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City movies
Robert De Niro in Taxi Driver (1976) (Photo credit: Columbia/TriStar)

10 Gritty Big City Movies #1 (1927-1984)

A city environment can have bad reputations for violence, rampant drug addiction, being noisy and overcrowded.  Putting aside how such problems are increasingly common everywhere, some films capitalize on the unique nature of the city-scape, making them seem like characters themselves.  Here are 10 such films, starting from 1927 and extending to 1984.

1. The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog (1927)

Despite being a silent movie from the late 1920s, Alfred Hitchcock’s “The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog” manages to carry a thoroughly modern feel. Part of that is Hitchcock’s innovative style, which influenced the entirety of cinema (and that’s hardly an overstatement). Another aspect of that is obvious: The story takes place in the city of London and is based partly on Jack the Ripper. As Jack essentially changed the world’s understanding of man’s dark, brutal potential, the isolating nature of city life has consistently made people question the merits of urban living.

Certainly, some murderers dwell in rural environments. However, something about the crowded nature of a city seems conducive to alienating people, with the bright lights shining on their worst elements. Hitchcock’s film also shows the threatening potential of crowds, who end up seeming as menacing as the mysterious lodger (and murder suspect), Jonathan Drew (Ivor Novello). Not everyone would find this film as thrilling as “Psycho” or various slasher films, but it definitely stands as one of the first significant, modern horror-themed films. “The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog” also stars Marie Ault as The Landlady, Arthur Chesney as Her Husband, June Tripp as Daisy Bunting and Malcolm Keen as Officer Joe Chandler.

2. Metropolis (1927)

Brigitte Helm in Metropolis (1927) (Photo credit: Universum Film (UFA))

Fritz Lang’s “Metropolis” was a hugely innovative film for its time. In fact, its special effects are still comparable to some of the best found in cinema today (though that’s debatable). The film is largely a moralistic fairy tale about the Haves vs. the Have-nots, pitting average workers against wealthy industrialists and business magnates in their almighty towers. While some dismissed the film as being too “communistic” in its themes, or just plain silly (H. G. Wells), it nevertheless has a fairly apolitical tone. After all, doesn’t industry/work/mechanized life have a dehumanizing aspect for anyone to see? Even today we can ask: Aren’t many modern workers literally being replaced by machines, and doesn’t this imply something about how the economy regarded them all along?

Quite simply, the world is a giant mess, and the city-scapes around it do way too much to tower above nature (including human nature) as it actually is. By this point in history, critiquing modernity should no longer be a right-left false dichotomy, but a matter of common sense and decency. This can all be gleaned from Fritz Lang’s film, which is partly dazzling due to its fantastical yet gritty style, as well as its classic science fiction themes. You may be surprised by what this film has to offer! “Metropolis” stars Gustav Fröhlich as Freder, the rebellious son of a heartless industrialist (Alfred Abel). It also features Brigitte Helm as the iconic character of Maria and Rudolf Klein-Rogge as Rotwang the inventor.

3. Black Christmas (1974)

Oddly enough, one of the first true slasher movies was directed by Bob Clark, who would later give us “A Christmas Story.” Quite simply, “Black Christmas” is a creepy little tale full of threats, insanity and menacing vibes. There is also a sense of it being an urban tale, given that most of the characters are immodest in their behavior — especially Margot Kidder’s character, Barbara Coard. What’s great is that the maniac is very mysterious, and there is great difficulty in trying to piece together his motives, or the narrative aspects of what he does. There are random hints of a tortured past, but nothing can be understood all that clearly, and it seems as though he doesn’t understand himself any better than we do.

The bizarre nature of the villain reminds us of the random dangers we face in large crowds of people.  With enough weird and varied potential sources of trauma, mutated minds can result.  As stated before, people can still be dangerous in isolated communities, but when there’s a large aggregate of people, there’s an increased chance of things going wrong. Safety is an illusion, not a foregone conclusion! “Black Christmas” also stars Olivia Hussey as Jess Bradford, Keir Dullea as Peter Smythe and John Saxon as Lt. Kenneth Fuller.

