The Four New Yorks of Marty, Sidney, Woody, and Spike
Over the course of their careers, many film directors become associated with a particular genre or style of filmmaking. But for some, both the form and content of their filmmaking become so intertwined with a single place, so much so that the popular image of that place becomes reshaped in the image that they gave it. Our vision of Old Hollywood, with its grandeur and secrets, is Billy Wilder’s vision in Double Indemnity and Sunset Boulevard; but the way we see modern Los Angeles as a sprawling, neon-lit labyrinth, is thanks to Michael Mann’s Heat and Collateral. John Hughes will be forever associated with the Chicagoland suburbs thanks to Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and The Breakfast Club, and Alfred Hitchcock’s depiction of the Bay Area in Vertigo and The Birds is probably more familiar to many folks than the real sight of San Francisco.
And no city has captured the cinematic imagination more than New York. As an erstwhile New York resident myself, I can tell you firsthand that it’s hard to walk through any neighborhood, block, or street corner without being struck by the memory of a movie frame. There have been endless indelible moments in film set across the five boroughs: Marilyn Monroe walking across a subway grate on Lexington and 57th Street in The Seven Year Itch, Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan meeting atop the Empire State Building in Sleepless in Seattle, Stephan James and KiKi Layne strolling through the streets of Harlem in If Beale Street Could Talk. But among the myriad filmmakers who have put their personal stamp on the New York film landscape, four rise above the rest: Martin Scorsese, Sidney Lumet, Woody Allen, and Spike Lee. At first glance, their depictions may seem incongruous, but closer inspection reveals them to be nothing more than different perspectives on the same place, each one unveiling a unique facet of the City’s true nature. Our collective cultural conception of New York City has been permanently shaped by the perspectives of Marty, Sidney, Woody, and Spike.
In the 1970s, Sidney Lumet was operating at the height of his influence as a filmmaker. After establishing himself as Hollywood’s go-to director for stage play adaptations with the likes of Twelve Angry Men, Hard Day’s Journey into Night, and The Seagull, Lumet hit a second stride in the 70’s and 80’s and began using his films to thoroughly investigate the City’s corrupt institutions. Lumet’s New York is an unsavory metropolis where every interaction is an opportunity to attain, consolidate, or exercise power. The media (Network), the police (Serpico), the judicial system (The Verdict) and the establishment as a whole (Dog Day Afternoon) in Lumet’s New York are nothing more than tools of oppression for callous tyrants stepping on the City’s marginalized communities to maintain their stranglehold on power, and Lumet trains his camera on them with a critical eye. Lumet takes aim at the seedy underbelly of the city’s shining structures with a gritty realism, never shying away from the racism, homophobia, and plain corruption that permeate the city’s power centers. Simmering underneath the rotten core of the City, ethnic neighborhoods and LGBT enclaves are distinct in appearance, but share a common station; they’re pitted against each other by the powers-that-be, forced to compete and cannibalize each other while the rich and mighty take advantage. Even when his focus is on dirty cops, corrupt prosecutors, or cruel media executives, it’s always clear that his sympathies lie with the downtrodden; though his characters may traffic in epithets and slurs, Lumet affords the objects of their disdain a depth and dignity uncommon for his era, never reducing them to mere window dressing—including some surprisingly humane portrayals of transgender characters, given the time period in which he worked. Looking over his filmography as a whole, his portrayal of the City is well-rounded, clearly identifying the engines that move the City’s machinery, but never losing sight of the people that stand to get crushed by its gears.
Martin Scorsese’s work during that same time period is an interesting counterpoint to Lumet’s, filling in the gaps with his depiction of the City’s less “legitimate” centers of power. Scorsese’s brash filmmaking style perfectly reflects the energy of the city’s immigrant neighborhoods, emulating the hunger for success that drives his characters to extreme lengths. Scorsese’s filmography, particularly during the 70s and 80s, is focused on working-class immigrants, especially Italian-Americans, fighting and scrapping for their piece of the American dream, and balancing that desire for power against the competing values of family, tradition, and religion. Watching a Scorsese movie feels like walking through the old neighborhood, where everybody either came to the States or grew up together, and your friend always “knows a guy” who can take care of whatever problem ails you. By emphasizing the perspective of communities often marginalized from the City’s levers of power, Scorsese reveals the natural consequences of the corruption that Lumet explores: the dark underside of the American dream, and the cynical sensation that belies the belief—maybe subconscious—that the dream is an unattainable one, and the people have no choice but to resort to violent means to achieve the goals that were promised to them. That cynicism is tempered by traditionally Catholic themes of guilt and redemption, haunting every character as they succumb to temptation and vice as they hustle for a better life. From Mean Streets to Goodfellas, Scorsese’s films train a laser-focus on the people that Lumet’s corrupt institutions are trampling underfoot and the often criminal means to which they have to resort to get by—and never without consequence, whether metaphysical or merely lethal.
