Cities on screen: the best New York films

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Hollywood is the factory but New York is the stage. To a film lover, the city is less a location than a genre unto itself. A New York movie is a New York movie before anything else, for all that you might call it a romance or a thriller. Like a singer delivering an old jazz standard, great films set in the city each take the same essential melody — yellow cabs and brownstones, the skyline and the mayhem below — and make it their own.

Watching films in New York itself is a hall-of-mirrors business. At least once I’ve stepped out of a Manhattan cinema into the same street where the movie I just watched had its final scene. (You remind yourself the credits have rolled and get coffee.) But here are a dozen films to transport you to New York wherever you really are. It could run to a hundred, I know. We’ll get to the others in the sequels.

After Hours

Where to watch: available to stream on Amazon Prime, iTunes and YouTube

New York by night, ’80s-style: Griffin Dunne and Rosanna Arquette in ‘After Hours’ (1985)
New York by night, ’80s-style: Griffin Dunne and Rosanna Arquette in ‘After Hours’ (1985) © Allstar Picture Library/Alamy

The temptation is to fill this piece with nothing but films by Little Italy’s own Martin Scorsese. But I’m choosing one, with due respect to Taxi Driver and the rest. Wildly underrated, After Hours (1985) — a screwball black comedy set over a single night — is also an express ticket to the Downtown Manhattan of the 1980s. The movie finds a hapless office worker (Griffin Dunne) on a date that spirals into a life-or-death odyssey. But an odyssey in one place — a SoHo still stuffed with artists’ lofts and dive bars.

Midnight Cowboy 

Where to watch: Amazon Prime, iTunes and YouTube

Everybody’s Walkin’: Jon Voight and Dustin Hoffman pace the streets of New York in ‘Midnight Cowboy’
Everybody’s Walkin’: Jon Voight and Dustin Hoffman pace the streets of New York in ‘Midnight Cowboy’ © AF archive/Alamy

Possibly not the favourite film of city tourism authorities when it came out in 1969, director John Schlesinger’s plaintive buddy movie took place in multiple New Yorks. Deluxe Park Avenue, a hip Andy Warhol-ish underground and, most bittersweet of all, a sad strata of doomed hustlers — they all shared the screen. Watch it once and you’ll never be able to hear John Barry’s wistful theme tune again without seeing Dustin Hoffman as Ratso Rizzo, asserting himself on a crosswalk: “I’m walkin’ here!” There spoke a New Yorker.

Do the Right Thing

Where to watch: Amazon Prime, iTunes and YouTube

Spike Lee’s ‘Do the Right Thing’ brought Bed-Stuy to the big screen
Spike Lee’s ‘Do the Right Thing’ brought Bed-Stuy to the big screen © Moviestore/Entertainment Pictures via ZUMA Press/Alamy

A journey out of Manhattan across the Brooklyn Bridge brings you to Bedford-Stuyvesant, scene of Spike Lee’s early career masterpiece. Like Scorsese, Lee grew up in New York and has often returned to the city for subject matter, and here he made the definitive study of a heatwave both literal and otherwise — an electric vision of culture clash and community, youth, old age, music, politics, love, hate and everything in between that is still as vital as the day it was released in 1989.

Man on Wire

Where to watch: Amazon Prime, iTunes and YouTube

High-wire act: funambulist Philippe Petit walking between the Twin Towers
High-wire act: funambulist Philippe Petit walking between the Twin Towers © Jean-Louis Blondeau/Polaris/​eyevine

Beyond breathtaking — if also touched by melancholy — the documentary Man on Wire is made by one outsider to the city, British director James Marsh, about another, Philippe Petit. The latter arrived in New York in 1974 as a French high-wire artist with an unbelievable plan — to illicitly sling a tightrope between the Twin Towers and walk the result. You would expect the film to be a shot of adrenaline — it is — but the surprise is how strangely tranquil it can be too.

The Taking of Pelham One Two Three

Where to watch: Amazon Prime, iTunes and YouTube

The original 1974 version of New York subway thriller ‘The Taking of Pelham One Two Three’, which was remade in 2009
The original 1974 version of New York subway thriller ‘The Taking of Pelham One Two Three’, which was remade in 2009 © APL archive/Alamy

Made the same year Petit walked his high wire, this glorious crime thriller went underground instead. You could hardly hope to visit New York through movies without taking the subway, and here you will find the expertly clammy story of a hijacked 6 train, come to rest under 28th Street. The thin blue line of the transit police is played by Walter Matthau, his very accent a local wonder, made in the Lower East Side.

Breakfast at Tiffany’s

Where to watch: Amazon Prime and iTunes

Audrey Hepburn in ‘Breakfast at Tiffany’s’, whose opening scene was shot at the jeweller’s Fifth Avenue flagship
Audrey Hepburn in ‘Breakfast at Tiffany’s’, whose opening scene was shot at the jeweller’s Fifth Avenue flagship © Allstar Picture Library/Alamy

As so often with great New York movies, the interiors of Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961) were a Hollywood creation, shot on soundstages on the Paramount lot. But interiors are overrated. Was it that the real locations — first among them the Fifth Avenue flagship Tiffany & Co — were timeless? Or did the movie make them so? As Audrey Hepburn gazed into the jeweller’s window in the opening scene, she was accompanied off camera by hundreds of curious New Yorkers — watching as a storefront was made a cinema landmark.