4. Deep Red (1975)

Dario Argento’s “Deep Red” is another decidedly urbanized slasher film, filled with professions that have little to do with country life. For example, psychic medium Helga Ulmann (Macha Méril) holds a lecture in a theater. That’s not quite like being a farm girl, obviously. David Hemmings’ character, Marcus Daly, is a British jazz pianist. His love interest, Gianna Brezzi (Daria Nicolodi), is a news reporter, and the film is dominated by images of the city.

In fact, the urban element easily lends itself to the crazed mood of the film, which is augmented by “impractical,” artsy professions, modern apartments with elevators, and all sorts of modern conveniences (and modern means of getting killed). While people often associate slasher films with campgrounds or think of hulking redneck killers, plenty of early slashers were actually urban. “Deep Red” also stars Gabriele Lavia as Carlo and Clara Calamai as Martha (Carlo’s mother).

5. Network (1976)

Network, city movies
Peter Finch’s character is gloriously unhinged in Network.  (Photo credit:  Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM))

“I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore!” Who hasn’t heard that line? Who hasn’t identified with it? It emanates from Sidney Lumet’s “Network,” which did a great deal to tear modern, corporate media a new a-hole. Did people listen? Not really. While the character Howard Beale (Peter Finch) functions as a warning about soulless, destructive, sensationalist media, people went full-steam ahead with it anyway. Now we’re beaten over the head with FOX News on the Republican side, MSNBC on the Democrat’s side, and most everything else is still what Frank Zappa called a “crass, commercial kind of crud.”

All of this stems from high-powered executives in comfy jobs, profiting from things which make modern life potentially maddening.  Will corporations ever be able to say, “Okay, we’ve acquired enough wealth and power now. Let’s give it a rest”? Of course not! Yes, “Network” looks at how modernity has us all selling out, as it threatens to drive us all up the wall.  This is one of those movies that does what it does, whether you like it or not.  Fortunately, many people do like it.  It also stars Faye Dunaway as Diana Christensen, William Holden as Max Schumacher and Robert Duvall as Frank Hackett.

6. Rocky (1976)

John G. Avildsen’s “Rocky” is actually a decent movie. Sure, it’s easy to make fun of how Sylvester Stallone talks, and the title character Rocky is a bit of a simpleton. However, “Rocky” is a surprisingly dynamic film about a boxer who’s more than meets the eye. Of course, part of the charm of “Rocky” is that it’s obviously a city movie ⁠— the slums of Philadelphia, to be specific. This setting, along with Stallone’s performance, help make Rocky Balboa seem “real.” He may be flawed, but he wants to be good, and success seems to be right around the corner.

Quite simply, one needn’t be a huge sports fan to appreciate the story, although it honestly could have focused a bit more on other characters, such as Adrian (Talia Shire), or even Paulie ( Burt Young). Of course, “Rocky” wouldn’t be nearly as memorable without his trainer, Mickey Goldmill (Burgess Meredith), or his epic opponent, Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers). Since “Rocky,” the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s steps have been called the “Rocky Steps,” proving that a good movie can give landmarks greater significance in world history.

7. Taxi Driver (1976)

Upon seeing Martin Scorsese’s “Taxi Driver,” it’s almost impossible to not over-analyze it. Robert De Niro himself seems unhinged as the infamous Travis Bickle, a taxi driver constantly on edge, especially after he gets rejected by campaign volunteer Betsy (Cybill Shepherd). Teetering on the brink, something inside him snaps and he makes decisions that will forever change some lives. Of course, part of what drives Bickle crazy is his environment: New York City. “Taxi Driver” successfully conveys the feeling of being so crowded yet so alone. In addition to the impending madness of Bickle, you have the crazy people he meets, such as the pimp named “Sport” (Harvey Keitel) or his underage prostitute, Iris (Jodie Foster).

