Tony Curtis and Burt Lancaster in SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS (writers: Ernest Lehman, director: Alexander Mackendrick)
I recently had the unusual experience of being in New York City for six days and not having to be in a hurry to go anywhere. Over that period I came to appreciate again what a rich, deep role New York has played in the movies. (Not to mention the movie business.) So, I started making some notes and decided to share them here more as notebook entries rather than a formal essay.
I need to say up front that this post will be too much for some readers and not enough for others. I wanted to offer more than just a list of standout New York movies but I’m not offering any kind of academic, objective, exhaustive or authoritative analysis of the subject. This post (presented in at least two parts) doesn’t even touch on rich vein of truly independent features and documentaries set in and about New York City. No attempt is made to put these movies in order of quality or importance. The criteria I used for composing this list are simple: the movie’s story is set in and around New York City; the movie was shot primarily in and around New York City; the City is as much a character in the movie as any of the people; and it’s a movie I like very much in part or in whole.
My hope is that as you read this post you’ll discover or re-discover a title or two you enjoy as much or more than I do.
It’s likely that the four most heartbreaking words in American Cinema are: “It was you, Charley.” Brando delivers a variation of this line twice to Rod Steiger in the iconic — if improbable (witness the Venetian blinds) — cab scene in ON THE WATERFRONT (1954). The cast, the performances, the direction are unrelenting. This movie was a game changer for American movies. Don’t let the unironic use of the words like “Palookaville” throw you. WATERFRONT is still a moving film that expresses both the intimate and epic struggles of being human.
SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS (1957) was a box office failure in its time. In the years that followed it failed to gain a foothold with the public but came to exert great influence on generations of young filmmakers from Scorsese to Paul Thomas Anderson. How relevant and influential is this movie on today’s top content creators? One example: the titles of the second and third episodes of BREAKING BAD (season one) are direct references to SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS. The movie celebrates New York in all its neon glitz and concrete grime. Burt Lancaster’s character speaks for untold millions when he says, with a smile on his face: “I love this dirty town.” Sidney Falco is Tony Curtis’s most searing, unflinching performance. If nothing else the screenwriting of Ernest Lehman and Clifford Odets is to be praised for producing these gems: “The cat’s in the bag and the bag’s in the river.” “You’re dead son. Get yourself buried.” “Come back, Sidney! I want to chastise you.”
Jack Lemmon in THE APARTMENT (writers: Billy Wilder & I.A.L. Diamon, directed by: Billy Wilder)
THE APARTMENT (1960) – Roger Ebert made the observation that in many movies it doesn’t appear that the characters actually have jobs “but in THE APARTMENT they have to be reminded that they have anything else.” It’s doubtful any studio would greenlight THE APARTMENT these days. They wouldn’t know what it is – comedy or drama? But as the filmmaking team of Billy Wilder and I.A.L Diamond knew and demonstrated so well – life is both comedy and drama. THE APARTMENT is as perfect a screenplay as there is. The characters are transformed from archetypes into flawed human beings by exquisite writing, deft acting and confident directing. The production design and shooting of this film take full advantage not just of the setting of New York City but also of the ethos of The Organization Man era. THE APARTMENT is on my shortlist for all stranded-on-a-desert-island scenarios.
BREAKFAST AT TIFFANY’S (1961) – The opening sequence – the cab, the empty street, that dress, those gloves, jewelry and sunglasses… Audrey Hepburn, the epitome of taste and sophistication, window-shopping at Tiffany & Co while eating a cinnamon twist and drinking coffee from a paper cup. Come on! Everything in the frame and the angles chosen to frame the action are just perfect. Sam Wasson’s book, Fifth Avenue, 5 A.M. is a good and informative read with lots of behind the scenes notes on Holly Golightly’s New York.
There was a sea change in the kinds of movies that got made in the 1970s. The gritty, desperate, down and dirty filmmaking that prevailed in the ‘70s crossed paths in many cases with the City that teetered on the brink of disaster socially, politically and economically. The titles keep coming like water from a fire hose: MIDNIGHT COWBOY (1969). THE FRENCH CONNECTION (1971), SERPICO (1973), MEAN STREETS (1973), DOG DAY AFTERNOON (1975), THREE DAYS OF THE CONDOR (1975), TAXI DRIVER (1976), MARATHON MAN (1976), ANNIE HALL (1977), SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER (1977) – and that doesn’t even scratch the surface.
I’ll just comment on three:
THE GODFATHER (1972) – Not much I can contribute to the volumes of analysis and praise that already exist for THE GODFATHER and GODFATHER II. I’ll leave it at this for now: Robert Evans’s account of getting the movie made and its volatile New York premiere is one of the highlights of his essential Hollywood memoir: The Kid Stays in the Picture. If you haven’t read it, think about rectifying that.
NETWORK (1976) – New York City is to NETWORK as the ocean is to a fish. It’s the unquestioned environment in which the inhabitants struggle for everything from significance to survival. NETWORK neither romanticizes or demonizes NYC. What goes on there is examined and debated but the arena itself is not. That’s due mainly to writer/producer Paddy Chayefsky but also in no small part to director Sidney Lumet. Both men were creatures of NYC. NETWORK is both a time capsule and a prophetic text. The movie perfectly preserves the fashion and sensibilities of the “haves” who worked and lived there in the mid-70s. NETWORK’s commentary on the ever blurring lines between Big Business, The News and Entertainment were dismissed by some at the time but cannot be denied now. Lumet laughed away suggestions that the film was satire, claiming it was closer to straight reportage. The only thing the film “predicted” that hasn’t happened since the movie came out — as far as we know — is the on-air execution of a TV personality “because he had lousy ratings.” (I haven’t read it yet but Michale Itzkoff’s book on the making of NETWORK is in my queue.)
MANHATTAN (written & directed by Woody Allen)
MANHATTAN (1979) – There are a few writers and directors who – no matter where they’ve made movies – are considered, first and foremost, New York filmmakers. Sydney Lumet, Martin Scorsese, Nora Ephron, Spike Lee… But none have the body of work and commitment to the town that Woody Allen does. One need only to watch and listen to the opening three minutes and forty-five seconds of MANHATTAN to know this film is his ultimate love letter to NYC. In retrospect the 90 minutes that follow the opening take on a strange tone of art predicting life. Those minutes are also filled with some of the most striking photography of New York (in Black and White shot in 2:35:1) ever captured in a motion picture.
Coming in Part Two: 80s & 90s NYC Comedies and one of my favorite movies about the newspaper business.