Skip to main content

Shot in the Naked City: Cinematic Mysteries and Film Noir Before 1960

Movies and television programs that film on location in New York are fairly ubiquitous these days. Walking through the city it's easy to stumble upon movie crews and their rows of equipment and catering trucks and rolls of cable necessary for shooting a scene. Contemporary audiences come to expect that a story set in New York should include recognizable streets and landmarks such as Grand Central Terminal, the Metropolitan Museum, the United Nations, Times Square and so forth. Yet, filming on location has not always been a requirement for a movie set in a particular place. The Thin Man, for example, as previously discussed, was shot in Hollywood, relying on references in the dialogue to situate the story along Fifth Avenue and the east side.


The earliest days of cinema before the move to Hollywood did feature real New York locations from time to time, as the city was the center of filmmaking from 1895 to 1910. For a glimpse of New York in 1901, just have a look at "What happened on Twenty-third Street, New York City" by Thomas Edison (Library of Congress). There are more short films like this one from the early era. The availability of talent on the Broadway stage provided a convenient local source for actors and stage personnel. Outside the city, places like Fort Lee, New Jersey and Cuddebackville, New York became popular for their picturesque natural scenery, providing excellent substitutes for imagining the Wild West. By the 1920s, the Astoria Studios in Queens, built by Paramount Pictures, turned out several films, including the Marx Brothers' first features (see extended post on Astoria and the Marx Brothers), but the productions normally stayed inside the walls of the studio. By the early 1930s New York as a center of filmmaking lost out to Hollywood.

The popularity of mysteries, crime dramas and the film noirs of the 1940s and 1950s, however,  benefited from the look of a real city, and setting the story in recognizable urban locations contributed to the sensation of real suspense. One of the first directors to reengage audiences with a real New York was none other than Alfred Hitchcock. With Saboteur (1942), a story about a wartime munitions worker falsely accused of sabotage, the director made use of several New York locations, including the finale at the Statue of Liberty. One of the memorable scenes in Spellbound (1945) takes place at Grand Central Terminal. Many more Hitchcock films exploit the tensions naturally available on crowded urban streets. Movies by other directors would soon follow.
Shot in the Naked City: Cinematic Mysteries and Film Noir Before 1960

The Naked City (1948) In the book Scenes From the City: Filmmaking in New York (Rizzoli, 2006), editor James Sanders writes of this film's breakthrough as "a talking picture shot almost entirely on location in New York." No less than 107 separate locations - from the Upper West Side to the Lower East Side - were used for the story. The crime drama focused on efforts by the Homicide Division to find the killer of a young woman, a basic premise that would be duplicated a thousand times and more in subsequent television dramas. A final chase sequence takes places on the Williamsburg Bridge.



• Force of Evil (1948) This film noir directed and co-written by Abraham Polonsky stars John Garfield as a lawyer who compromises his own morality when he defends a powerful gangster. For those annoyed by the relentless and often manufactured cheer of the happy holiday season, please take note of the review of the film in the New York Times from December 27, 1948:

Force of Evil"It may be that "Force of Evil," which opened at Loew's State on Christmas Day, is not the sort of picture that one would choose for Yuletide cheer. It's a cold, hard, relentless dissection of a bitter, aggressive young man who let's himself get in too deep as the lawyer for a "policy racket" gang. And as such it is full of vicious people with whom the principal boy associates, it reeks of greed and corruption and it ends in death and despair."

The death and despair do end in a scary scene near the George Washington Bridge. For hardened realists, Force of Evil would be a good movie to cue up on Christmas Day. As an additional note, the film's director was subsequently blacklisted by the studios, forcing him to lose work and write screenplays under pseudonyms. He later wrote the screenplay Madigan (1968) under his own name, but he remained a committed leftist until the day he died in 1999.

Pickup on South Street (1953) "How many times you've been caught with your hand where it doesn't belong?" Writer and director Samuel Fuller drew upon his experience as a New York City crime reporter to set this Cold War police detective drama near the seaport in lower Manhattan. Starring Richard Widmark ("as Skip, the pickpocket who got his fingers into everything"), Jean Peters, and Thelma Ritter, the movie follows Widmark as he becomes the target for Communists.



Killer's Kiss (1955) One powerful sequence for writer and director Stanley Kunrick's early film is set under the beautiful canopy of the tragically demolished Penn Station, the McKim, Mead and White masterpiece from 1910. The film noir centers on a New York boxer as he tries to protect a dancer from the grip of her evil boss.



The Wrong Man (1956) Alfred Hitchcock again makes use of Gotham locations in yet another story of mistaken identity. This time a musician in New York's Stork Club (played by Henry Fonda) is confused by the police for a robber. The stress of his arrest and the subsequent trial causes his wife to suffer a nervous breakdown. Based on the true story of "Manny" Balestrero and a book by Maxwell Anderson, locations in the film include the Stork Club at 3 East 53rd Street near Fifth Avenue, City Prison in Queens, Balestrero's home in Jackson Heights on 74th Street, and several bars and delis in Brooklyn and Queens. Bernard Herrmann's score accentuates the anxiety of mistaken identity.