The movie is brimming with classic sleazy/crime elements, including porno theaters, a robber (Nat Grant), a homicidal passenger (Martin Scorsese) and an unlicensed gun dealer named “Easy” Andy (Steven Prince). Quite simply, “Taxi Driver” is a great movie, at least if you can admire realistic, unflinching character studies. Interesting little fact: Scorsese went on to direct a movie called “American Boy: A Profile of Steven Prince,” where Prince tells a story of injecting adrenaline into the heart of some woman who OD’d. This story would inspire a famous scene in Quentin Tarantino’s epic film “Pulp Fiction”!

8. Creepshow (1982)

We’re bending the rules a bit for this one. Most of George A. Romero’s “Creepshow” doesn’t noticeably occur in city-scape. However, the segment “They’re Creeping Up on You” perfectly embodies the neurotic edge of a city-dwelling, corporate cut-throat type who happens to be a major germophobe. Yes, we’re talking about Upson Pratt (E. G. Marshall), a man who’s creepier than the cockroaches he so detests. As the man towers above the rest of humanity, protected in his isolated little bubble, he ends up learning that nothing can truly keep him safe. His cruelty won’t save him forever from a fate he fears more than death itself. This may not even be the best segment of “Creepshow,” but it’s certainly a worthwhile character study. In fact, it may even beg for a halfway decent prequel, just so we could see what made Pratt into the slime ball he became!

9. C.H.U.D. (1984)

C.H.U.D., city movies
This movie poster is all about the city…well, that and flesh-eating humanoids from the sewers. )Photo credit: C.H.U.D. Productions/New World Pictures)

Douglas Cheek’s “C.H.U.D.” is a top candidate for ultimate dirty city movie. After all, it’s largely about homeless people living underground who come into contact with radioactive waste. It’s kind of hard to out-dirt that, right? While “C.H.U.D.” means many different things to many different people, most people know them as Cannibalistic Humanoid Underground Dwellers (as opposed to “Contamination Hazard Urban Disposal”). If you watch “C.H.U.D..” you get the pleasure of joining George Cooper (John Heard), A.J. “The Reverend” Shepherd (Daniel Stern) and Captain Bosch (Christopher Curry) as they navigate underground tunnels beyond the subway.  Their mission? They need to discover what the city government is hiding, before much of what they’re hiding comes to the surface and finds us!

While some people dislike this movie, it packs a certain charm. It’s biggest weakness is that, in all honesty, there just isn’t enough C.H.U.D. action going on. It seems like the C.H.U.D.s should have risen like the oppressed group they were, taking their own “special” solutions to the city hall problem. That aside, if you can find it, definitely get the audio commentary to this fine flick, as it’s genuinely funny to hear the cast, director and writer (Shepard Abbott) make fun of the movie. It’s a blast!

10. Ghostbusters (1984)

Directed by Ivan Reitman and written by Dan Aykroyd and Harold Ramis, “Ghostbusters” is one of those films everyone knows. Still, you’d be hard-pressed to find a movie that’s more New York City-ish. Sure, there’s ultra-zany stuff here like Slimer, Gozer (Slavitza Jovan),”Vinz Clortho” and the “Stay Puft” marshmallow man. However, when Stay Puft walks tall and mighty as a skyscraper, he only augments the city around him, never taking away from it.

The Ghostbusters themselves ⁠— Peter Venkman (Bill Murray), Raymond Stantz (Dan Aykroyd), Egon Spengler (Harold Ramis) and Winston Zeddemore (Ernie Hudson) ⁠— seem to embody a spirit that might be called “New York.” Of course, Janine Melnitz (Annie Potts) has the obvious Brooklyn accent, while Dana Barrett (Sigourney Weaver) has the personality of a down-to-earth city-slicker. All these years later, “Ghostbusters” makes people want to strap on a proton pack and bust some New York City ghost butt!

About Wade Wainio

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