Uncut Gems

Where to watch: Netflix

Adam Sandler as a jeweller with a gambling problem in 2019’s ‘Uncut Gems’, which is set in Manhattan’s Diamond District
Adam Sandler as a jeweller with a gambling problem in 2019’s ‘Uncut Gems’, which is set in Manhattan’s Diamond District © Netflix/AF archive/Alamy

Just a few blocks south of Tiffany’s is a different New York to the high society of Holly Golightly. Another kind of movie too. The Diamond District of West 47th Street is a place of rough-hewn buying and selling, a singular spot that became the backdrop for the frantic Uncut Gems (2019). The nonstop story of a jewel dealer with a gambling habit, it isn’t just the Midtown locations that take you to New York. It’s the pitch the movie plays at too — a crazed, cacophonous, irresistible rush hour of a film.

Saturday Night Fever 

Where to watch: Amazon Prime, iTunes and YouTube

John Travolta beneath the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge in  ‘Saturday Night Fever’
John Travolta beneath the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge in ‘Saturday Night Fever’ © TCD/Alamy

Another Brooklyn story, the 1977 movie that made a star of John Travolta is sometimes thought of as a fun glitterball of a film. The white suit, the dance-floor strut — all are in place. But it’s not quite what that reputation suggests. A gritty story of Catholic guilt and dead-end frustration, it also gives us a version of the city that rarely makes it on screen — an outer borough tour of Bay Ridge and the Verrazzano—Narrows Bridge.

Frances Ha

Where to watch: Amazon Prime, iTunes and YouTube

Greta Gerwig (left) in a ‘Frances Ha’ scene shot in Tompkins Square Park in the East Village
Greta Gerwig (left) in a ‘Frances Ha’ scene shot in Tompkins Square Park in the East Village © Photo 12/Alamy

As generations of New Yorkers have found, staying in the city through hard times can be a Herculean task. In fact, the financially stretched heroine of Noah Baumbach’s spry comedy Frances Ha (2012) — played by co-writer Greta Gerwig — briefly bounces out altogether (as far as Paris). And yet she returns, still smitten. The movie makes hay with the eternal stuff of being young and late with the rent in Prospect Heights and Chinatown.

Desperately Seeking Susan

Where to watch: Amazon Prime and iTunes

Madonna in Battery Park in 1985’s ‘Desperately Seeking Susan’
Madonna in Battery Park in 1985’s ‘Desperately Seeking Susan’ © TCD/Alamy

So many films and not one set in a New York movie theatre. Let’s correct the oversight with Desperately Seeking Susan, a charming ’80s indie romcom made on the overlap of the city’s post-punk and clubland scenes, with key moments shot in the now defunct Bleecker Street Cinema. The film was a surprise hit through the sudden fame of its co-star, Madonna. She is good in it, I swear. The conjuring of Greenwich Village and Battery Park are even better.

Killer’s Kiss

Where to watch: Amazon Prime and iTunes

Stanley Kubrick captured what was then Brooklyn’s ‘wasteland hinterlands’ in his early work ‘Killer’s Kiss’
Stanley Kubrick captured what was then Brooklyn’s ‘wasteland hinterlands’ in his early work ‘Killer’s Kiss’ © Granger Historical Archive/Alamy

Not every great director who came of age in New York made endless movies there. Like Spike Lee and Scorsese, Stanley Kubrick spent his youth in the city. Unlike them, he only made New York films at either end of his career. The looming Eyes Wide Shut was his last — among his first was Killer’s Kiss (1955), a quick and dirty boxing-noir that doubles as a vivid snapshot of Kubrick’s home town. Filming guerrilla-style without permits, the young maestro takes in a frantic Times Square, the Beaux Arts grandeur of the original Pennsylvania Station (demolished in 1963) and the warehouse hinterlands of Dumbo, ghostly under the Manhattan Bridge.

Summer of Soul

Where to watch: Disney+

Sly Stone performing at the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival, as seen in ‘Summer of Soul’
Sly Stone performing at the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival, as seen in ‘Summer of Soul’ © Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures. © 2021 20th Century Studios

And to end, the most recent film on the list but one that actually dates back to 1969. That was the year of the first and only Harlem Cultural Festival, a rolling inner-city celebration of black music. The film shot to capture the event then sat dusty and forgotten until a belated release in 2021. The performances are spellbinding — I defy anyone to sit unmoving through Sly and the Family Stone’s soaring “Everyday People” — but the headline act is Harlem itself. One Sunday as the music played, man walked on the moon. No mean feat but a small wonder compared to Harlem.

Danny Leigh is the FT’s film critic

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