Sweet Smell of Success (1957)
I've recently written a post about this memorable film noir, describing it as "a dark tone poem about the moral hazards accompanying the nearsighted pursuit of power, fame and fortune." Cinematographer James Wong Howe makes the night street scenes in New York look both fatally attractive and well, fatal.

Image: Screen capture from The Wrong Man (1956).

See related post: Thelma Ritter: An Appreciation









Popular posts from this blog

North Towards Autumn: A Day Trip on the Metro-North Hudson Line

The peak of autumn colors in New York City tends to fall sometime in the days following Halloween, but those anxiously waiting leaf change can simply travel north.  Near Beacon, a view of autumn colors from the Metro-North Hudson line One way to speed the fall season is to take the Hudson line of Metro-North north of the city and watch the greens fade to oranges and yellows and the occasional burst of red.  Autumn light in Hastings-on-Hudson Weekends during the month of October are ideal times to make the trip. The air tends to be crisp with bright blue skies, and the Hudson River glimmers like a mirror in the light of autumn. As the Hudson line hugs the river for much of the distance north, the train ride alone provides plenty of opportunities for sightseeing. Try to grab a window seat on the river side of the train car for views of the Palisades and the bends of the Hudson Highlands later in the trip.   Autumn leaves on the Old Croton Aqueduct Trail in Hastings Still, October is a gr

Early Voting in Washington Heights, and A Walk

Early voting for the 2020 federal election in New York began on Saturday, October 24 and continues through Sunday, November 1. The weekend was overcast and autumnal, with the bright yellows of fall on display. In New York City, thousands of New Yorkers turned out at the 88 early voting locations and waited in long lines, many stretching around the block.  A line to vote in Washington Heights. The line stretched around the block multiple times. Madison Square Garden in Manhattan and the Barclay’s Center in Brooklyn were two of the well-known sites, but most voting places were typical neighborhood places such as schools, churches, and hospitals.   The scene outside the entrance to the Russ Berrie Medical Science Pavilion, one of the early voting locations in Washington Heights. In Washington Heights in Upper Manhattan, two early voting locations were within a short walk of one another, causing some confusion for voters emerging from the 168th Street subway station. The Columbia Universit

The Lonesome Metropolis: A Walk from Grand Central Terminal to Rockefeller Center

As New York City reopens, why do the attractions of the great metropolis still look mostly deserted on a summer morning? A morning walk from Grand Central Terminal to Rockefeller Center sought to address this question. As it turns out, there are several adequate explanations. But for what happens next, there are no right answers. Grand Central Terminal, 9:40 am. Wednesday, July 22, 2020. Many neighborhoods outside of tourist New York are still buzzing along. While some residents of wealthier neighborhoods have largely decamped to mountain cabins, beach houses, and other second homes, the less wealthy have nowhere to go and may still be working. Just visit Washington Heights or Corona or Flatbush, and you’ll see sidewalks full of shoppers and summer evening street partiers. Those who fled the city remain only a fraction of the total population.   Grand Central Terminal, 9:40 am. Wednesday, July 22, 2020. Other renowned parts of the city such as City Hall and Brooklyn Bridge have been fr

NYC Re-openings and Travel Advice

What will open, and how will you get there? This list will be updated following official announcements. UPDATED October 10, 2020.  Many favorite local destinations have now reopened.  Hand sanitizer dispenser at the Marble Hill station of Metro-North's Hudson line Openings  - General Information and Popular Destinations    • Restaurants: Consult this NYC Department of Transportation map  (updated link) for restaurants currently open in NYC. Starting September 30, NYC allowed indoor dining at 25% capacity. • As of September 25, outdoor dining in NYC has been extended FOREVER. • The  9/11 Memorial  reopened on Saturday, July 4. Visitors must wear masks and keep social distancing practices. • (update) Libraries: NYPL. T he library will allow a grab-and-go service at 50 locations.   • Governors Island reopened July 15 with advance reserved tickets.  • The High Line  reopened on July 16, with several rules and limitations in place, including timed entry passes - available July 9. Entra

The Season of Owls

 A walk in Inwood Hill Park. The days following the holidays and the first of the year make a good time to check in on life in the winter forest. I have a forest just down the street from me in Inwood Hill Park in Northern Manhattan. There, a vast old growth forest still stands. A Barred Owl faces the setting sun in Inwood Hill Park in Northern Manhattan. A few weeks ago, someone on a local Facebook page posted a snapshot of a Barred Owl, and I was keen to go looking for it in the park. I didn't find the owl on the first day, but the next day I saw it. A handful of birder enthusiasts were already on the scene and kindly pointed it out high up in the pines. What a beautiful creature!  A stand of White Pines provides the habitat for the Barred Owl. The owl is in this picture. I know, hard to see.  Since my first owl visit, everyday life during the otherwise dreary post-holiday doldrums has taken on a finer aura. I have returned several times, each taking a different path up to the o

