Start spreadin’ the news: NYC has hosted some of the most iconic movies of all time. Big Apple native Isabelle Bousquette takes us on a trip to the city that never sleeps to list 10 of those films that best encapsulate New York, its culture, and the people that live there.
“New York City is almost like another character,” and a place that defies capture at every angle. Often the city is too big and loud and throbbing to recreate itself inside of a camera lens. But every once in a while, in the hands of a good filmmaker, it appears on screen. When it does, viewers can feel it — the nearly impalpable thrill of jaywalking, the endless struggle between glamor and gentrification and, of course, the moment when you have to pay $8 for a strawberry.
There are way too many classic NYC-set movies to boil it down into 10 (no place below for The French Connection, or Escape From New York), but here are 10 classic movies that capture the (mulit-faceted) spirit of an elusive city. These 10 movies are New York.
1. 42nd Street (1933)
Over-the-top dance routines, chorus girls, and a numbered street that’s taken on a cultural identity of its own, 42nd Street captures Broadway. It’s the story of a young aspiring actress leaving everything out on the stage under the shadow of the Great Depression. And while it’s undeniably old Hollywood, its heart firmly lies in the Ziegfeld Follies. Ruby Keeler tap dances through traffic while singing that 42nd Street is a place, “Where the underworld can meet the elite.” And she’s absolutely right.
2. King Kong (1933)
Any list of New York movies wouldn’t feel quite right without pre-code monster movie, King Kong. Groundbreaking – and an instant classic – on its release, it features the most famous use of a New York landmark in film history, when the giant ape climbs the Empire State Building in the movie’s climax to battle biplanes and meet his tragic end. Rotten Tomatoes rank it as the 4th-greatest horror movie ever made.
3. Sweet Smell Of Success (1957)
Broadway is closely associated with New York. The artistry, glamour, and showbusiness defines the city to many people. And no film best brings out the stark threat of the industry better than Sweet Smell Of Success. Alexander MacKendrick’s movie tells the story of newspaper columnist J.J. Hunsecker (Burt Lancaster) who uses his power connections to ruin his sister’s relationship with a man he deems unworthy of her. Also starring Tony Curtis, and scored by Elmer Bernstein, it’s shadowy noir cinematography, and hard-hitting portrayal of the ruthlessness of life in New York, have made it an uneduring classic.
4. Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961)
Strolling down 5th Avenue in a cocktail dress, eating a croissant and window shopping at Tiffany’s is not, believe it or not, a common activity for most New Yorkers. For one, the crowds are too big and the walk signs are too infrequent to really enjoy it. But the power of Breakfast at Tiffany’s isn’t in its realism. It’s in the way this film perfectly navigates the line between chic and shabby, between pearl necklaces and fire escapes, between aspiration and expiration. It’s the story of two New Yorks: one defined by diamond jewels and one defined by eating from a paper bag. It’s rare to see a story that tells both versions without judgment and through only one wholly unforgettable character.
5. Rosemary’s Baby (1968)
This supernatural, psychological horror/thriller made a massive impact on Hollywood – and the horror genre in particular – on its release. When a young couple (Mia Farrow and John Cassavetes) move into the Dakota building, all seems normal. Until, that is, the repulsive, and bizarre, intentions of their neighbours begin to unravel. The Dakota substitutes perfectly for a gothic, imposing, hopeless castle-like structure worthy of any classic horror, and Farrow’s pixie haircut would launch her to the status of New York Fashion icon immediately on the movies’ release.
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6. Dog Day Afternoon (1975)
Based on a real-life bank heist gone wrong, Sidney Lumet’s Dog Day Afternoon is a sizzling represenation of an everyday New Yorker caught up in a situation – and resultant media frenzy – that he won’t come back from. With strong themes of anti-establishment, the film was nominated for 7 Academy Awards, winning for Best Adapted Screenplay, and it features one of Al Pacino’s very best performances as Sonny, the man who orchestrates the robbery.
7. Taxi Driver (1976)
Taxi Driver is a dark postwar disillusioned New York. Travis Bickle is a man who never sleeps – driving round a city that never sleeps – while the majority of its inhabitants are sleeping. Through a perverse type of poetry, Martin Scorsese explores how a man whose career is defined by driving a car with passengers in it is himself defined by being alone. It’s a story about the paradox of living in New York City — a city so overwhelmingly filled with people, but where so many of them are living completely alone.
8. Saturday Night Fever (1977)
Witha an iconic soundtrack provided by disco kings The Bee Gees’, Saturday Night Fever launched the NYC Nightclub subculture into the mainstream, and it’s stayed there ever since. It made an overnight superstar of John Travolta, who stars as the white-suited, pose-striking Tony Manero a young, working-class New Yorker who lives out his dreams on the tiled dancefloors of New York every weekend.
9. Manhattan (1979)
Any list of New York films would be remiss without mentioning Woody Allen, who is as polarizing and layered a figure as the city itself. Manhattan has been called Allen’s love letter to New York, although it is filled with as much disdain as it is affection. As with most of Allen’s work, it is deeply ‘of a moment’. Allen’s onscreen relationship with Mariel Hemingway, who plays a 17-year-old high school student, is hard to reconcile for a modern audience. Nevertheless, the black and white cityscapes and the George Gershwin soundtrack have earned it a place in the canon of New York-inspired art.
10. Do The Right Thing (1989)
Made in direct response to the Howard Beach incident of 1986, Spike Lee’s Do The Right Thing is a colourful, almost surreal, portrait of 1980s Brooklyn. It’s a story about the simmering cultural melting pot that is the New York borough, and how things come to a head – resulting in violence and death – one hot day in summer. It’s angry, it’s honest, and it captures a side of New York not often seen on screen at the time of its release. Oh, and the opening is one of the greatest credits sequences ever – Rosie Perez dancing to Public Enemy’s Fight The Power.
Any other New York classics that weve missed out? If so, let us know by commenting below.