You can read up on the basis for this series here, and also find links to other posts in the series.
Movies I’ve reviewed on this site have a link in the title which you can follow to read my full review.
10) Once Upon a Time in America (1984), directed by Sergio Leone.
Once Upon a Time in America straddles an awkward line for me in deciding whether or not a movie should fit the “Period” or “Location” genre I’ve decided on; the title of the movie, for example, suggests I probably ought to throw this over to “Period.” The magic in this movie, to me at least, doesn’t lie in the time period; Noodles and his pals could have been gangsters from any part of the 20th Century and the story would still work. Prohibition, when Jewish gangs held serve, is as good a time as any. But New York is non-negotiable. The Manhattan Bridge is in its own way essential to the story, frequently looking down on the young Noodles, Max, Patsy, Cockeye, and Dominic. Before Max, their sights are set low, certainly no higher than street-level. They do odd jobs for Bugsy, not much older than a kid himself, such as lighting a newspaper stand on fire. Their reward – their choice – is a dollar or a chance to screw with a drunk guy trying to walk home. They choose the drunk. Max, recently arrived from the Bronx, rescues the drunk from the budding gang, who are then harangued by a cop. Max shocks them into more ambitious plans later on, becoming the de facto leader of their crew. He’s already crossed a bridge, where his new pals haven’t. He’s wise to a world outside the insular neighborhood it’s hard to imagine any of the other boys leaving without a push. Later on, after their first big business success (using the power of chemistry to hide sensitive packages in the river), all five deck themselves out in brand new suits and walk in their small pack. Dominic runs ahead and, in his excitement, does a little jig and runs on while the other four boys follow; all the while, the Manhattan Bridge is visible in the distance, framed between two buildings. It’s a key image for Once Upon a Time in America, the symbol of the future – engineering, technology, commerce – stuck irrevocably in between some old brick buildings in a run-down neighborhood where everyone over the age of eighteen is hamstrung by tradition.
The movie will leave New York City every now and again. Robert De Niro and Elizabeth McGovern head to Long Island in a section of the movie which has some of the most incredible unintentional comedy I’ve ever watched – De Niro quotes Song of Songs – and one of the most disturbing rape scenes ever put on camera, when Noodles decides that he’s going to have Deborah whether or not she gives consent. Needless to say, it’s not a good trip out of the city. Nor does a little trip to the beach with Max (James Woods) and Carol (Tuesday Weld) add much to the decor. For the most part, scenes in New York City simply have more vitality than scenes outside of it. That’s part of the reason why I think the run of the movie featuring kids is so superior to the De Niro-Woods-McGovern sections, both as twenty-somethings and old people; old, dusty New York is more firmly an important setting. (The other part has to do with how numb my limbs get after getting three hours into a movie and knowing there’s nearly another hour to go.) I always come back to this marvelous two-scene sequence which is totally unnecessary but which has always struck me as heartfelt and beautiful. Patsy (Brian Bloom) has heard that there’s a girl who will do some level of sexual favor for you if you bring her a Charlotte Russe. Patsy ponies up for the little cake, takes it to Peggy’s apartment, but gets her mom instead. He decides to wait outside with the cake where, predictably, he scarfs the thing down after a couple investigative swipes at the whipped cream. The music over him as the scene plays is from one of Morricone’s best scores; the setting is somehow even more important, centered on this ugly tenement during a cool afternoon. Meanwhile, as he sits in a filthy old stairwell, a young boy who came dreaming of something wonderful has a very different experience from what he’d guessed he’d have. It’s funny and sad at the same time, and built with little more than a setting, a prop, and a hungry kid.
9) The French Connection (1971), directed by William Friedkin.
Another movie which needs its location to work, another movie set in New York. (I promise there’s only one more movie in this genre which is set in New York, and the city is not important to the location itself.) When this post goes online, we’ll still have a few days left in a film festival put on by Film Forum featuring ’70s New York movies. Subtitled with the infamous headline “FORD TO CITY: DROP DEAD,” the festival recognizes that subgenre of New York movies which focus on the contemporary setting of a mighty metropolis so gross and ugly that it probably should have been put out to sea. And so you could choose any number of movies from the decade which are set in New York City and which look with hard, clear eyes on Gotham: Dog Day Afternoon, Serpico, The Taking of Pelham One Two Three, Mean Streets, Shaft, Midnight Cowboy, and so many more. I landed on The French Connection. Dog Day Afternoon is appealing to me for a similar reason: it has to do with temperature. Dog Day Afternoon has its sweltering late afternoon. The French Connection is set in the city when it is dark and gray and hazy and cold. Characters wear hats and gloves and long jackets, their breath in little clouds whenever they speak or run. Nothing could be worse than the impoverished, grimy hell of New York unless hell froze over, which is just what you get in this movie. I love it.
