On Location: New York

King Kong 1933
King Kong 1933

The five boroughs of New York having always been the stuff that movie dreams are made of. The American film industry may have been born across the Hudson River in New Jersey, but quickly moved to Manhattan and by the 1920’s, the city was buzzing with studios producing silent films. Then in 1926, Hollywood sprung up virtually overnight in the California desert and sucked the industry west. In less than two years, film production dropped nearly 60%. When tinsel town made the full conversion to ‘talkies’ in 1932 it vacuumed up the rest of the business, along with hundreds of Broadway-based New York writers, administering a last, mortal blow the city’s film industry.

Those writers, collecting fat paycheques in the California desert became homesick for the cafes, lights and glamour of Manhattan and set many of their films back ‘home.’ Hollywood’s answer to the missing skyscrapers was sets. At its peak, the studios had more than twenty standing sets recreating entire New York neighbourhoods, most notably Paramount’s five-acre ‘city’ including Fifth Avenue, Beekman Place, the Upper West Side, Greenwich Village and Soho.

As a result, many classic “New York” films such as King Kong, Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window and almost all of Humphrey Bogart’s early films with the Dead End Kids were shot entirely in Hollywood. When Samuel Goldwyn showed up on the set of Dead End, he became enraged that the set designer had littered the rundown buildings with rubbish and ordered it cleaned up, yelling, “There won’t be any dirty slums in a Goldwyn Picture.” Even Orson Welles’ masterpiece, Citizen Kane, was shot in California with location shots added for authenticity.

Until the 1970’s, virtually all moviegoers saw was an idealised vision of New York ‘City’.

Of course there were some notable exceptions. Marilyn Monroe’s 1953 dazzler, How to Marry a Millionaire was shot in a Sutton PlaceHow to Marry a Millionaire, 1953

apartment and glimmers with the lustre of old New York money. Elia Kazan’s On the Waterfront (1954) stunned moviegoers with a wretched, filthy city bereft of glamour; and Marlon Brando’s tortured cry, “I coulda been a contenda!” evoked a desperation that still echoes.  In 1961, audiences got a taste of the ritzy East Side with Breakfast at Tiffany‘s, falling in love with Audrey Hepburn’s Holly Golightly; and on the other side of town, a glimpse into the city’s racial problems with Jerome Robbins’ West Side Story.

While these films captured a sense of the city that could not be duplicated on

Midnight Cowboy, 1969
Midnight Cowboy, 1969

a back lot, they retained many standard Hollywood production values, a gloss that separated the ‘real’ New York from its widescreen counterpart. Then in 1969, John Schlesinger’s X-rated Midnight Cowboy exposed an out of control urban jungle where a sickly indigent cripple, Ratso Rizzo (Dustin Hoffman) and displaced Texas gigolo, Joe Buck (John Voight), struggle to survive in a rat-infested tenement. LA born Hoffman spat the ultimate NY line, “Hey! I’m walkin’ heah!” The film had an almost documentary quality, gritty and dark, its characters too lifelike to dismiss. Midnight Cowboy took Best Picture that year and New York shrugged off the Hollywood sheen.

While Schlesinger never made another New York film, the city brought forth three young filmmakers of its own who wrestled their hometown back from the celluloid imagination and ushered in a revolution; Woody Allen, Francis Ford Coppola, and Martin Scorsese. What these three knew was that a New York film has nothing to do with a beauty shot of the Statue of Liberty. It’s when the traffic and the rhythm of the subway beat in the script and the grime and glitter of the streets are the real leading lady. And she had two favourite co-stars, Al Pacino and Robert de Niro. Separately and together, these five defined the 70’s New York movie.

The 70’s were a tough time for the city. It was financially bankrupt. With the explosion in heroin and cocaine traffic, violent crime escalated out of

Annie Hall, 1977
Annie Hall, 1977

control. The South Bronx became a burned out, bombed out war-zone. Feminism, gay rights, disco, the punk scene, Son of Sam, racial tension, the advent of the Yuppie… It was a city under siege; and Allen, Coppola and Scorsese, along with Sidney Lumet, opened their lenses and got it all down on film: Serpico, Dog Day Afternoon, Annie Hall, Taxi Driver, The Godfather I & II, Manhattan, Network, Cruising, to name a few. In the eighties they were joined by Spike Lee who set his films in Black neighbourhoods and raised the real issues faced by minorities in the land of plenty with She’s Gotta Have It

Serpico, 1973
Serpico, 1973

and Do the Right Thing.

And the more they filmed, the more Hollywood sent production teams back east. In the early 70’s there were only a handful of films shot in New York each year, by the end of the decade, it was more than fifty. That number tripled by the end of the eighties and doubled again by 2000. These days a visitor can’t help stumbling across a film set. I was there last July, strolling through Greenwich Village on a hot summer night. Turned a corner to find mountains of ‘snow’ on the sidewalk and piled up in front of a grocery; a half dozen actors ‘freezing’ in heavy winter coats while the rest of the crew sweated in shorts and jandals. That ain’t Hollywood. It’s all New York.


200 Cigarettes (1999), Risa Bramon Garcia
25th Hour (2002), Spike Lee
Annie Hall (1977), Woody Allen
Basquiat (1996) Julian Schnabel
Cotton Club (1984), Francis Ford Coppola
Desperately Seeking Susan (1985), Susan Seidelman
Do the Right Thing (1989), Spike Lee
Dog Day Afternoon (1975), Sidney Lumet
Fame (1980), Alan Parker
Godfather I & II (1972 & 1974), Francis Ford Coppola
Goodfellas (1990), Martin Scorsese
How to Marry a Millionaire (1953), Jean Negulesc
In America (2003), Jim Sheridan
King of Comedy (1983), Martin Scorsese
Manhattan (1979), Woody Allen
Midnight Cowboy (1969), John Schlesinger
Network (1976), Sidney Lumet
On the Waterfront (1954), Elia Kazan
Requiem for a Dream (2000), Darren Aronofsky
Saturday Night Fever (1977), John Badham
Serpico (1973), Sidney Lumet
Shaft (1971) Gordon Parks
She’s Gotta Have It (1986), Spike Lee
Taxi Driver (1976), Martin Scorsese
West Side Story (1961), Jerome Robbins & Robert Wise

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