It’s the cultural center of the United States, and arguably of modern Western civilization. As one of the primary entry points for new immigrants, New York City is an incubator for all sorts of new artistic and commercial influences. And, on the big screen, it’s been annihilated dozens of times. Even when they don’t depict the city’s wipeout, the best action flicks, film noirs, and dark comedies set in the Rotten Apple have a certain grit in matching the city’s hardscrabble rep. Here are a few of our favorites.
1. King Kong (1933): The legend began here. An unscrupulous promoter drags the titular giant ape to the big city, hoping to break him into showbiz. The big guy falls in love, escapes, takes his frustration out on the locals, and is eventually brought down while swinging from the Empire State Building. King Kong was remade—once in 1976, and again in 2005 as a full-blown epic—but film buffs still go to the source.
2. Citizen Kane (1941): Now widely considered one of the greatest films ever made, Citizen Kane, at the time of its release, did not fare well at the box office. A loose biography of newspaper publisher William Randolph Hearst and a broader look at the dark side of American capitalism and celebrity, Kane broke dramatically with filmmaking and storytelling traditions. Hearst despised the movie, refused to cover or advertise it, and was rumored to have planned personal retaliation against producer, director, and star Orson Welles, who nevertheless became a 20th Century icon in the film’s wake.
3. The Naked City (1948): Starting as an early example of the faux-documentary, Jules Dassin’s classic black-and-white cop noir pores over the city’s mid-century landscape, exploring the seediness beneath its elegant façade. A veteran homicide cop and his rookie partner investigate the murder of a declining glamour girl, knocked out with chloroform and drowned in a bathtub. The film dwells as much on the details of police work as it does on action sequences, at least until the intensely gratifying final shootout. Mark Hellinger’s vintage-badass narration is something of a holdover from the age of the radio drama.
4. The Sweet Smell of Success (1957): This relentlessly nihilistic noir stars Tony Curtis as an asshole press agent and Burt Lancaster as a manipulative newspaper columnist. The main characters abuse their power to destroy the personal lives of those they, for whatever reason, happen to dislike. Stuffed with contrived rumors and false accusations, the movie examines the lower depths of yellow journalism and touches on the Red Scare of the ‘50s. While certainly a product of its paranoid times, Smell differentiates from the film noir pack with its intense acting and cutting dialogue.
5. Rosemary’s Baby (1968): According to his autobiography, The Kid Stays In the Picture, Hollywood power-broker Robert Evans convinced lead actress Mia Farrow to leave her then-husband Frank Sinatra to star in this Roman Polanski thriller, which indeed made her a major star. Farrow moves into a creepy NYC apartment building and discovers that she’s pregnant, due in June of ’66. She begins to lose it as evidence mounts that she is, indeed, knocked up with the Antichrist. Shameless publicity hounded Anton Szandor LaVey, founder of the Church of Satan, who tried to associate himself with the film after the fact, although he apparently had nothing to do with it.
6. Planet of the Apes (1968): Whenever apes get loose in New York, all hell seems to break loose. Set two centuries in the future, the film stars future gun nut Charlton Heston as a scientist held prisoner by a quasi-fascist society of apes who threaten to lobotomize him if he can’t get with their program. He slowly comes to realize that “Ape City” is in fact what remains of the City of Bricks. Apes spawned a massive franchise, including sequels, comic books, animated features, and a 2001 remake.
7. Midnight Cowboy (1969): The first X-rated feature to win an Oscar, Midnight Cowboy stars Jon Voight and Dustin Hoffman as two hapless drifters in the decadent New York underworld of the ‘60s. After going broke, Voight’s dumbass Texan begins turning tricks for cash, and Hoffman’s grizzled bum helps him establish a degenerate lifestyle. Eventually, they infiltrate a party scene featuring appearances from several regulars at Andy Warhol’s Factory. It’s a colorful, ultimately brutal look at the big-city low life.
8. The Godfather (1972): This one modernized the Mob craze (later inherited by The Sopranos and Jay-Z), and was the first major Mafia drama produced by, and starring, ethnic Italians. From the beginning of the notoriously difficult production, director Francis Ford Coppola established that he did not want to shoot a film about organized crime, but about family politics, which gave the film and its sequel a dramatic depth beyond its thrills and shock value. It’s chock full of need-to-know badass quotes and references. Let’s just pretend Godfather III, which launched the cinematic career of Coppola’s daughter Sofia, never happened.
9. Superfly (1972): Considered a classic of the then-nascent “blaxpolitation” subgenre, Superfly stars Ron O’Neal as Youngblood Priest, a cocaine dealer trying to scrape his way out of the business. O’Neal’s steely lead is arguably outclassed by his customized Cadillac Eldorado, his coke-spoon necklace, and Curtis Mayfield’s soundtrack, which out-grossed the movie. But it drew early attention to the drug epidemic that would come to define inner city New York in the ‘70s and ‘80s. And it set the stage for many, many films and soundtracks to come.
10. Dog Day Afternoon (1975): In the “dog days” of August, New York City gets unbearably hot and humid. This is when amateur criminal Sonny (Al Pacino) and his more seasoned accomplice, Sal (John Cazale) decide to jack a Manhattan bank branch. Almost every facet of their plan goes horribly awry, and it eventually turns into an intensely suspenseful police standoff. Cazale was one of the last guys who looked cool with a mullet.
11. Taxi Driver (1976): Today, violent, moralistic social outcast Travis Bickle (Robert DeNiro) might find companionship in the online anti-government movement. But, in ‘70s New York, he’s left to his own devices, taking classy ladies on dates to porno theaters, playing Captain Save-a-Hoe for underage hookers, and ranting to himself. The film takes on urban alienation and the strange dynamics of heroism. But it’s mostly about the sinister atmosphere developing in the city during the endless bummer of the mid ‘70s.
12. Ghostbusters (1984): Bustin’ still makes us feel good. Ghostbusters opened to record box office numbers and continues to endure as a comedy classic, despite its eccentric premise and gleefully convoluted plot. While obviously absurdist, the movie reflects co-writer and star Dan Aykroyd’s very real, very weird fascination with all things paranormal. (Insider tip: With its mix of childhood nostalgia value and constant sexual innuendo, Ghostbusters is the greatest stay-at-home date flick of all time.)
13. Wall Street (1987): The message of Oliver Stone’s Wall Street is: “in the ’80s, mega-capitalism and banking industry greed were out of control.” But what many people seem to have taken from it is, “Gordon Gekko (Michael Douglas’s proudly corrupt banker) is awesome.” I guess dark comedy is open to interpretation. Gekko is certainly the most troublesome sort of badass, and it’s nice to be reminded that risky, flagrant immaturity is nothing new in the financial sector.
14. The Usual Suspects (1995): The devil is not a man with horns and a tail. In fact, as this psychological thriller illustrates, sometimes the personification of pure, ice-cold human evil appears as harmless as Kevin Spacey. The tale of an ill-fated criminal gang is told in flashbacks from Roger “Verbal” Klint (Spacey)’s police interrogation. Despite hinging on a surprise plot twist, the movie holds up to repeated viewings as a study of a sociopath.
15. American Psycho (2000): More than a decade after Wall Street, Hollywood still sought out humanity’s worst in New York’s financial corridor. Based on the feminist-denounced Bret Easton Ellis novel, Psycho features an avid Phil Collins fan and classic banker douchebag who develops a messy murder habit. Or at least it seems that way, until even the character’s morbid second life begins to unravel. Particularly famous for the darkly hilarious business card scene.