The Big Easy. The Crescent City. NOLA. Nawlins. Whichever way you have it, there’s nowhere quite like New Orleans. There’s certainly nowhere in the United States like New Orleans. It’s a city of incomparably rich cultural history, fuelled by a musical scene that lives in the streets as much as it does in the bars lining Frenchman Street. Step out of the French Quarter and into Faubourg Tremé, and in Congo Square you can stand in the exact spot where jazz was born – sired by the drum rhythms of slaves granted their Sundays.
The French and the Spanish were there, founding and swapping colonies and establishing a hub for the African slave trade. Centuries of cross-cultural pollination afforded the city a distinct linguistic, culinary and religious heritage, its musical lineage establishing a tourist hub in the historic French Quarter where a serious scene prevails against the drunken bacchanalia of the world famous Bourbon Street – impassable during the annual Mardi Gras celebrations.
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As such, it makes for a singular cinematic backdrop, instilling a character of its own that’s impossible to recreate on studio backlots. We took a look back across some 70 years of depictions of New Orleans on film, picking out 10 of the best.
Laissez les bon temps rouler.
Panic in the Streets (1950)
Director: Elia Kazan
The camera cruises down Bourbon Street in the dead of night, dive bars illuminated in neon as the credits roll. A man stumbles through the railroad yards, narrowly avoiding a train before taking two slugs to the chest. “They got a hunch he brought somethin’ in and they’re looking for it,” says Jack Palance’s hood, Blackie. He reckons it’s dough; Richard Widmark’s public health officer, hot on his heels, knows it’s a case of pneumonic plague – “Spread like a common cold.” 48 hours remain to find the dead man’s incubating associates before an epidemic turns the city into the Big Wheezy.
Kazan pounds the dockyards and city slums with an eye keenly trained on the immigrant communities most likely to bear the brunt of Palance and co’s evasion of the law and inoculation; from Chinese cooks to the Greek restaurant owner who loses his wife to infection. Location exteriors – especially when it comes to the final chase – lend the colour and veracity he’d press further in the New Jersey docklands of On the Waterfront (1954), even as his return to the French Quarter the following year called for a very different approach…
A Streetcar Named Desire (1951)
Director: Elia Kazan
While Kazan once again took to the streets of New Orleans (briefly) in a bid to open up his screen adaptation of Tennessee Williams’ Broadway smash, the pungent vision of the city cast by A Streetcar Named Desire’s psychosexual melodrama couldn’t be further from that depicted by Panic in the Streets’ hard-angled noir.
Given most of the action is confined to the apartment of Stanley and Stella(aaaaaa!) Kowalski, the film was largely shot on the stages of Warner’s Burbank studio. Yet it remains the pre-eminent New Orleans picture, the dank summer air seemingly as loaded as every line of Williams’ dialogue. Forgoing Panic in the Street’s documentary realism for expressionist attack, Kazan negotiates the oppressively stacked living arrangements of this slim quarter of the Quarter by letting rip with a stylistic frenzy unseen in the rest of his CV. The direction may hardly be subtle – ditto the symphonic virility of Alex North’s magnificently sultry score – but it rises to the challenge of meeting, in Marlon Brando and Vivien Leigh, two of the most galvanic performances in American cinema.
Always for Pleasure (1978)
Director: Les Blank
From its opening montage of street signs (Joy, Felicity, Terpsichore, Tchoupitoulas) and New Orleanians dancing to the rhythm of Frankie Ford’s ‘Sea Cruise’, you know you’re in the hands of a filmmaker looking to celebrate the Crescent City in all its diverse glory. There’s no purer expression of joy and house-pride to be found on our list than in Always for Pleasure’s 58 minutes, exemplified in the words of one local pulled from a second line – “I ain’t gonna wait til I’m laid out to have some fun in the street.”
The local custom of dancing through the community behind the band following a funeral – “To march real slow on the way [there] and cut up on the way back,” says local musical legend Allen Toussaint – is captured with infectious vitality, beers and umbrellas aloft, by documentary maestro Les Blank. Cultural traditions from the musical to the culinary (those crawfish!) pack out a street-level panorama in miniature. The film may be free to view on Amazon Prime, but it’s the flight you’ll be looking to book afterwards that’ll cost ya.
Cat People (1982)
Director: Paul Schrader
“Go to the French Quarter, you’ll have fun there,” new-in-town Irena (Nastassja Kinski) is told, before making her way through a strangely deserted Jackson Square. She’s drawn to the Audubon Zoo (billed as the New Orleans zoo on screen) – “I like to be around the animals” – exciting its resident big cats into an arm-ripping frenzy. Soon enough she’s naked in the woods, eyeballing a rabbit starter ahead of her full transformation to man-eating panther.
A different beast to the 1942 Jacques Tourneur masterpiece from which it’s derived, this ripely impressionistic remake casts New Orleans as a hotbed of voodoo-ridden, animalistic urges – “mad, poetic hooey,” said Schrader – a prime spot in which to loosen the shackles of sexual repression. Giorgio Moroder’s synth-score turns up the temperature, but it’s legendary production designer Ferdinando Scarfiotti (The Conformist; American Gigolo) who merges metaphor with real estate. No wonder Schrader wanted him to share a co-creative credit.
The Big Easy (1986)
Director: Jim McBride
It takes more than slapping some Professor Longhair or The Dixie Cups on the soundtrack to make a great New Orleans picture. While both are present and correct here, director Jim McBride goes out of his way to exemplify the town’s singular vibe, forgoing genre expectations to do things a little differently.
