New York is the backdrop to some of Hollywood’s greatest movies – walk its sidewalks in the fictional footsteps of villains and gangsters, superheroes and evil monsters
WORDS: OLIVER SMITH
PHOTOGRAPHS: GARY LATHAM
Even if you’ve never been to New York, you probably feel that you know the place. Like nowhere on Earth, its geography is mapped in our imagination. And, in no small part, this is because we’ve already seen it at the movies – be it Audrey Hepburn arriving on Fifth Avenue or an evil alien invasion over Manhattan. A few spots are familiar to millions, but others go unnoticed by passers-by, unaware they are in the presence of a Hollywood great.
IN THE FOOTSTEPS OF GANGSTERS
Start a gangster movie pilgrimage in Brooklyn – specifically Dumbo (nothing to do with the airborne elephant, it’s actually short for ‘Down under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass’). These days, this is an affluent, bohemian neighbourhood of organic food stores and little galleries – but, in the 1920s, it was a dishevelled manufacturing district. Sergio Leone chose it as the setting for his crime saga Once Upon a Time in America (1984). Head to the corner of Washington and Water Street to see the view made famous by the movie poster: warehouses framing a prospect of the Manhattan Bridge, with the Empire State Building visible under its arches.
- Next, catch the F train from York St to Broadway-Lafayette St
Not to be confused with the much bigger and more famous St Patrick’s Cathedral, the 19th-century St Patrick’s Old Cathedral is an eerily quiet sanctuary from the busy streets of Little Italy. It sees few visitors – though its cool, stark interior welcomed a small congregation at the end of The Godfather (1972) in the scene where Connie Corleone’s infant son is baptised (the baby boy was played by director Francis Ford Coppola’s daughter, Sofia Coppola).
Keep things in the Corleone family by stopping by Vazac’s Horseshoe Bar – a 20-minute walk to the east in Alphabet City (108 Avenue B). In the 1930s, this was a canteen for Polish workers (you can still see the faded signage outside), but it’s long since evolved into a boisterous dive-bar – with smoky-wood interiors lit by flashing neon signs and flashing pinball machines. Mick Dundee (Paul Hogan) sipped pints here in Crocodile Dundee (1986) and, under more violent circumstances, Vazac’s starred in The Godfather Part II (1974) when the Rosato brothers attempt to strangle Frank Pentangeli. “Often, actors like the place when they’re filming here, and come back later for a drink in disguise,” explains bartender Erin Lynn O’Connor from behind the hefty timber bar. “I had to pretend not to recognise Scarlett Johansson last week. The only problem is when the film crews rearrange all the bottles – that can make my life difficult.”
- Catch the 6 train – hijacked in the thriller The Taking of Pelham 123 (1974) – northbound from Astor Place to Grand Central Station
A railway station that might have been a cathedral in a previous life, Grand Central is the crossroads from which visitors to Manhattan orientate themselves Among those lost in this vast marble maze was Carlito Brigante (Al Pacino) who, in the final tragic scenes of Carlito’s Way (1993), runs to catch a train to Miami before dying from gunshot wounds on the platform – no one told him Miami trains actually depart from nearby Penn Station. Show sympathy by visiting the escalator from which he shoots at his pursuers – it’s by the exit to 45th Street.
- Take the S train to Times Square
Though its now synonymous with giant screens and family friendly attractions, the Times Square of the 1970s was a den of vice – full of sex shops and strip clubs. As such, it was much beloved of insomniac and gangster-slayer Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro) in Taxi Driver (1976). The famous spot where Bickle strolls nonchalantly out of a porn cinema can still be found on the junction of 8th Avenue and 47th Street. In a similar spirit of voyeurism, the old cinema is now a booth selling tickets for sightseeing tours on open-top buses.
- Catch the N train to Astoria Boulevard Station
Few visitors prioritise a trip to Astoria Boulevard in Queens – but this is where you will find Jackson Hole Burgers, occupying a miraculously preserved stainless-steel ’50s diner. It’s here audiences first encounter the adult Henry Hill (Ray Liotta) in Goodfellas (1990), and where he learns the fine art of stealing trucks. Rather than practising your hot-wiring skills in the car park, nip inside for a burger and reflect on Henry’s childhood dream: “As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a gangster. To me, being a gangster was better than being President of the United States.”