One of the durable clichés of film criticism is the observation that “the city is like another character in the movie.” While I don’t have the data to prove it, my strong suspicion is that this has been said more about New York than any other city.
But it’s not quite right. Really, New York is a movie star, with Paris as its only serious rival among the world’s great metropolises. Its charisma is that of an old-fashioned screen idol, like Bette Davis, Cary Grant or Sidney Poitier. However many different faces the city might present to the camera — dressed up or roughed up, gritty or glamorous, tragic or madcap — it remains always and unmistakably itself.
And like any human movie star worth talking about, New York off screen can be difficult as well as charming. It’s seductive, demanding, elusive and impossible to separate from its image. Perpetually on, perpetually engrossed in the theater of its existence.
To live in the city is to play a part in that spectacle, and to play along with it. You might be strolling through your own private tracking shot, accompanied by a voice-over narration in your head (some days it’s “Taxi Driver,” some days it’s “Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” some days it’s “Do the Right Thing”), when you’re brought up short by the sight of a blocklong line of trailers, equipment trucks, dollies and cranes. A recent film-studies graduate with a headset or a walkie-talkie blocks your path, telling you not to cross the street until the take is finished. Sometimes you discover that the corner grocery where you get your egg-and-cheese has been made over in some outlandish period style and stuffed with costumed extras. Or that your Subaru has been towed to make room for a boxy old Buick.
Movies may conjure an aura of magic in our lives, but moviemaking offers New Yorkers one more thing to complain about, along with late trains, snarled traffic, hordes of slow-moving tourists, incomprehensible parking and trash-collection rules, and everything that just isn’t the way it used to be whenever it was supposed to be better than now.
Movie production, which has waned and waxed over the years and is currently booming, is at once a source of present-day frustration and a subject for nostalgic wonder. These photographs selected from the archives of The New York Times — spanning the middle and later decades of the last century — illustrate that wonderful temporal paradox. They are fragments of the daily record that survive as time capsules.
It isn’t a comprehensive record by any means. These images are the products of serendipity, or days when film crews and news photographers happened to occupy the same block at the same time. Producers and stars don’t always accommodate journalists on set, and journalists are sometimes chasing more urgent news, so some of the most famous New York movies aren’t represented here. But most likely you can picture those too. Every movie-lover carries an archive of moments and images, a fantasy history gleaned from the work of born-and-bred New York filmmakers and Hollywood interlopers alike. Even if our firsthand local knowledge is strictly tourist fare, we’ve acquired street wisdom from Martin Scorsese, Woody Allen and Spike Lee. We’ve breathed the smoky, sleazy air of 1950s Times Square night spots with Tony Curtis and Burt Lancaster in Alexander Mackendrick’s “Sweet Smell of Success.” We’ve sashayed and stumbled through the pre-gentrification Lower East Side of the ’80s with Rosanna Arquette and Madonna in Susan Seidelman’s “Desperately Seeking Susan.”
There’s a core curriculum emphasizing early-60s glamour and mid-70s grime — Rock Hudson and Doris Day; Al Pacino and Gene Hackman — but also as many private canons as there are viewers. I can’t cross 110th street without thinking of Yaphet Kotto and Anthony Quinn in “Across 110th Street,” with its great Bobby Womack theme song. When I’m in the part of Brooklyn where brownstones give way to free-standing wood frame houses, I think “it’s the filet of the neighborhood,” quoting a line from “The Squid and the Whale.” Central Park has been filmed a thousand times, but for me it always evokes “Symbiopsychotaxiplasm Take One,” William Greaves’s 1968 meta-masterpiece about a filmmaker trying to shoot a movie in Central Park — a film bristling with the atmosphere of its era.
In some movies, though, the captured present is also a reconstructed past. Consider the image of the street crowded with pushcarts, horses and clotheslines crowded amid the cranes and lighting rigs. It’s from the set of the 1920s period piece “The Night They Raided Minsky’s,” reportedly the first musical to be filmed entirely in New York. When the movie was released in 1968, Renata Adler, then the Times’s chief film critic praised “its denseness and care in detail.” “The Lower East Side looks real,” she noted.
Looking at the photograph, we’re simultaneously in the ’60s and the ’20s, two distinctive moments in the modern metropolitan. A picture taken during the making of “Hair” produces a similar double image, looping the Age of Aquarius into the era — a scant decade later — of fiscal crisis and civic unraveling.
The city’s “now” is always right on the verge of turning into a “then.” The bubble that Natalie Wood is blowing on the set of “Penelope,” an all-but-forgotten mid-60s bored-housewife caper, is a symbol of this transience, which photography at once confirms and contradicts. We can see the bubble is about to pop, but it never does. And Wood remains forever stylish and insouciant in the courtyard of the Museum of Modern Art.
“The Night They Raided Minsky’s,” by the way, was directed by William Friedkin, much better remembered today for “The French Connection,” one of the defining New York movies of the ’70s, both timeless and entirely of its time, its grainy collage of battered locations growing more poetic each time you see it. There’s also one of the great car chases in all of cinema, with Gene Hackman’s Popeye Doyle speeding under the elevated subway tracks of Bensonhurst in pursuit of a suspect riding the train.
Popeye is a familiar New York movie archetype — the gruff, dogged, cynical NYPD gumshoe, cousin to Frank Sinatra’s Joe Leland in “The Detective” (a nasty piece of ’60s pseudo-noir) and Walter Matthau’s Zachary Garber in “The Taking of Pelham One Two Three.” That is maybe the great New York public transportation movie — a picture so nice they made it twice, with Denzel Washington and John Travolta in the 2009 version updating roles created by Matthau and Robert Shaw.
In 1974, when the original opened in theaters, the Times’s Nora Sayre declared, “It’s been a while since we’ve had a movie that really captures the mood of New York and New Yorkers.” “Pelham” did so then, and it does so still. It’s not just about an elaborate, possibly far-fetched scheme to hijack a train full of passengers and extort a huge ransom from the city; it’s also about the interplay of crime, bureaucracy and infrastructure, and about a system and a city organized around work.
These pictures reveal and celebrate the labor involved in the production of illusions that make their way back into reality. The movie camera arranges real, physical elements — buildings, faces, sidewalks, signs — into a fantasy. The still camera finds the seam between that fantasy and the world as it is and then unravels it. But also, what could be more ordinary? Movie stars are always movie stars, whether they’re blocking a scene, taking direction, getting their makeup done or enjoying a regal or raffish smoke between takes. Their glamour is intrinsic, ineffable. You know it when you encounter it, even as you go about your regular business and even when you can’t quite describe what you’ve seen.
That goes for cities too.
A.O. Scott is the co-chief film critic. He joined The Times in 2000 and has written for the Book Review and The New York Times Magazine. He is also the author of “Better Living Through Criticism.” @aoscott