It’s always a bit of a jolt to flip through a photo album or an old high school yearbook and to come upon a picture of someone who’s gone, a beloved relative or a classmate who left before their time — it hits you fast, and, for just a moment, it hurts again, the force of that loss compressed into a single moment of grief. It’s not the exact same feeling, but there’s something like that moment when you watch a movie shot in New York between the 1970s and 2001, and that inevitable shot of the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center appears. The towers appeared in literally hundreds of films, sometimes as background, sometimes very active in the onscreen action, but its eventual fate always makes it the foreground object when those films are viewed now. On the eve of this sad anniversary, a look at ten movies that make us miss the World Trade Center even more.
Construction of the Twin Towers began in 1968, and the buildings-in-progress can be glimpsed in several early ’70s films, including The French Connection, Klute, and The Hot Rock. But the film that made most use of the towers while under construction was Godspell, David Greene’s film adaptation of the hit biblical musical. Greene opened up the stage production, to say the very least — he took the entirety of New York City as the performance space, with numbers performed on the Brooklyn Bridge, in Central Park, at the Andrew Carnegie Mansion, and so on. “All For the Best” is all over the place: its locations include Times Square and the fountain at Lincoln Center, and the number is finished atop the almost-completed towers.
King Kong (1976)
The original 1933 King Kong ended with the title character climbing the Empire State — then the world’s tallest building — with Fay Wray in his hands. For the first remake in 1976, director John Guillermin had his Kong climb what had become the world’s tallest building(s) in the intervening years: the twin towers of the World Trade Center. The sequence gives us some great exterior views of the new (and still glistening) buildings, and a peek inside as well.
Superman: The Movie
Everyone knows that the Superman stories take place in Metropolis. Everyone also knows that Metropolis is clearly intended to be New York City, so it only made sense that when Richard Donner made the 1978 big-budget, big-screen version of Superman, he would shoot it there. The film features several views of the World Trade Center, none of them more impressive or evocative than Superman and Lois Lane’s midnight flight past the towers.
Sidney Lumet’s 1978 adaptation of the hit stage musical (itself an adaptation of The Wizard of Oz) took a page from Godspell and created a Land of Oz that doubled as New York City, with the quest of Dorothy and her friends leading them to an Emerald City at the World Trade Center plaza. The big climactic sequence, shot there over four nights, is one of the most impressively oversized location shots ever attempted at the WTC.
Most movies tend to show the World Trade Center as an object of a skyline or an architectural artifact, but, as John Landis’ wonderful 1983 Wall Street comedy reminds us, it was also one of the world’s financial hubs. Trading Places finds Dan Aykroyd and Eddie Murphy drinking in the towers from ground level before going into the commodities floor in 4 World Trade Center, where the picture’s climax takes place. Great scene, even if all that talk of “carnage” is a little uncomfortable now.
This 1998 documentary from director Bennett Miller (who went on to helm Capote and Moneyball) profiles NYC double-decker bus tour guide Timothy “Speed” Levitch, who advises a tourist to spin around in the area between the towers, and then to look up — in that moment of disorientation, he says, it feels like the towers are toppling over on you. Again, a little uncomfortable to hear now, but the film’s ending, in which we see him do this very act, is both touching in and of itself and in light of what would happen three years after the film’s release.
A.I.: Artificial Intelligence
Steven Spielberg’s science-fiction fairy tale (which he took on after the death of Stanley Kubrick, who had been developing the film for years) was released on June 29, 2001, three months before the attacks. It gives us two futuristic views of the twin towers: In 2142, seen above a New York City submerged by the flood waters of global warming, and again in 4142, when that water has turned to ice. There was some discussion of digitally scrubbing the towers for the film’s DVD release, but Spielberg reportedly refused — and there they remain, adding to the haunting and eerie feeling of the sequence. (Or who knows, maybe AI is set in that alternate reality on Fringe.)
Similar pressure was put on Cameron Crowe to remove the towers from the New York panorama at the end of Vanilla Sky, which was released in December 2001. In the months after the attacks, several films were delayed and extensively re-edited, while others (like Zoolander, Serendipity, and Kissing Jessica Stein) had skyline shots of the WTC edited out to avoid upsetting audiences. But Crowe wanted to leave his in, and was able to justify it by pointing out that since the scene in question is in his lead character’s mind — one who may or may not be aware of the collapse of the towers, depending on how you interpret the film — they could remain.
Gangs of New York
The question of dealing with the towers in historical films made in the years since 2001 has been a tricky one; most have had to digitally re-insert them into the New York skyline. The final moments of Martin Scorsese’s 2002 film Gangs of New York presented him with an interesting challenge: he wanted to end the film with a sequence showing the growth of the city via the evolving skyline. But would it end with the current iteration of that skyline? Scorsese decided no, ending with the towers on (and continuing off the top of) the screen, creating one of the picture’s most powerful and moving images.
Man on Wire
James Marsh’s riveting and endlessly entertaining documentary tells the story of Philippe Petit, the French highwire walker who snuck into the south tower in August 1974 and walked a steel cable to the north tower — as New Yorkers looked on, agog. Marsh’s documentary was released in 2008, but made no mention of the eventual fate of the two towers (and it’s hard to imagine it doing so in a manner meshing with the picture’s joyous style). Instead, it allowed us to see the towers as Petit did: a challenge, a thing of beauty, and a work of art.