The city that never sleeps, New York is probably one of the most used settings in movies, television shows, and novels. From romantic comedies to thrillers and indie films, New York has become a staple in cinema and television, a place where everything can magically happens. However, it is important not to forget that even if some movies are based on real-life occurrences, they still embellish parts of the narrative. A recurrent thing that happens is to showcase New York City as far from what it is in real life.
New York City was considered the second-dirtiest city in the world, losing first place to Rome in Italy. Cleaning up a city for a movie is not something that happens only in New York; it is a common practice. These movies are trying to sell an ambiance for their stories, and sometimes overflowing trash cans and other common elements from these places are not a fit. Even if it’s been cleaner after Giuliani, there is a high degree of violence happening in the Big Apple, which most of the time tends to be ignored in rom-coms and sweet indie movies where the lame cliché of “New York being a character” runs rampant.
Here are some of the movies that showcase a different New York: a dirty and unforgiven one.
8 After Hours
While most movies are set in Manhattan, it is fundamental to remember that the city is a lot bigger than that. The wild Martin Scorsese film After Hours follows Paul (Griffin Dunn) as he attempts to make his way home one long night, going from the Upper East Side to Soho. The movie depicts Soho during the 1980s and does a great job of showcasing the nightlife of that time. From scenes with empty streets at night to a real subway station in Soho, New York is a part of this journey that turns violent and surreal. The scenario of the city that never sleeps becomes almost a threat in Scorsese’s work.
7 American Psycho
Wall Street, the stock exchange, investments, and the intense world that it all happens in is probably one of the most uniquely ‘New York’ things, apart from maybe Broadway. There are various movies about this epicenter of greed, but American Psycho stands out as a brutal satirical take on Wall Street and capitalism as a whole. In this particular case, while the city itself is not the focus, it is its influence and what it does internally to some people (along with the drugs and sex work which populate its streets). The greed and the need of these characters have been enhanced by the place they live in, creating a different type of hellscape.
6 Léon: The Professional
Léon: The Professional is one of the most heartwarming and heartbreaking movies with a hitman as the lead. The first feature film by Natalie Portman has become a fan favorite over the years. And while most of this story was filmed inside a studio in Paris, there are scenes that Were shot in actual New York – without cleaning the streets beforehand. Setting the emotional narrative of Leon: The Professional in New York City is a great call, and it adds a lot to the violence and sense of loneliness that are embedded in the characters.
Another Scorsese movie, Goodfellas is a somewhat historical piece: it starts in 1955 all the way to the 1980s, following Henry Hill (Ray Liotta) and the rise and fall of gangsters that marked New York from its beginning. The movie showcases a darker side to the history of the city, showing how much violence happened in its streets, and who created this dangerous place for many. It doesn’t sugarcoat what happened (especially since it is based on real-life occurrences and people) and its scenario. It was mostly shot in Queens – exploring a different setting from the city.
4 Across 110th Street
Going back to the 70s there were various films set in New York, and Across 110th Street is one of them. An action-packed drama film that is not afraid to get violent, the film does a fantastic job of using locations inside Harlem as the background for this story. The name of the movie is inspired by the city’s geography: the line that ends Central Park and Harlem starts. The thriller starts when money is stolen from the mafia, and two cops go after amateur crooks who are about to start a gang war.
3 Do the Right Thing
Spike Lee’s film Do the Right Thing It also takes a step away from Manhattan and dives into the black community in the Bedford-Stuyvesant area of Brooklyn. The film tackles racism inside the neighborhood, as Buggin’ Out (Giancarlo Esposito) notices that there are only Italian artists in the Wall of Fame of a pizzeria in a black neighborhood. When the movie was released back in 1989, it was extremely divisive. The central themes, unfortunately, continue to be current: representation, racism, climate change, and police brutality.
2 Killer’s Kiss
Killer’s Kiss is a crime noir directed by Stanley Kubrick. It was the director’s second feature film and was made with the money his relatives were able to raise. The movie was shot in New York, and Kubrick actually did most of the external scenes without any on- location filming permits.
Because of that, there is little embellishment to the streets and alleys present in the movie, and while there are a few well-known locations, most of them are unknown alleys that give character to the production. This kind of guerilla filmmaking really captured the grittiness of New York at the time, something also seen in the masterpieces Blast of Silence and The Naked City.
1 Taxi Driver
“Are you talking to me?” Yet another Scorsese film, the beloved Robert De Niro thriller Taxi Driver uses a dirty and cruel New York, most specifically Hell’s Kitchen, as the setting for its protagonist, Travis Bickle. From the lead’s apartment, his taxi, and the city in general, the filthy present is almost a part of Bickle himself. Impossible to think of setting this movie in any other big city, and even less to sugarcoat the reality of people that actually live there – something that is quite romanticized in various movies. There is a lack of mercy and grace present in the story that blends into how the city is portrayed, and it’s darkly captivating.