Up on the roof: 16 classic rooftop scenes on film

From Vertigo to The Matrix: 16 reasons the rooftop is the place to be.

Nicole Davis

Her (2013)

Her (2013)

With Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo currently back on the big screen for its 60th anniversary and rooftop cinemas across the country basking in balmy evenings, we thought it was high-time to commend the movies that take drama to another level.

From moments fraught with impending doom to climatic emotional realisations, the rooftop has long been a staple in a filmmaker’s arsenal. They are a director’s dreamscape – an open canvas, a flat plain against the backdrop of a limitless sky on which anything could happen.

And anything does… Here are the scenes, filled with heartbreak, hope and hubris that take a mere rooftop and turn it into cinematic magic. 

On the Waterfront (1954)

Director Elia Kazan

On the Waterfront (1954)

Marlon Brando is the brooding former boxer wrapped around a gangster’s little finger. Eva Marie Saint the grieving sister of a man murdered by the mob. On a rooftop where Brando’s Terry tends to a coterie of pigeons, he reveals a more sensitive side to straightlaced Edie and begins to win her over.

For all the brutality and bravado of this time-honoured crime drama, this is cinema at its most tender. Two people on opposite sides of the fence – physically and morally – form a tenuous connection over a suggested pint of beer. Again the rooftop becomes a place where characters can, perhaps, escape what’s expected of them and – like the flapping pigeon, perhaps – soar. 

Vertigo (1958)

Director Alfred Hitchcock

Vertigo (1958)

You can’t call a film Vertigo without scaling death-defying heights, and Hitchcock doesn’t hang about in establishing his film’s premise: a policeman’s career-ending and acrophobia-inducing trauma during a rooftop chase.

Amid nail-biting close-up shots of James Stewart clinging to the roof gutter for dear life after pursuit of a criminal has gone wrong, Hitchcock uses a shot that quickly zooms out to emphasise the dizzying distance from the ground. This canny camera movement and distortion of perspective, combined with Bernard Hermann’s queasily relentless score, is a perfect example of Hitchcockian manipulation. We feel every tense second of this sequence, and come away fully understanding why Stewart’s Scottie might have developed an aversion to heights.

West Side Story (1961)

Directors Jerome Robbins and Robert Wise

West Side Story (1961)

If one musical was going to make it onto this list, you might think it would be Fiddler on the Roof (1971), but the ‘America’ dance sequence in Oscar-winning classic West Side Story is hard to beat in the realm of mesmerising rooftop scenes.

The flat, industrial New York city rooftop provides a harsh contrast to the vibrancy of the Puerto Rican community, all swishing skirts and sharp dance steps. As the choreography becomes more elaborate, so the full expanse of the rooftop becomes apparent. There’s a sense of freedom at play. Above the “12 in a room in America” cramped apartments, here’s a group of people revelling in the wonder of debate-through-the-medium-of-dance.

Le Mépris (1963)

Director Jean-Luc Godard

Le Mépris (1963)

Mediterranean colours saturate the frame in Jean-Luc Godard’s masterpiece. The extraordinary Villa Malaparte on Capri is a sparse, modernist setting, at once glamorous and isolated, with a perfectly flat rooftop – a stage on which Paul (Michel Piccoli) and Camille’s (Brigitte Bardot) embittered marital drama plays out.

Camille is sunbathing. Paul arrives to discuss their future. But a civil conversation spirals into something more spiteful. Paul asks why Camille doesn’t love him anymore and, as they descend the innumerable steps of the rooftop, Camille makes her feelings – or lack of them – known.

The camera follows their descent, their marriage unravelling step by step, and Paul is abandoned on land as Camille swims serenely out of the frame. For something so heartbreaking, it’s gorgeous to watch. 

The AristoCats (1970)

Director Wolfgang Reitherman

The AristoCats (1970)

Featuring perhaps the crème de la crème of rooftop scenes, this animated cat caper has its most swooningly romantic moment against the backdrop of a moonlit sky, where Paris’s crenellated buildings are on full display.

Amorous accordion music orchestrates the gradual admission of feelings between alley cat Thomas O’Malley and Duchess, the rather more pampered pet. And where better to declare love than from the rafters?

Sleepless in Seattle (1993)

Director Nora Ephron

Sleepless in Seattle (1993)

Of all the rooftops in all the world, the Empire State Building is perhaps the most prominent. In this classic 90s romcom, featuring darling duo Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan, the moment of eventual union is played subtly and swooningly. As a gentle breeze ripples through the air, a security guard indicates closing time. Hanks reaches out his hand and says “Shall we?” Ryan’s face says it all: she’s on top of the world.

