From Park Slope to Katz’s Deli: Gotham Captured on Celluloid

My favorite still from a movie made in New York is not in this book. I first saw it as

My favorite still from a movie made in New York is not in this book. I first saw it as a child of 11 or 12—I could have been leafing though Daniel Blum’s A Pictorial History of the Silent Screen (1953). (My future was all mapped out for me even then.) The still showed two actors in a dueling scene, but it wasn’t the posturing actors or the cheesy costumes that fascinated me—it was the fact that the duelists were posed in front of the Bethesda fountain in Central Park.

What can I say? Some thrill to the antiquity of Thebes or Florence—for me, the seminal moment was that first glimpse of the apparently eternal architecture of the Bethesda fountain. Would it be giving the sentimental game away to admit that every time I come to New York, I make a pilgrimage to the fountain? I spend an hour or so reflecting on the long, strange trip from that single still glimpsed decades ago.

I suspect that Scenes from the City may have a similar effect on many people. The cover features the iconic Brian Hamill photo from Manhattan: Woody Allen and Diane Keaton on a park bench just before dawn gazing at the Queensboro Bridge. The shot has lost none of its ravishing power. (If only the same could be said of Woody Allen.)

The essence of New York is that it’s too big to be one thing—it’s the city as schizophrenic, with something for everybody, in any mood. So it’s appropriate that Scenes from the City is sufficiently varied, and luscious enough, to melt the heart of the fiercest partisan of pastoral pleasures.

The book takes as its start date 1966, when John Lindsay established the Mayor’s Office of Film, Theatre and Broadcasting—one-stop shopping that cut a Solomonic swath through what had been an impossibly complicated sequence of permissions, a labyrinth that kept filmmakers from working easily in New York. (The bureaucratic hurdles never stopped the good people who populated the Biograph, Vitagraph and Astoria studios, or filmmakers like Rouben Mamoulian—but none of them are featured here, because this is a book that carries the imprimatur of the Mayor’s Office, which apparently wants to give the impression that hardly anybody shot films in New York before John Lindsay smoothed the way.)

Attention is paid to Jules Dassin, who shot The Naked City all over town, and to Billy Wilder, who filmed Ray Milland’s harrowing walk in The Lost Weekend under the Third Avenue el on New Year’s Day 1944. Abraham Polonsky went to the trouble of coming to New York for some key shots for Force of Evil. And there’s the great opening sequence of West Side Story.

But—and I find this extremely odd—only cursory attention is paid to Sidney Lumet, the patron saint of New York film production, who began his love affair with the place tangentially in 1957 with 12 Angry Men, his first movie, and comprehensively the next year with Stage Struck. But then, nothing is said about other New York–centric movies like Selznick’s Portrait of Jennie.

Scenes from the City is organized by area, which is as good as any other principle. This is a coffee-table book, and coffee-table books live or die by the pictures, the meat for which the words are only seasoning.

Editor James Sanders, a practicing architect and the author of Celluloid Skyline (2001), lets the pictures take flight while he supplies the information that makes the book a useful reference tool. (I spotted one error: Abraham Polonsky wrote Madigan, a good 1968 policier, but he didn’t direct it—the director was Don Siegel.) Mr. Sanders documents where the stills—and scenes they represent—were shot.

For the dedicated cinephile, these are Stations of the Cross. Marilyn Monroe’s dress billowing up over the subway grating in The Seven-Year Itch was shot along Lexington between 51st and 52nd streets. (Mr. Sanders proceeds to ruin our re-enactment fantasies by telling us that the scene was reshot back at the studio.) Dog Day Afternoon was shot on Prospect Park West between 17th and 18th streets, just south of Park Slope in Brooklyn. The chase in The French Connection was shot in 30 blocks of 86th Street in Brooklyn, ranging from the Bay 50th Street Station to the 62nd Street Station of the D line. The delicatessen scene in When Harry Met Sally … was shot at Katz’s Deli at 205 East Houston Street. And that bridge shot from Manhattan was taken at the foot of 58th Street on Aug. 14, 1978, at about 4 in the morning.

Beyond the cold, hard facts, there’s the intrinsic romance of the images: Albert Finney and Diane Venora—clearly unaffected by vertigo—climbing to the top of the Manhattan Bridge with the World Trade Center towers in the background. Woody Allen and Diane Keaton, again, silhouetted in the old MoMA garden. (“If you don’t get good stills on a Gordon Willis movie,” Mr. Hamill observes, “then you’re not doing your job properly.”)

No differentiation is made between the sainted and the shonda: Hudson Hawk gets a still, as does Annie Hall, and the strange, forlorn Vanilla Sky—remember Tom Cruise running through an eerily beautiful, abandoned Times Square? (We get a background primer from Lt. John Battista, former commanding officer of the city’s TV and movie unit: The Times Square scene was shot in about an hour and a half on a Sunday morning, beginning at first light. No C.G.I.—a real actor in a real location. Pure magic.)

As lagniappe, there’s a Q&A with Martin Scorsese, and also a short piece by Nora Ephron. But again I say: Where’s Sidney Lumet, who was making movies in New York when Mr. Scorsese was a kid watching punks blow up mailboxes in Little Italy?

Scott Eyman, a film historian and biographer, reviews books regularly for The Observer.

From Park Slope to Katz’s Deli:  Gotham Captured on Celluloid