Asking me to pick just five New York movies is downright Satanic, a perfect adjective since today’s “5 for the Day” is the fault of Ted Turner. Mr. Cinematic Crayons is presenting “Celluloid Skyline” on his Turner Classic Movies channel, a month-long tribute to the city that helped craft the Odienator, New York City. The folks at TCM love New York in June. How about you?
I grew up in the shadow of the Lady with the Torch, and the city “so nice they named it twice” has been part of both my real and cinematic lives. New York City distracted me from my fear of heights the first time I gazed out at her from the Observation Deck of the World Trade Center. She gave me a 20 year career in computer programming. She was my company on many a lonely, wandering, aimless night, holding my hand and leading me into adventure. She was the blues in my ears, the tears in my eyes, and the occasionally unpleasant burning sensation in my nose—but only in the subway. She was the confidence that led a certain fool in love named Odie to kneel, smack dab in the middle of Central Park, and ask his dream girl to mug him and steal his bachelorhood. And if nothing else, she showed yours truly his first live topless woman, a hooker on 42nd Street, in 1973. I still remember her sales pitch: “Get your hot head here! Satisfaction guaranteed!”
A city with such majestic memories, both naughty and nice, can only evoke magic on the silver screen. At the movies, New York City is shorthand. When she popped up, the director didn’t need to explain further. It was a big, naked city with 8 million stories and, depending on the background music, you knew whether they’d be happy or sad. New York served so many purposes onscreen: Sailors Frank and Gene went On the Town to get laid. Ray Milland got drunk on Third Avenue. Pacino went Cruising, Hoffman went jaywalking, Coop considered himself lucky and Nicholson danced to Prince while destroying artwork. Dudley Moore got drunk and caught between the moon and here. Scorsese soothed his Catholic guilt in Hell’s Kitchen and the Woodman dealt with his neuroses a few miles further up. People tried to Do The Right Thing in Brooklyn, rumbled in a Bronx that looked like Vancouver, found their queen in Queens, let the river run in Staten Island, and sat under a bridge in Manhattan, aided and abetted by Gordon Willis’ luminous black and white cinematography and the greatest shot ever captured of New York City:
How can I choose just five movies about a city full of grace, beauty, danger and excitement, a city that fills me with such emotion and nostalgia? This will be a failure, to be sure, as I will leave off so many movies I’d love to put on. So if you’re thinking about posting one of those “how couldja leave off dis movie” messages, FUHGEDDABOUTIT! Just right the wrong by listing them yourself.
1. King Kong: Every version of King Kong, even the ones overcrowded with absurdly pricey spectacle, is a love story of epic proportions. That’s what it takes to find love in New York City. If you’re looking for it, King Kong c’est toi. You’ll be taken out of your element and held up to ridicule. Planeloads of competition will buzz you. You will lose your way and face adversity as you try to retrieve it. And just when you’ve reached the highest heights and the object of your affection starts to warm up to you, you’re sent plummeting to an incredible low, hitting it with a resounding thud. “Twas beauty killed the beast,” they’ll say about you, a lesson you learned a tad too late. You should be a cautionary tale. But you’re declared a hero instead.
2. Shaft (1971): Shaft is a bad mother-shut-yo-mouth, and the opening sequence of his first feature is an excellent example of New York City as shorthand. The camera pans above the old Times Square, the one that existed before Disney destroyed it. Several double features are playing at the theaters that line 42nd Street. Right after the camera passes the porn theater, the sexual innuendo of a title comes flying at us. As if on cue with the wah wah guitar in his theme song, Shaft emerges from the subway. The camera gives him a close-up then resumes its watch from a distance. Like Ratso Rizzo, Shaft jaywalks across the street, but in such a cool manner I’m surprised more people didn’t get run over in 1971 trying to emulate him. Ratso hits the car that nearly runs him down, Shaft gives his car the finger (and Hugh Richardson edited them both). As Shaft walks for what seems like an eternity, he passes things that play like time capsules of the old New York. Picketers carry signs that say “I got my job through the New York Times.” Shaft passes Nedick’s, a 69 cents store and is solicited by a guy selling a hot watch. Old New York style buses and cabs drive by, and we pass more than one sleazy looking sex shop. Shaft never loses his cool, even when upstaged by a blind, stuttering newspaperman who has the best line in the movie. A 70’s throwback to the days of New York noir, this movie would have been in black and white back then, but its private detective would have most certainly been in color. New York City is cool, and Shaft is the epitome of said cool.
