New Orleans serves as a vibrant backdrop for some of our favorite movies — and it’s really no wonder. The city is not only full of historical architecture, but also boasts a thriving cultural scene that all but becomes a character itself in the following flicks. NOLA has been an inspiration to filmmakers for decades; read on for our top picks, and then follow your NOLA to get inspired by the Crescent City.
Miller’s Crossing (1990)
Probably not the first film you think of when you think “New Orleans,” right? But this under-appreciated Coen Brothers noir gem was shot exclusively in the city — although the town in the movie goes unnamed. The Coens were drawn to it for its architecture, which fit the Prohibition-era gangland story. Ethan Coen said, “There are whole neighborhoods here of nothing but 1929 architecture… There’s a lot of architecture that hasn’t been touched, store-front windows that haven’t been replaced in the last 60 years.”
A Streetcar Named Desire (1951)
A much more iconically “New Orleans” picture, Elia Kazan’s 1951 film starred Marlon Brando and Vivien Leigh, who were reprising their roles from the stage productions on Broadway and the West End, respectively. While much of the movie was shot on sets in Hollywood, Kazan had to go to New Orleans to get the exterior shots. By that time, however, the eponymous streetcar was now a bus; the film crew had to get special permission from the city of New Orleans to hire a streetcar with “Desire” on it.
Panic in the Streets (1950)
A second appearance from Kazan on our list, this noir (no longer available in the public domain, sadly) actually features many New Orleans locals in extra and speaking roles. While it opened to mixed reviews, the movie is notable for Kazan’s casting — he completely eschewed major Hollywood players to better suit his cinema verite ideal. It went on to win the Oscar for Best Story (which later became Best Original Screenplay).
The Big Easy (1987)
If you want to see New Orleans at its sexiest, this is the way to go. Dennis Quaid and Ellen Barkin steam up the screen (if you can get past Quaid’s laughable accent) in this crime drama, but the city itself also serves as a principal character. Although early scripts had the film taking place in Chicago, rewrites moved the action to New Orleans, and it’s tough to imagine it set anywhere else, now. Landmark locations like Antoine’s and Tipitina’s, as well as the French Quarter and Mardi Gras staging areas make the city a protagonist in The Big Easy.
Easy Rider (1969)
Not an easy ride at all, this incredible piece of counterculture cinema is required viewing for most film students — and we could honestly write an entire article on just this film alone. But since we’re talking New Orleans, the relevant scenes here take place in a brothel, on the streets amidst Mardi Gras celebrations, and in Lafayette Cemetery. Fun facts: one of the young prostitutes, Mary, is played by Toni Basil, who you may know better as the energetic cheerleading singer of 1982’s “Mickey.” And, during the LSD-fueled cemetery scene, Dennis Hopper directed Peter Fonda to speak to a statue of the Madonna as though it were his dead mother (who had committed suicide when he was ten). Heavy, man.
The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans (2009)
OK, OK, we know: It’s a Nic Cage movie. But you know what? It’s also a Werner Herzog movie, and while that director can be weird, he’s not known for being dumb. Though the film was originally stated by Herzog as a “re-thought” of Abel Ferrara’s Bad Lieutenant, he later said he’d never even seen Ferrara’s movie (which took place in NYC, and not New Orleans). It’s a truly dark drama, that takes place in post-Katrina NOLA.
King Creole (1958)
From one questionable actor to another… King Creole stars Elvis Presley, who falls in with the wrong crowd in the French Quarter. While the film is part crime drama (co-starring Walter Matthau, no less), it’s also, of course, a musical. Elvis’ “Hard Headed Woman” was recorded for and featured on the soundtrack, and went to #1 on the Billboard charts before becoming the first rock ‘n’ roll single to earn Gold Record status. Presley almost didn’t appear in the movie — he received his draft notice a month before shooting was to start. Thanks to a special 60-day deferment, he was able to star. Huge crowds thronging to see Presley in action in the French Quarter delayed filmmaking numerous times.
Oliver Stone’s political thriller revolves around former New Orleans District Attorney Jim Garrison (played by Kevin Costner), and his investigation into the assassination of President Kennedy. Garrison files charges against New Orleans business bigwig Clay Shaw (portrayed by Tommy Lee Jones) for his alleged involvement in the assassination. The film boasts a cast of other heavy hitters, including Kevin Bacon, Gary Oldman, Joe Pesci, Donald Sutherland, John Candy, and Martin Sheen (who narrates). Their performances are worth the price of admission alone; the NOLA backdrop is a wonderful bonus.
The Cincinnati Kid (1965)
Here, Steve McQueen isn’t behind the wheel, he’s behind a deck of cards. McQueen plays a Depression-era poker wiz, seeking to make a name for himself. Originally set in St. Louis, the action was moved to New Orleans and filmed entirely on location. The picture also features the Preservation Hall Jazz Band (a version of which performs to this day!), led by the legendary Sweet Emma Barrett.
When the Levees Broke (2006)
Spike Lee’s 2006 documentary was of course shot in New Orleans, and addresses the devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina and, specifically, the failure of the levees in greater New Orleans. It makes for sobering — and yet vital — viewing for fans of the city, but also focuses on the indomitable spirit of the affected locals. If you’re in NOLA, we highly recommend a visit to the Louisiana State Museum in Jackson Square. The Living With Hurricanes: Katrina and Beyond exhibit makes for a powerful and visceral follow-up to Lee’s film.
What are your favorite New Orleans movies? Are you an Interview with a Vampire fanatic? Or a Pelican Brief devotee? Let us know in the comments; and if you’re a film buff visiting NOLA, book a movie tour to see spots from this post and more.