10 great New York period films

Based on Colm Tóibín’s award-winning novel about a young Irish woman finding her way in the Big Apple in the 1950s, the exquisite new drama Brooklyn continues an illustrious tradition of films set in the New York of yesteryear.

Brooklyn (2015)

In upcoming period melodrama Brooklyn, a young Irishwoman called Eilis (Saoirse Ronan) emigrates to 50s America and struggles to adjust to her new country. Really, Eilis and her fellow immigrants would have been latecomers. The mass migration of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries had reached its end by the post-war period. The country they would arrive in had assimilated much of its teeming migrant population.

Perhaps that’s why so many period New York films are set in an earlier time – from about 1880 to 1920. Some twelve million individuals – many of Irish, Italian, or Jewish descent – came through the ‘golden door’ of Ellis Island over those decades. Frequently, they remained in the five boroughs; the various ethnic enclaves of the city’s districts were thus established. Jews and Italians treated with bigotry by nativist Americans found strength in numbers, re-enacting their cultural values in a microcosm of the old country.

Ultimately, films set in ‘Old New York’ often turn to a familiar depiction: downtown tenement life, rife with overcrowding, crime, and disease. The chaos of Lower East Side living is often afforded a dubious merit in hindsight: a sense of family tradition or pioneer-like spirit, as in The Godfather Part II (1974). Meanwhile, in uptown brownstones, genteel high society concern themselves with gossip and gambling and well-heeled gentlemen attend parties with corseted Gibson Girls. These two filmic realms seem to operate utterly independently of one another; it’s rare we see one cross into the other. So here are ten films set in historical New York, whether they be about industrialists or immigrants.

The Bowery (1933)

Director: Raoul Walsh

The Bowery (1933)

Raoul Walsh, one of Warner Bros.’ great contract directors, began his career as an assistant to D.W. Griffith and retired in 1964 with upwards of seventy features to his name. Best known for his later string of crime films – The Roaring Twenties (1939), High Sierra (1941), and White Heat (1949) among them – The Bowery is his [[embed type­link nid=18375 title=”Pre-Code”]] predecessor. It’s marked by the same emotional complexity and punchy, dynamic composition as his later films – it’s a gleefully direct, gruff style charged with masculinity and cynicism.

The Bowery stars the maligned George Raft, navigating the murky criminal underworld of the eponymous neighbourhood at the turn of the century. Never shying away – or really condemning – the virulent racism it depicts, it also makes for a rather uncomfortable watch. In one brutal portion, characters turn a blind eye to a burning building full of Chinese immigrants. One can imagine Bill the Butcher – Martin Scorsese’s rampant bigot from Gangs of New York – doing precisely the same thing.

Heaven Can Wait (1943)

Director: Ernst Lubitsch

Heaven Can Wait (1943)

Ernst Lubitsch’s comedic war-time fantasy Heaven Can Wait features a roguish Don Ameche in the lead role as Henry Van Cleve, a well-born and spoiled New York son of a wealthy businessman. At the film’s opening, Van Cleve passes into the afterlife and stubbornly refuses to enter the kingdom of heaven – instead making his plea to go downstairs to “the place innumerable people have told him to go”. He then attempts to present the evidence for all his wrongdoing and the story of his life is told in extended flashback, beginning during his adolescence in 1887.

Confined to an airtight Technicolor parade of pastel frocks and fashionable dinner engagements, Lubitsch nonetheless infuses the film with barbed wit. He regularly makes cracks at the expense of his characters, poking fun at their pretensions – though it’s as light as confectionary for the most part. Perhaps Charles Coburn – the cantankerous patriarch of the Van Cleve family – gets a line tailor-made for the Big Apple. Told by a disapproving nephew that he has a “very New York sense of humour,” Coburn fires back: “In other words, not for yokels.”