The City Turned Inside Out: A Walk from Battery Park to Fulton Street

While the cast of HAMILTON sings “The World Turned Upside Down,” New Yorkers could easily hum along to “The City Turned Inside Out” this summer. (not a real song) Where once a city’s important work took place indoors - within the soaring office buildings, famous restaurants, legendary museums, and storied performance halls, the COVID-19 epidemic has literally turned the residents outdoors.  New landscaping in Battery Park At least it’s summer in the city, when spending time outdoors is common and pleasant enough. Still, the city remains strange this summer of 2020.  Shade plants like hosta thrive in Battery Park. The Statue of Liberty is in the distance. With the absence of tourists, and with office workers connecting virtually from home, many of the city’s main attractions aren’t attracting many visitors. A walk from the Battery to Fulton Street on a pleasant Thursday afternoon bore this out.  Statue Cruises is still sailing. It’s uplifting to at least find plants that are alive and

Walking It Off: Coping with Holiday Stress During the Pandemic

When I began this series, “Pandemic Posts from the Pause: New York City in the Age of Coronavirus” in March of 2020, I could see the first young greens of spring from my window. New Yorkers were told to stay home then and away from others. As someone who enjoys walking in the city, I knew that I would need to sacrifice many things this year. I was not going to give up walking. I quickly figured out that I could safely go to Inwood Hill Park near my house and wander the trails in the old forest. In March, I could breathe in the spring air away from others. There was little else to do during those early days of the “pause.” New Yorkers suffered greatly at the beginning. In a few months we were able to get the numbers down and to manage some semblance of human interaction, at a distance and masked.  Now, with the beginning of the holidays, the city and nation faces the existential threat of the virus’s return, the political assault on democratic norms, and the ongoing threat of the clima

An Early Autumn Walk in Central Park: 2020 Edition

This week, the singer Diana Krall released a cover of “Autumn in New York,” the standard by Vernon Duke. An accompanying video , filmed in New York by Davis McCutcheon and directed by Mark Seliger, portrays the city in moody yet beautiful black and white tones. Beyond the lack of autumn colors, the film shows the empty streets of the pandemic city. The mood riffs on the underlying melancholy of the song’s lyrics, that the fall season “is often mingled with pain.” Approaching The Mall in Central Park  When I think of autumn in New York, I automatically imagine walking in Central Park in the vivid colors of the season. The images here, from a meandering one-mile stroll this past Saturday, show only a hint of autumnal glory but reflect more conventional representations of both the season and the song. Yet, walking in Central Park at the beginning of autumn is tinged for me with a hint of sadness, or truthfully, with some anxiety about the coming months. The Mall in Central Park I hadn’t v

A Weekend Walk on the Old Croton Aqueduct Trail

Imagine strolling from town to town near the eastern shores of the Hudson River, walking a well-trodden path lined with trees and stately architecture and with easy access to cafes, local shops, and train stations for an easy ride home. Imagine a weekend when the sun is bright and the sun is warm, and many other people - but not too many - are out enjoying the same weather and the same stroll. Such were the pleasures on a recent Sunday, in the latter part of this unseasonal winter, along the Old Croton Aqueduct Trail not too far north from New York City. View of the Hudson River from the Keeper's House The Old Croton Aqueduct, the system that once delivered fresh water from the Croton River to New York City, was a huge and complex marvel of engineering. The trail sits on top of the aqueduct system. This post describes a walk along just a section of the trail, the one that begins at the Keeper’s House in Dobbs Ferry and ends in Irvington. Recommended purchase - a map det

Facing the Dark Ages

A close look at The Met Cloisters Update: The Met Cloisters reopened on September 12, 2020. See the museum's website for ticket information. The Cloisters, the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s 82-year-old home for its medieval collection in Fort Tryon Park (known as The Met Cloisters in recent years, the result of rebranding), dominates Northern Manhattan like a mystical fortress, like some object of a mythical quest. From nearly any direction, it’s easy to see the tower with its sandy-colored walls, double-arched windows, and Mediterranean style tile roof. Walking south on Broadway north of Dyckman Street , the way of everyday serfs and pilgrims going to market, the otherworldly sight of the imposing structure can transform an otherwise pedestrian journey.  View of The Met Cloisters from the northeast Culture and architect critic Lewis Mumford (1895-1990), reviewing the museum’s opening in 1938 for his regular column in The New Yorker, didn’t care much for the tower, but that was his