The French Connection will always be most famous for its chase scene – I have a funny feeling that’s the scene which put Friedkin and his film over Peter Bogdanovich and The Last Picture Show at the Oscars that year – but there’s a chase of sorts a few scenes before which I always think of first. While Popeye Doyle (Gene Hackman) is beating the right side out of that brown car he’s driving we can’t get much of a sense of place. While it takes place at, oh, one-tenth the speed of a car chasing a train, you can see the cold getting into everyone’s bones both above and below ground. Popeye is tailing Frog One (Fernando Rey) in sequences where dialogue is limited to the cop mumbling “Son of a bitch” to himself, or asking for a grape drink at the same stand where Frog One is sipping a drink himself. He runs down the steps to the subway and through this muddy, slick tunnel, only to discover that he’s been shaken by his target. It looks like a nasty day that everyone has shown up for; we come to recognize the Frenchman through his hat and his umbrella more than his face or even his physique. Sure, maybe this could be Chicago or Philadelphia or Boston or Detroit, but none of them imply quite the same level of malice as the badly lit, foully inhabited Big Apple.
8) The Shawshank Redemption (1994), directed by Frank Darabont.
In the scene I took my photo from – honestly, I could have chosen any one of twenty scenes and done just fine for myself – Andy (Tim Robbins) is trying to console Red (Morgan Freeman), who has just had his parole hearing turned down and will no doubt serve thirty years at Shawshank State Penitentiary. Andy reflects on how even ten years taken from a person are a massive loss. Andy needs nineteen years to chisel his way out of Shawshank, and in his nineteen years we see the prison building from nearly all angles; show this movie to an architect a few times and doubtless s/he could make you a rough blueprint of Shawshank. Some of the building changes over time; consider the library that Andy, showcasing the marvelous power of being a pain in the butt, manages to see built where there was only storage. But for the most part, the movie gives us the same places in different moments. Red mourns for thirty years of his life in the same place that he’d thrown a ball and the same place that all of the prisoners hear some smuggled-in opera. The cells are just the same, but it’s not always the same men in them. The decor in Andy’s cell, of course, changes every few years: Rita Hayworth, Marilyn Monroe, Raquel Welch. The mess hall is home to conversations that always seem to go back to the incompetency of each prisoner’s lawyer. Where so many stage plays adapted to the screen fail because they’re just plays with more realistic sets, The Shawshank Redemption uses time to sand down and repurpose its sets to build our familiarity with them. They have history to them.
The prison yard Red and Andy are talking in, with its stone walls and round top windows, is not unlike an old church. Even the forbidding facade of the place, if you ignore the fences and guard towers, has a cathedral’s quality to it. The inside is not much to write home about, but the outside has some beauty to it. (The Shawshank Redemption was shot at Ohio State Reformatory, which was built in the late nineteenth-century and designed in the Richardsonian Romanesque style which was popular at the time.) It’s a filmmaking choice which I think is essential to the movie. At about 140 minutes, Shawshank is a longer movie than I think most people remember it being, and it’s hard to center a popular movie in a starkly unattractive place for the whole of that time. Certainly the unusual style (by the standards of moviegoers who lived a century and more after H.H. Richardson died) of the building lends it a haunting quality to match its loveliness. The confluence of the church-like elements with the creepy ambience of the place give us a reason to believe in Shawshank as a ghost story. Even the dialogue, once again heard in the prison yard, supports the idea that the people inside the prison are neither living nor dead but in an inescapable in-between state. “Get busy living or get busy dying,” Andy mutters as he storms off one day; he is the rare ghost in that place for whom that’s a choice.
7) Beauty and the Beast (1991), directed by Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise.
