not having been to New York, I’m not sure I’d have been able to say where it was filmed/set. It’s a great film, as you say, (lets not mention the sequel) but they don’t just hang about the famous landmarks like a cliché, do they. Perhaps it’s just me.

    • thedaillew April 6, 2013 at 3:33 am #

      The Peter Jackson remake could have been brilliant, if it had been trimmed by about an hour! It was just far too long, with too much development of characters who go nowhere. Why do we need insight into Jamie Bell’s character, for instance, when he disappears after the 2nd act? A missed opportunity!

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