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1945)

Director: Elia Kazan

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1945)

A heart-wrenching family drama set in 1912, Elia Kazan’s first directorial effort, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, sees tenement life through the eyes of thirteen-year-old Francie. Her family, of Irish and Russian extraction, consists of a young brother, stubborn mother Katie (Dorothy McGuire) and her well-meaning father (James Dunn), a hopeless lush. When an already impoverished family is faced with their breadwinner’s backslide into alcoholism, they stand on the precipice of disaster.

Kazan, co-founder of the Actors’ Studio, had an unsurprisingly wonderful eye for revealing behavioural tics. There’s a moment where a pernickety visitor pours a large ration of the family’s milk into his coffee, and the children silently lean over to watch in dismay – it’s clearly all they have. Mother Katie’s steely pride and resourcefulness are perfectly tuned; when a helpful policeman brings her drunken husband home, her spine straightens like a rod. She politely ensures the cop it’s none of his business. It’s a film that occasionally strays into sentimentality, but it’s nuanced and humane. You’d be hard put not to be moved by it.

The Heiress (1949)

Director: William Wyler

The Heiress (1949)

You’d be forgiven for thinking that life was, at the very least, less complicated for those living in downtown tenements, judging by the acidly tragic nature of Henry James’ literary output set in New York society. William Wyler’s classical adaptation of James’ Washington Square is set in the 1840s, and serves both as psychological thriller and perverse Gothic romance.

Olivia de Havilland is the shy, clumsy daughter of a forbidding, difficult-to-please father. When she thinks she’s found love with the poetically handsome Montgomery Clift, her father demands that her suitor reveal himself as the money prospector that he clearly is. No man could really want his ungainly daughter. De Havilland’s timidness before her frankly creepy father fades as she falls for Clift’s charm – but the seeds of doubt are sewn, and the unfortunate reality is that he may very well be out for her inheritance. And after all, why would he want her? Brought down by a pushy father and a shredded ego, De Havilland takes whatever mean-spirited revenge she can. Viewing New York society as a gilded cage seems a frequent trope, both in literature and in period films set in this era. The choices for an unwed woman – even a very wealthy one – were remarkably narrow. Trapped between two men whose motives are questionable, there’s little for the poor girl to do but bolt the door.

Hester Street (1975)

Director: Joan Micklin Silver

Hester Street (1975)

Partly scripted in the Yiddish language and with a specific focus on female subjectivity, Joan Micklin Silver’s Hester Street stands out as a uniquely intimate portrait of the Jewish immigrant community in New York. Set in 1896, the difficulties of assimilation and cultural identity cause major marital rifts. Husband Jake travels ahead of his wife and child, shaving his traditional beard and donning American-style clothes. He even subsumes his Jewish background and feigns being a bachelor.

When his wife – the mousy, pious Gitl (Carol Kane) – makes the difficult passage across the Atlantic with their young son in tow, Jake is embarrassed and uninterested. He coaxes, chides and bullies his wife into Americanising herself and removing her traditional wig. But Gitl, in spite of her meekness, will not be moved: she refuses to yield her identity to her husband. Her quiet dignity only serves to highlight his poor sense of self, and eventually someone must capitulate.

The struggle to retain one’s own beliefs is best summed up by Talmudic scholar Mr. Bernstein. He warns Gitl: “When you get on the boat, you should say, ‘Goodbye O Lord, I’m going to America.’”

Once upon a Time in America (1984)

Director: Sergio Leone

Once Upon a Time in America (1984)

Sergio Leone’s masterpiece is perhaps the period New York film by which all others are measured. The sprawling epic spans the childhoods of four Jewish-American street urchins turned vicious gangsters – until a series of tragic events sets them all on different paths. Ennio Morricone’s elegiac, recurring score provides a backbone to the loose, flashback-oriented narrative structure. Memories are made oblique by wistful longing and opium haze.

The young hoodlums in Once upon a Time in America grow into men fraught by greedy rivalries and sexual aggression; whatever tender memories remain of their youths are ossified by time and betrayal. It’s America both as the myth and the myth deconstructed. As the years relentlessly race on, Robert De Niro’s Noodles becomes a pitiful figure of regret. He is unable to return to the unlikely haven of the Lower East Side in 1920, where the girl next door once read to him from the Torah. The dream is hopelessly corrupted.

