The great New York City movies, as we’ve discussed previously, are great not just because they tell compelling urban stories, or set those stories in recognizable landmarks. They work because they function, in some ways, as documentaries – of what that changing city was at the moment those films were made, and how it reflected what was happening off screen. In Mark Asch’s excellent new book New York Movies (out now from Harper 360), film writer Mark Asch tackles the cinematic history of the city neighborhood by neighborhood and borough by borough, finding common themes in similar locations, stretched across decades of moviemaking. We’re pleased to present this excerpt, focusing on two films about precocious youths in over the heads:
The Window (Ted Tetzlaff, 1949) / Home Alone 2: Lost in New York (Chris Columbus, 1992)
A window peeper knows his neighbor has committed a murder, but no one else believes him — except the killer. When Alfred Hitchcock filmed Cornell Woolrich’s pulp story “It Had to Be Murder” as Rear Window (1954), he built his Greenwich Village panopticon on a massive Paramount set with a dozen fully furnished apartments, all of city life opened up in a dollhouse-like cross-section promising savvy familiarity with the lives of others, and whiff of stranger danger. But “The Boy Cried Murder,” another Woolrich story with the same premise, had already been filmed as The Window — on location, in the East 100s.
Sleeping on his fire escape on a sweltering summer night, young Tommy Woodry sees the couple upstairs murder a man, but gets lectured about telling tales by his proud parents. Director Ted Tetzlaff, Hitchcock’s Director of Photography on Notorious (1946), sets the noir-ish scene with the rumbling tracks and chiaroscuro shadows cast by the Third Avenue elevated train, and shoots the surrounding cross streets through fire escapes and jungle canopies of backyard clotheslines. With Mom visiting her sick sister and Pop on the night shift, Tommy is as trapped as Rear Window’s wheelchair-bound Jimmy Stewart when the neighbors call.
Bobby Driscoll, who plays Tommy, starred in Disney’s live-action Boomer-baby swashbuckler Treasure Island (1950), but fell out of favor with the Mouse House when puberty hit; he got into drugs, and had been in and out of prison before his body was found in 1968 by two children playing in an abandoned tenement on East 10th Street. Around the time Driscoll’s body was buried in an unmarked grave on Hart Island, photographer Bruce Davidson was taking pictures of The Window’s old neighborhood, by then known as Spanish Harlem. In his collection East 100th Street, kids Tommy’s age and younger pose on a stained mattress in the middle of an alley piled high with rubbish and rubble, or in dark rooms with linoleum curling over rotting floorboards, ceilings cracked or swelling. It’s a complementary view to the film, which captures an East Side where kids play stickball on the street, or race across sticky-tar rooftops with the towers of midtown remote in the distance. Within years, postwar suburbanization — “white flight” hastened by the integration of neighborhoods — and the wasting-away of the urban tax base would see the decline of The Window’s working-class neighborhood into the kind of modern-day ghetto made legendary by representations less sensitive than Davidson’s.
Out the other side of this chapter in New York history, another too-precocious child star stops a criminal plot. Through Home Alone 2: Lost in New York’s Kevin McCallister (Macaulay Culkin), potential tourists get an eyeful of the Big Apple’s landmarks—and a jolt of the fear that may have kept them away. In a template-perfect welcome-to-New York montage, Kevin sticks his head out the window of a Checker Cab to take in the skyline on the way over the Queensboro Bridge; he gazes wide-eyed at Radio City Music Hall, the Statue of Liberty, the World Trade Center… But when he’s outside of his hotel after dark, on West 95th Street and Central Park West, winos yell at him and streetwalkers proposition him. We see the “broken windows” that would be the focus of soon-to-be Mayor Rudy Giuliani and Police Commissioner William Bratton’s quality-of-life policing strategy, which cleaned up the visible street-level signifiers of vice in time for the corporate investment then returning to the American urban core. And we see what, precisely, would be meant by “quality of life,” as Kevin flashes plastic at Duncan’s Toy Chest, standing in for toy superstore F.A.O. Schwarz, and at the Plaza Hotel, the gilded palace at the southeastern corner of the Park.
Kevin, who tips the white-glove service staff in sticks of gum, is a smartass Eloise, the six-year-old Plaza-dweller and cute, prodigious mess-maker of Kay Thompson and Hilary Knight’s 1950s picture books. Impulsively indulging in a child’s fantasy of luxury, gorging himself on room service junk food and unlimited TV time, Kevin may also remind contemporary viewers of the man who owned the Plaza in 1992. Donald Trump cameos here (he insisted as a condition of the Plaza shoot), directing Kevin to the lobby and then backing away from the camera so his face remains centered in the frame. We see the dual self-promotional strategies of pushy media availability and splashy overleveraged real estate deals that made Trump an avatar of NYC’s return to prosperity, shortly before he signed over the Plaza to his debtors to wriggle out of bankruptcy.
Trump’s own Broken Windows fantasy of urban property values restored by legal vigilantism was less subtle than Giuliani and Bratton’s. In 1989, when a young white woman with an investment-banking job was brutally beaten and raped while jogging in Central Park, five black and Latino teenagers from Harlem were browbeaten into false confessions; Trump took out full-page newspaper ads blaring “Bring Back The Death Penalty. Bring Back Our Police!” When Kevin McCallister first wanders into Central Park, he’s terrified of the pigeon dung-caked homeless woman he sees there—but he evolves beyond his initial disgust and terror, and the bird lady helps him to defend the bounty of Duncan’s Toy Chest against the thieves played by Joe Pesci and Daniel Stern. (To get the cops’ attention, Kevin breaks a window, though he pays for the damage.) Kevin lures Pesci and Stern to the (Hollywood backlot) townhouse his aunt and uncle are gut-renovating in anticipation of rising Upper West Side real-estate prices. The sadism he metes out there—electrocuting them, setting them on fire—would satisfy Bernard Goetz, who opened fire on four black teenage would-be muggers on a 2 train in 1984; or Curtis Sliwa, whose satin-jacketed “Guardian Angels” patrolled subway cars looking for lowlives to rough up throughout the late 70s and 80s; or indeed Travis Bickle.
“New York Movies” is part of a new series of illustrated film guides from Harper 360 and the UK film magazine “Little White Lies.” “Close-Ups: New York Movies” is out this week in the US along with the other two inaugural Close-Ups, Charles Bramesco’s guide to vampire movies and Sophie Monks Kaufman’s guide to Wes Anderson.