A few blocks uptown and a world away, Woody Allen’s New York is far removed from the grimy streets and smoke-filled rooms of Scorsese and Lumet. Allen’s is an anxious, erudite environment: an Upper East Side apartment full of bookshelves, jazz records, and philosophic musings. It’s a milieu defined by the City’s elite literary and cultural institutions (the influence of Neil Simon and George Gershwin is unmistakable). The concerns that face Allen’s characters are more internal, more philosophical, more abstract; they’re not worried about power or money—they’re worried about divorce, art criticism, and psychoanalysis. Here, the greatest violence is an acidic witticism or an emotional betrayal, and the most precious currency is the ability to reference vaudeville performers and European cinema. It may seem trivial or navel-gazing, but it’s firmly planted in a very real segment of New York culture, particularly of a certain type of well-to-do Jewish intellectual scene of the 70s. The introspection and ennui would influence trends in indie filmmaking and permeate pop culture for decades.
But these visions of Manhattan, varied as they are, remained woefully incomplete until Spike Lee joined the fray in the 1980s. We’ve written a lot this month about Spike’s filmmaking style, reputation, and legacy, and his depiction of New York City is essential to understanding him as a filmmaker. From Do The Right Thing to Crooklyn, Lee’s filmography is chock full of love letters to the City that molded him—especially his beloved Brooklyn. Lee’s New York isn’t the fetid, crime-infested Gotham of the 70’s; but it’s a city still grappling with the legacy of redlining and the weight of gentrification. Lee’s films often examine the intersections between New York’s ethnic neighborhoods—but from the perspective of its Black residents, who otherwise previously often only occupied the periphery of the camera frame. Set against the other three filmmakers, Lee’s New York feels shockingly contemporary, infused with hip hop, basketball, and youthful energy. But She’s Gotta Have It and Hannah and Her Sisters were released the same year. Do The Right Thing and Goodfellas were only a year apart. These visions of the city don’t exist in vacuums apart from each other—they are competing depictions of the same place from wildly varying perspectives, coexisting alongside each other in a conversation that mirrors the cacophony of New York City itself.
The thing that all four of these filmmakers share is an overwhelming affection for New York that colors every shot that takes place there, and an intimate knowledge of the City’s quirks and details. Their New York-centric approaches even extend to period pieces. In The Age of Innocence and Gangs of New York, Scorsese leaves his comfort zone of contemporary Italian-American neighborhoods and organized crime, but continues to examine how waves of immigration reshaped 19th century New York City, and the ways in which Old World traditions made their way into modern society. The complex dynastic politics of The Age of Innocence to the gang fights and turf wars of Gangs of New York fit perfectly on the continuum from Mean Streets to The Irishman. Likewise, in Bullets over Broadway, Allen transposes his obsession with vaudeville comedy, intertwined relationship drama, and crises of art and conscience to the 1920’s, and in Cafe Society, he adds yet another entry in the famous New York vs. Los Angeles rivalry—just post-dated by nearly a century (I’ll let you guess which side he comes down on). And in Malcolm X, Lee uncovers New York’s unsung historical role as one of the key settings of the Civil Rights movement.
Over time, the City and our cultural relationship to it as a society have changed, and these filmmakers have continued to examine contemporary themes through the prism of the New York experience. In the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, Lee channeled the simmering rage and anxiety that many Americans felt throughout that existential crisis into 25th Hour. In what is probably its most famous sequence, star Edward Norton’s relentlessly furious monologue encapsulates that anger and fear, presaging the xenophobia that the post-9/11 era would fuel, and the film’s focus on a man’s last day before going to prison and contemplation of his own liberty and mortality mirrored the newfound sense of fragility weighing on the American psyche.
After a brief break from his New York-focused filmography, Scorsese returned with The Wolf of Wall Street, reorienting his usual mobster picture to focus on the new gangsters of the financial crisis. In Wolf, Scorsese examines the callous approach that Belfort and his ilk took with the lifetime wealth of a generation of Americans, the cavalier energy with which they approached the global economy, and most critically, the lack of long term consequences that they faced for their actions. As with Goodfellas, Scorsese recognizes the allure of the crooked lifestyle and the draw of power and money, but with Wolf, he indicts the audience alongside the characters for letting themselves have the wool pulled over their eyes by con men like Belfort and not seeing this perversion of the promise of America for what it is.
Bridging the gap between those 25th Hour and Wolf of Wall Street is Lumet’s swan song, the excellent and underseen Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, which explores the intersection of post-9/11 dread and the financial pressures of an imminent recession. As the final film before his death, Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead is a fitting punctuation mark on Lumet’s career, giving him one last chance to highlight corruption and desperation on the city’s streets.
Looking at these four filmmakers’ different visions of New York, one thing is clear. A city of this size and cultural footprint is too broad, too diverse to be accurately represented by any one film or filmmaker. It’s the combined work of these four men and countless other filmmakers that have shaped our cinematic conception of New York—each film and filmmaker is a single strand that, woven together, creates the tapestry of New York City.