The Age of Innocence (1993)

Director: Martin Scorsese

The Age of Innocence (1993)

Scorsese casts a neatly anthropological eye on 1870s New York in his adaptation of Edith Wharton’s novel – the film’s visual elements and social customs were rigorously researched over a number of years. Turner paintings were even recreated as part of the interior décor. Daniel-Day Lewis is Newland Archer, engaged to the bland May (Winona Ryder) and desperately, impossibly in love with the convention-flouting Madame Olenska (Michelle Pfeiffer).

Joanne Woodward provides the Scorsesean voice-over, reading chunks of Wharton’s elegant prose to guide us through Archer’s world. It’s one of elaborate social ritual, intricate beauty, and spirit-crushing repression. Perhaps borrowing from the luxe, painterly style of Luchino Visconti, The Age of Innocence captures both the opulence and the rot of the monied classes of New York, and the inevitable strain such privilege may put on personal relations.

The House of Mirth (2000)

Director: Terence Davies

The House of Mirth (2000)

Terence Davies exchanges Merseyside for the Hudson in The House of Mirth, his adaptation of Edith Wharton’s novel – a coolly removed examination of hypocrisy and social manoeuvring within New York’s social elite. Gillian Anderson is an attractive socialite destined to be ostracised – inviting jealousy and resentment in spite of her good nature. Underlining the precariousness of a woman’s position within a malevolent sphere of male power and influence, Davies adopts his usual elliptical style. With a sedate approach to period design diametrically opposed to Scorsese’s, the director finds a more gentle tempo to offset the restrained politeness of the dialogue. The current of rage, despair, and trickery just beneath the decorum are pulse-quickening enough.

Gangs of New York (2002)

Director: Martin Scorsese

Gangs of New York (2002)

A quintessential New York director, Martin Scorsese has the unique distinction of having made two films which explore opposite sides of the city’s 19th-century life. Daniel-Day Lewis appears in a frighteningly psychotic guise, the Know Nothing anti-immigrant radical known as Bill the Butcher. Leonardo DiCaprio is the avenging angel Amsterdam Vallon, son of an Irish gang leader killed by Bill’s posse. Set in the midst of the Civil War, the anarchic wasteland of the Five Points seems to occupy a different universe from the refined Fifth Avenue of The Age of Innocence. It’s interesting, too, that Gangs of New York – unlike its predecessor – allows a small glimpse into ‘how the other half live’. In Scorsese’s New York, the poor always look up at the rich, but the rich never gaze down at the poor.

The primitive world depicted hardly seems recognisable at all – but the city’s wild lack of law and order remains inescapable fact. Though the film overreaches and makes key errors of judgment in both casting and tone, its ambition is to be admired. That ambition is not merely of scale or set-piece, but in its attempt to capture the changing tide of history.

The Immigrant (2013)

Director: James Gray

The Immigrant (2013)

The Immigrant opens with a wide shot of the Statue of Liberty, ensconced in reddish fog. A man clad in black watches, occupying only a sliver of the frame. James Gray, director of tough, lyrical crime drama The Yards, made what he called his most personal film with The Immigrant – basing it partly on old family stories.

Marion Cotillard learned Polish to fulfil the role of Ewa, a young woman who journeys to America with her tubercular sister, Magda. The two are traumatically separated when Magda is held in quarantine on arrival, and Ewa must summon an implacable strength to carry on alone. Cotillard embodies both bird-like vulnerability and steely reserve, her expressive eyes daubed with blue-black circles.

Taking cues from the classical women’s melodrama, the blameless Ewa is castigated by her family and exploited by a charismatic pimp (Joaquin Phoenix). Gray’s vision of the past has a rich, ochre-tinted texture, but his historical view is far from romantic – featuring prostitution, murder and manipulation as par for the course in the shark tank of emigré life.

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