His is a suitably laid-back approach, paying dividends in a first hour that affords his characters the chance to marinate in locale – “This is Nawlins darlin, the Big Easy! Dancin’s a way of life” – only resigning himself to the commercial expectations of the cop-thriller for the final stretch. Dennis Quaid sports a fruity Cajun accent as morally loose cop Remy McSwain, while Grace Zabriskie and John Goodman bring authentic local colour in support. For a film that prioritises character over action, it makes sense that the character of The Big Easy itself would get title billing.
Deja Vu (2006)
Director: Tony Scott
A car hurtles across the Crescent City Bridge. ATF agent Doug Carlin (Denzel Washington) is in pursuit of a terror suspect responsible for blowing up a ferry off the Canal Street pier. Only there’s no vehicle in front of him, at least physically. It’s only visible in the gear he has strapped to his face, a portable version of the Snow White program, a satellite-driven device that allows him to see exactly 4.5 days into the past – live, exactly as it happened.
A chase of thrilling immediacy played out simultaneously across two distinct timelines makes for one of the greatest set-pieces Tony Scott ever put on film. Seven satellite feeds stitched together to give a 360-degree panorama of the city’s recent past is the technological wotsit that propels Deja Vu’s haunted take on the time travel picture. Audaciously conceptualised and alert to the cinematic possibilities of its parallel narratives, it’s one of the great thrillers of recent years; its assiduous tech-noir surfaces exactingly attuned to its pained, human obsession with correcting the past.
When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts (2006)
Director: Spike Lee
Much like his fellow New Yorker Martin Scorsese, Spike Lee has steadily been amassing a sizeable body of work as a documentary filmmaker alongside his narrative features. When the Levees Broke is one of the finest films on his CV, a forensic documentary account of Hurricane Katrina. Across four hours, Lee details the events of the category-five storm and its aftermath through survivor interview and on-the-ground footage, from too-late evacuation warnings through to the woefully inadequate federal response.
Accompanied by Terence Blanchard’s mournful score, Lee elucidates the early local responses, some choosing to leave, others – especially older residents who’d lived through Hurricane Betsy in 1965 – choosing to “weather the storm”. As the rain comes, this hour-by-hour, blow-by-blow account makes for harrowing viewing, not least as government failures are laid bare in its second half. Lee would return to New Orleans four years later for If God Is Willing and da Creek Don’t Rise (2010), another four-hour documentary detailing the efforts to rebuild.
There are many names given to New Orleans, but watching this essential film it’s hard to forget that one of them is The City That Care Forgot.
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008)
Director: David Fincher
With the city’s position a couple of metres below sea level, the high water table of New Orleans necessitates the dead being buried above ground in one of its many historic cemeteries, and goes some way towards accounting for the close relationship between life and death with which the town is synonymous. It makes sense then that screenwriter Eric Roth would relocate his adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s short story ‘The Curious Case of Benjamin Button’ from Baltimore to the Big Easy, given how heavily the question of mortality weighs on its mind.
While a framing device positions the present-tense of the story in the hours before Katrina hits, we’re soon taken back to the fireworks celebrating the end of the First World War, the day on which the titular, backwards-ageing holy fool was born – “Ugly as an old pot… With all the infirmities of a man in his 80s.”
The ageing/de-ageing technology is justly celebrated, but the meticulous production design – recreating New Orleans across some 80 years – is just as impressive, earning an Oscar for art direction alongside makeup and FX.
Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans (2009)
Director: Werner Herzog
If you’ve seen Stroszek (1977), Werner Herzog’s first Stateside adventure, you’re unlikely to have forgotten its most indelible image, that of the dancing chicken in a roadside fairground. Two decades later, and Herzog’s love for the animal kingdom remains undimmed. Here, a goldfish finds itself the subject of a poem; an alligator appears to emit a silent scream as his buddy becomes roadkill; and a pair of iguanas get their own musical interlude to Eddie Miller’s ‘Release Me’.
The latter may be a hallucinated figment of our protagonist’s imagination, given the substances sniffed, swallowed and smoked by Nicolas Cage’s homicide detective over the course of Bad Lieutenant’s two hours – “Everything I take is prescription, except for the heroin.” Eschewing the Catholic guilt of Abel Ferrara’s 1992 masterpiece (of which this is a remake in name only), Herzog casts a wry eye on his star going for broke as the stooped and haunted ruin of a man. Much like the city he inhabits, Cage toes a fine line between bacchanal and modern Gomorrah.
Creator: David Simon
Having essayed the social, criminal and political spectrum of the city of Baltimore to great acclaim with five seasons of The Wire, former journalist David Simon turned his attention to post-Katrina New Orleans for his best show to date. Named after the neighbourhood that saw the birth of jazz in its central Congo Square, Treme surveys the racially diverse district across 36 episodes of its four seasons.
Dickensian in its attentiveness to the minutiae of the lives of its vast cast of characters, it’s a series bursting with local colour and political incisiveness. The pilot, directed by Agnieszka Holland, lays down the show’s slow-burn rhythms, fuelled by extended musical set-pieces and culinary attentiveness. This first episode alone opens with a second-line parade and ends with a funeral procession, while finding time for performances by local star Kermit Ruffins (a series regular) and drop-ins to celebrated haunts like The Spotted Cat.
“Fuck the casual viewer,” Simon once said when the asked about the difficulty newcomers faced dropping into The Wire mid-season, and the same applies to Treme. Those willing to invest in the show’s long haul will be rewarded with the most empathetic panorama of the Big Easy ever put on film (the show being wholly shot on 35mm), and one of the finest television shows of the century.