The New York City Subway on Film

Charles Graham Dixon

Unlike most iconic and memorable film locations, the New York City Subway is always on the move. Filmmakers have long been aware of the visual and metaphorical power the subway provides with its myriad of tunnels, ghostly depots and trains. From documentary makers wishing to show the birth of the graffiti and hip-hop movements in the late '70s to directors using the subway to intimidate its audiences by capitalising on the culture of fear fed to New Yorkers by countless mayors and politicians, the New York City Subway has, for decades now, proved to be fertile cinematic ground. 

Style Wars (Tony Silver, 1983) 

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Henry Chalfont and Tony Silver’s documentary was and still is a bible to graffiti writers – the Citizen Kane of graffiti documentaries if you will. You won’t find any street artists swanning around European cities filling in stencils and impressing tourists. As Cap, one of the film’s writers says, he is "not a graffiti artist but a graffiti bomber" and the film shows the subway system as a canvas carrying a mixture of throw-ups, pieces and full colour burners around the city.

From the late-'70s to the late-'80s the subway’s graffiti was described by those in authority as a "sign we’ve lost control" as night after night writers such as Seen, Dondi, Min, Quick, Iz The Wiz and the rest were entering the city’s train depots.

The Warriors (Walter Hill, 1979)

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Walter Hill’s 1979 street gang classic uses the subway as a central character in the film. After wrongly being accused of killing the leader of the city’s most powerful gang, the Warriors must make their way from the Bronx to the safety of Coney Island while trying to avoid every other gang in the city. Naturally, the subway is their main form of escape as they run to catch trains, escape down tunnels, fight rival gangs in stations and fight cops on platforms.

King of New York (Abel Ferrara, 1990) 

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Being Frank White (Christopher Walken) aka the King of New York means that the rules that apply to most of us don’t apply to him. Rule-breaking includes fearlessly canoodling with your GF in empty late night subway carriages during a time when muggers and crackheads patrolled the system. It means not being scared of the muggers that approach you and actually intimidating them and telling them to look for you at The Plaza Hotel if they want work.

The French Connection (William Friedkin, 1971) 

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The white-knuckle car and foot chase in this masterfully gritty '70s cop thriller took five weeks to film. The sequence begins beneath the Bay 50th Street Station in Brooklyn and travels under the tracks of the Bensonhurst Elevated Railway as Popeye Doyle (Gene Hackman) chases a hitman escaping on the train. Doyle’s car screams along 26 blocks of Brooklyn’s Stillwell Avenue until the chase ends with a train crash at 62nd Street Station. Two NYC Transit Authority workers played the hijacked train’s conductor and driver.

The Incident (Larry Peerce, 1967) 

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This claustrophobic thriller follows two young hoods terrorizing the passengers of a New York subway carriage. The hoods (one played by Martin Sheen in his big screen debut) humiliate, degrade and torment their fellow passengers including children, vagrants, a soldier with a broken arm and an elderly couple. The film is a tough watch and those of us familiar with public transport will make a bleak connection with the relative impotence and fearful passivity of the passengers who are either too afraid to intervene or simply cant be bothered to involve themselves.

Nighthawks (Bruce Malmuth, 1981) 

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Bruce Malmuth’s Nighthawks is an underrated early-80s American-Anglo-French thriller starring Sylvester Stallone in one of his best screen performances, and German terrorist Heymar Reinhardt played by Rutger Hauer. The fact that that the film, like The French Connection, follows a gritty street detective chasing down a European adversary around New York and also on the city’s subway system is not pure coincidence. The story of Nighthawks was actually planned as The French Connection III but Gene Hackman turned down the role and the script was adapted into Nighthawks. Incidentally, Hoyt-Schermerhorn Street Station in Brooklyn served as both 42nd and 57th Street Station in the chase and subway scenes.

Night of The Juggler (Robert Butler, 1980)  

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James Brolin stars in this classic but totally ignored New York grindhouse thriller. The film has not received a DVD release but for those with a fascination of New York location shooting, watching the film must be like a couple of hours in heaven. This is New York at its rawest, dingiest – the garbage, the crowded streets, the heat, the gangs, the porn theatres and, of course, the subway.

The Taking of Pelham 123 (Joseph Sargent, 1974)    

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Why Tony Scott would choose to remake this is anyone’s guess, but the original film may be the best known to use the NYC subway, as the plot is centred on the subway itself and the vast majority of the film is shot there too. Featuring a cast of greats including Walter Matthau, Robert Shaw and Martin Balsam, the film charts the tale of a group of criminals holding a carriage full of passengers hostage on the 6 line. Most of the tunnel scenes were filmed at Court Street Station in Brooklyn, which had been closed since 1946.

Death Wish (Michael Winner, 1974) 

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Michael Winner’s brutal tale of one man’s vigilante crime spree against the scum of mid-'70s New York City gets a rough ride for being exploitative, overly violent…and directed by Michael Winner. The film could also be said to shamelessly pray on the primitive urban fears of New Yorkers at that time by focusing on the dangers of the lower social classes and ignoring economic and political problems. While this is all true the film remains an enjoyable and guiltily satisfying experience, which also uses the subway to great effect. Winner heightens the sense of paranoia passengers felt on the subway from the '70s to the end of the '80s by portraying the stations and trains as the domain of the violent and lawless with wind blowing old newspaper through dank stations filled with vicious gangs.

Saturday Night Fever (John Badham, 1977)  

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Tony Manero (John Travolta) does some thinking during a late-night subway journey, which takes him on the R Train from Manhattan to Bay Ridge. Like many films to use the subway in the '70s, Saturday Night Fever captures its cinematic appeal with its stark imagery of tunnels and sparsely filled carriages. It is also some achievement that Manero is able to think clearly and not focus on being the victim of a violent attack wearing that Disco Stu outfit on a near empty subway carriage.

Follow Charles on Twitter: @CharlesGD

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