Celluloid Skyline: New York and the Movies , by James Sanders. Alfred A. Knopf, 496 pages, $45.
So it’s 1930, and you’re a 300-ton, 90-foot gorilla, footloose, fancy-free, looking for kicks in New York City. “Gee, ain’t we got enough of those?” pipes up a sailor as you pass down Fifth Avenue, which gets that joke out of the way. Let it go; you’ve snacked on enough sailors in your trip to the city, and frankly you preferred the cod. Now you’ve arrived, where do you go? Where’s a primate of your standing to hang out? There’s really only one place. Tall enough to remind you of your mountain home, with a needle-like peak you can really swing from once you get to the top … there’s no two ways about it: Head for the Chrysler Building.
When King Kong began shooting in 1930, the Chrysler Building was, at 1,077 feet, the tallest skyscraper in New York, and the obvious place for Merian Cooper to bring his movie to its high-altitude climax. But King Kong was made during the fiercest growth spurt the Manhattan skyline had undergone, and by 1931 the Chrysler Building had been overtaken by the 1,250-foot Empire State Building, and so Cooper’s initial plans were scrapped: The Empire State it was, and a mythic match was made. Vaulting up the monolith’s side, Kong never seemed less apelike and more human, his ascent acting out our basic aspirational desire to rise above our environment and roar Lear-like defiance to the heavens-a message with particular piquancy for anyone who’s ever been stuck on the West Side Highway after 5 on a Friday.
That it took a giant ape to make the point should come as no surprise, for New York has always soaked up such extremes-from the sublime to the ridiculous, from The Great Gatsby (1974) to Ghostbusters (1984)-with the absorbency of blotting paper. “Here I felt anything could happen, anything,” thought Fitzgerald’s narrator, Nick Carraway, gazing upon this modern-day Ilium. And if that “anything,” upon closer inspection, turns out to be Dan Ackroyd aiming his splurge gun at a lime-green blob of ectoplasm wolfing down hot dogs, so be it.
James Sanders’ Celluloid Skyline radiates from a simple insight: New York is not just one city setting among others, but the city setting. Its shooting verticals and jutting horizontals offer filmmakers an instant lesson in composition, while its opportunities for random encounter are a dramatist’s dream. Tom Ewall must bump into Marilyn Monroe on his stairwell in The Seven Year Itch (1955) and George Peppard discover Audrey Hepburn on the fire escape in Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961); both films could only happen in a city which houses citizens the same way it stacks sandwiches. Film critics often pay Paris the compliment of saying that it’s the central “character” in a film, but New York isn’t a character: It’s pure plot waiting to happen-narrative, neat. One of Thomas Edison’s first films offered audiences the primal thrill of hurtling along the stretch of Lexington Avenue subway line that ran from 14th Street to Grand Central. Wait 70 years, add a couple of hijackers and a few daubs of graffiti, and you have The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (1974).
Most of the early movies made in the city were documentaries with staunchly on-the-nose titles like At the Foot of the Flatiron (1903) or Panoramic View of Brooklyn Bridge (1899). Even with these most straightforward snatches of reality, you could feel the forces of narrative muscling in from the sidelines, anxious to get to work: A man’s hat is blown off, and you sense the first tremors of slapstick; a woman’s skirt is blown over her head, and you can’t help fast-forwarding to Marilyn half a century later. As Mr. Sanders reminds us, the movies were born in New York, and the only reason they didn’t stay was the advent of sound; microphones couldn’t pick up the actors’ voices above the surrounding din-they called it “mike stew”-which meant that filmmakers moved indoors, into the sound studios.