In a movie where one of the main characters is a giant hairy monster who is being taught to love through the affection of a bookish teenager, it pays for symbolism that will give us insight into the monster without him needing to change in appearance. At the end of the film, as we all remember from our hundred childhood viewings, what appeared to be an imposing and frightening castle is changed, in color and decor, to an attractive and inviting one. Gargoyles are changed to angels. The sickly green roofs are turned to a happy pink, which, given the meanings those colors have in Beauty and the Beast (see the linked post for details on that), is appropriate. The castle is capable not of change so much as rediscovery. The ballroom where Belle and the Beast dance to “Tale as Old as Time” is this cavernous, reflective glory; Belle’s yellow dress is toned down in the gold of columns and walls and chandeliers, while the wide windows give us a deep blue night sky that is darker than the Beast’s handsome suit. (A scene that was not in the theatrical version but which is part of the DVD editions features a song called “Human Again,” which juxtaposes the hopes of the servants with the cleaning and refurbishing of the castle. It’s not a great scene, but it at least gives us the reason why the ballroom is beautiful when so much of the castle is ugly and foreboding.) The castle might even conform to Belle a little bit the longer she stays there; the giant library that the Beast gives her didn’t come from nowhere, obviously, but its raison d’etre is the girl, not anyone who’s lived there before.
As in The Shawshank Redemption, the familiarity we gain with the primary setting helps to increase our emotional involvement as viewers. There are more unexplored areas of the Beast’s castle than there are of Shawshank State Penitentiary, but there’s one difference which I think gives Beauty and the Beast an edge on this list. As viewers, we really don’t like the jail, which is always a jail in one film, but we become extremely fond of the jail that becomes a second home for Belle. I think part of the reason we react to that Mexican beach or that stone wall in the Maine countryside as fondly as we do, even beyond the nice things that happen there, is that we’ve finally left the prison. When people come destroy Belle’s former prison towards the end of Beauty and the Beast, it’s a moment of real anxiety in the movie. The Beast, whose castle is part of him and whose depression in losing Belle has reached its perigee of angst, tells Mrs. Potts to “Let them come.” Just as he personally cedes the castle (although the servants do a pretty good job of undoing that decision), he is willing to cede his life to Gaston’s hunt. Only Belle, who at this point is arguably even more essential to the fate of the castle than the Beast himself, can rouse him to take matters into his own…paws.
6) Out of the Past (1947), directed by Jacques Tourneur.
Picture links back here
There’s a scene fairly late in Out of the Past which I admire for its placement in a film noir. I’m not sure there’s another one that could do what Out of the Past does, where an urban tough named Stefanos (Paul Valentine) is turned around by a deaf-mute nicknamed The Kid (Dickie Moore) on some high rocks. The Kid skillfully manages to hook enough of Stefanos’ clothes onto his fishing hook that Stefanos loses his balance and falls to his death into a river from at least a couple stories up, so to speak. So much of Out of the Past takes place in this gorgeous natural setting, in Northern California and Nevada around Lake Tahoe. People go fishing. People drive on roads that appear to have been hacked out of the forest. Whit (Kirk Douglas) owns a majestic house looking out on Lake Tahoe, where you can eat your breakfast while getting this incredible view of pure American West.
Where most (neo-)noirs speed around the highways of Los Angeles or are talked out in apartments and police stations in Manhattan, Out of the Past reinforces the most interesting element of Jeff’s (Robert Mitchum) character through the setting. Jeff has run away from city life, has disappeared into the middle of nowhere (attractive as it is!) to escape his misdeeds, never dreaming that they might discover him in the country. Out of the Past has this interesting perspective about suburbia, even though I’m not sure the word existed in 1947. The people of Bridgeport might be able to alternately ignore and pay attention to Lake Tahoe – think about Jeff’s gas station and how that’s a quintessential “Point A to Point B” business – but they are forced to cede a great deal of their energy to the city once Jeff’s is accused of murder. Even before, they shared that small-town distrust of an outsider coming into their patch; the reaction of Ann’s parents to Jeff’s legal troubles is one we saw coming for miles. In a noir like Double Indemnity or The Maltese Falcon, what’s one more or less man? In Out of the Past, Jeff brings turmoil to an entire town for the mere fact of having once been involved with a gangster and the woman he loved. As a stakes-based noir, Out of the Past is incredibly successful in reference to its peers because of its setting, which gives it a greater proportion of lives to harm.
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