3. The Apartment (1960): What’s really changed about office life in New York City since 1960? I started working in an office in 1987 and I saw guys just like C.C. Baxter. They were all yuppied up, like Charlie Sheen in Wall Street, but they were still brownnosers hoping to make their bones and live the regal New York City lives of their jet-setting evil managers. Billy Wilder showed that the best way to get ahead is to let your boss use your apartment to get head. Like King Vidor before him and Mike Judge after him, Wilder showed how the climb up the corporate ladder can be filled with soul-sapping broken rungs. Except Wilder, like Sidney Lumet, makes New York City a character in his films. You sense that Baxter believes if he can make it here, he can make it anywhere, even if it means having to sleep in a bed with wet spots he didn’t coax out of their owners. Wilder also proves, as films like The Pawnbroker, The Lost Weekend and Manhattan did, that The City looks better in black and white.
4. The Age of Innocence (1993): It would be easy to justify choosing Taxi Driver (my favorite Scorsese) for this list, but I like challenges. Besides, The Age of Innocence has a lot in common with Taxi Driver and most of the other present-day set Scorsese movies. Under the surface of its Merchant-Ivory subject matter, Scorsese subtly hits all the points usually found in his oeuvre. The heroes wrestle with rules (societal in Age, religious in Mean Streets, psychotically imagined in Taxi Driver) and the better nature they won’t let win out, and suffer greatly for it. Most Scorsese shows you what happens when you break the rules; The Age of Innocence is ultimately about what happens when you don’t. Oddly enough, the results are the same. You know what they say: You’re damned if you do…
Scorsese films take digs at what society considers normal and rule-abiding, featuring scenes where his characters are confused over why their actions caused such problems. In Driver, Travis takes Becky to a porn theater and is confused at her reaction; in Age, the Countess can’t figure why women would rather be married and miserable than divorced. Scorsese also has his male characters fighting with the proverbial angel and devil on their shoulders when it comes to sex. Marvin Gaye once said that life was “a paradox between Jesus and pussy.” In most Scorsese, this is true as well. In The Age of Innocence, it’s a paradox between society and pussy.
Most importantly, Scorsese uses New York City as a backdrop, a being much bigger than his characters, standing back and taking in the action with a watchful eye and an occasional assist courtesy of location. Without Times Square or Hell’s Kitchen, Scorsese’s movies would be completely different. The world of 1870’s New York City he creates in Age is the final tie to the rest of Scorsese’s work. New York City watched her inhabitants—even back then—writing down what will become another of those 8 million stories.
5. Escape from New York (1981): Since I am doing exactly that at the end of the month, it’s fitting to close with this film. In 1997, New York City was supposed to become a maximum security prison and the president was supposed to be held captive by a big, burly Black man called The Duke of New York (A-number-one!). The only part of this that came true was that the guy who was president in 1997 is being held captive in a Black neighborhood in New York, except he’s being held captive by his hormones. Still, John Carpenter’s inventive sci-fi fantasy is loads of fun, uses some New York City landmarks to amusing effect, and features Ernie Borgnine driving a New York cab the way you’d expect one to be driven. Snake Plissken is the quintessential New Yorker, he came from somewhere else yet he adapts to the ways of the City. He’s got attitude to spare and he hates tourists. He doesn’t mind walking, and he’d feel safer with a gun, but doesn’t always need one. And if he doesn’t get away from the City, his head will explode. Ask anybody who lives or works in New York City and they’ll tell you: it feels that way sometimes.