In Hollywood, technicians recreated New York’s balustrades, cornices and moldings in loving detail, a feat of artistry whose only parallel, perhaps, is to be found in the late Renaissance-“Brunelleschi might have smiled,” Mr. Sanders writes-or maybe the alternative-universe fictions of Borges, who would surely have thrilled to the intimate connection being forged among architecture, artifice and memory. “Oh, to be back in Hollywood, wishing I was back in New York,” said Herman Mankiewicz, and it was out of that same double-edged longing that homesick writers buffed their dreams of New York to a mythic gleam-never more blinding than in Swing Time (1936), a true wedding cake of a movie. Astaire and Rogers make a gradual ascent from one dazzling penthouse nightclub to the next, before finally reaching the uppermost tier, the Silver Sandal, from whence they gaze out across a New York skyline that looks as if the stars had come down to hang out on earth for a while.
A skyscraper gives you a view of other skyscrapers, and therein lies the profound democracy of New York’s architecture. The city’s sights are available to all, for the simple reason that the city is its own sight, visible from any vantage point. This works in reverse, too: As John Updike has noted, New York glitters from afar, even when you’re in the middle of it-hence the almost ludicrous ease with which it can be mythologized. That mixture of proximity and distance is myth’s catnip.
The city is flattered by every angle, the distant perspectives afforded by Oz’s spires or the cheek-by-jowl confinement of Rear Window (1954). Hitchcock liked to prowl around his set, fussing and clucking proudly over its details-as well he might, for it was one of the last of its kind. After the war, audiences newly accustomed to the run-and-grab authenticity of the Pathé newsreels demanded more in the way of grime and grit; the era of the location shoot was ushered in, and New York was back in business.
So what had Gotham been up to while the movies were sunning themselves in California? How’d she look? “A little past her prime” would be the polite way of putting it. The urban landscape unveiled in the films of Sidney Lumet and Elia Kazan was all neon and rain, a city of garbage-strewn streets and rising crime levels-not only that, but if you believed Roman Polanski, a city where you stood a higher-than-average chance of moving in next-door to a coven of witches. The rheumy washed-out light that greets Popeye Doyle when he emerges, blinking, from a bar at 7 a.m. in The French Connection (1971) was achieved by overexposing the film and then overdeveloping the negative-a technical trick, in other words, as hokey, in its own way, as back-projection was in the 30’s and 40’s.
Was ever a movie era so instantly recognizable by the consistent lousiness of its weather? Under skies the color of reheated porridge, movie after movie competed to show off New York’s grungy anti-splendor. Think The French Connection looks pretty down in the dumps? Try Ratso Rizzo’s apartment and the vivid squalor of Midnight Cowboy (1969). The opening shot of Taxi Driver (1976)-Robert De Niro’s cab emerging through a plume of vapor-presented a haunting image of urban hellfire; it looked as if Hades had opened up and belched. Sit through to the film’s climax, and you realize it had.
One hesitates to point out that the vapor was merely steam produced by the underground network that so efficiently heats Manhattan buildings. After Martin Scorsese’s succinct summation of this style of velvet rot, something had to give. What better turning point than Woody Allen’s monologue at the beginning of Manhattan (1979)? When he flips through a Rolodex of descriptions of New York to see which one fits best, Mr. Allen could easily be offering a summary of Celluloid Skyline . “Chapter One: ‘He adored New York City. He idolized it out of all proportion. No matter what the season was, this was still a town that existed in black-and-white, and pulsated to the great tunes of George Gershwin …. ‘ No. Let me start over. ‘He was too romantic about New York, as he was about everything. He thrived on the hustle-bustle of the crowds and the traffic. To him, New York meant beautiful women and street-smart men who seemed to know all the angles …. ‘ Ach. Corny. Too corny. Let me try and be a little more … profound. Chapter One: ‘He adored New York City. To him, it was a metaphor for the decay of contemporary culture-the same lack of individual integrity that caused so many people to take the easy way out.’ No, it’s gonna be too preachy. Let’s face it-I want to sell some books here …. ” Mr. Allen eventually chose the first option, black-and-white and Gershwin tunes. Mr. Sanders’ book-an invaluable tour guide to several cities, each going under the name New York-gives us all of them.
Tom Shone is the New York film critic for the Daily Telegraph of London.