The Shawshank Redemption (1994)

Director Frank Darabont

The Shawshank Redemption (1994)

In the blazing heat of the day, the prisoners are atop a roof using mops to apply a new layer of tar. As Captain Hadley (Clancy Brown) complains about getting taxed on inheritance money, Andy (Tim Robbins) makes a bold move to offer his accounting advice. The rooftop supplies a setting above the prison, free from bars and bureaucracy (although there is still a hierarchy and hostility at play), allowing for Andy to cross a divide and regain some level of humanity.

The Matrix (1999)

Director Lana Wachowski and Lilly Wachowski

The Matrix (1999)

Next year will mark the 20th anniversary since the Wachowskis wowed audiences with their high-concept, reality-shattering movie The Matrix. Perhaps one of the most memorable sequences in the franchise is that rooftop showdown, where immaculate martial arts moves mesh with imaginative CGI to mind-blowing effect.

As Neo and Trinity defend themselves against the agents, we witness the classic slow-motion, back-bend ‘bullet time’ manoeuvre, destined to become pop-culture shorthand. The rooftop, meanwhile, surrounded by reflective glass, concrete and gneiss, becomes a blank canvas on which a futuristic vision of the world can be imprinted. And what a vision it was. 

Almost Famous (2000)

Director Cameron Crowe

Almost Famous (2000)

The elevated nature of the rooftop lends itself to navel – as well as star – gazing. It’s a pedestal on which to place yourself and make a statement, which is exactly what Billy Crudup’s rockstar Russell Hammond uses it for in Almost Famous.

Stood on the top of a house, his cheering, adoring audience clustered around the lambent glow of a swimming pool, he yells: “I am a golden god.” The camera switches to a bird’s eye perspective, fully on his vainglorious side in this moment. Although it’s played comically from there on out, as Hammond fails to come up with profound last words, the rooftop serves as a perfect peak from which to explore the highs and lows of stardom.

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000)

Director Ang Lee

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000)

Percussive music, swift camera movement and a mysterious night-time setting all crystallise an exquisitely choreographed fight sequence between Michelle Yeoh’s Yu Shu Lien and Zhang Ziyi’s Jen Yu. Fast, furious and flighty, their closely matched skills force them to seek new heights and, indeed, defy gravity in order to outdo their opponent.

At once aggressive and artistic, energetic and elegant, their scaling of rooftops might have come off as silly, but – under the steady direction of Ang Lee – becomes sublime. 

The Bourne Supremacy (2004)

Director Paul Greengrass

The Bourne Supremacy (2004)

We could have picked a heart-pounding action sequence from the Bourne franchise, like the rooftop chase in The Bourne Ultimatum (2007) where haywire camera movement and breathless editing emphasise the vertiginous risk. But the scene in the second film where Jason Bourne (Matt Damon) calls CIA deputy head honcho Pam (Joan Allen) is a masterclass in tension.

As the office scrambles to locate the fugitive assassin, Bourne, always one-step ahead, lines up the viewfinder of his rifle, watching their every move through the window. On seeing Nikki (Julia Stiles), he asks for a meeting to be set up, before delivering the final badass blow. Pam plays it cool and says: “What if we can’t find her?” Bourne plays it cooler: “She’s standing right next to you.” Never has a rooftop wielded so much power.

The Departed (2006)

Director Martin Scorsese

The Departed (2006)

No doubt part of the allure of the rooftop for filmmakers is the element of risk. You can fly from them, espy a breathtaking cityscape, or indeed, take a fall. It’s a tension exploited flawlessly in Martin Scorsese’s densely-layered crime thriller The Departed.

With voices raised almost as high as the building itself, Leonardo DiCaprio’s undercover agent Billy Costigan begins to unravel. His foil – police mole Colin Sullivan (Matt Damon) – might be in handcuffs but there’s a chaotic, gun-toting sense of fighting a losing battle. Against the backdrop of a Boston that looks as dilapidated as its justice system, you sense that the good-guy-disguised-as-a-bad-guy might not make it down alive.  

500 Days of Summer (2009)

Director Marc Webb

500 Days of Summer (2009)

Using a split screen, director Marc Webb depicts two versions of a rooftop party attended by Joseph Gordon Levitt’s Tom. In the expectation, Tom and Summer (Zooey Deschanel) see only each other against the backdrop of the skyline; an emblem of possibility. In the crushing reality, the rooftop becomes a lonely precipice from which there is only a quick, humiliated descent.

Skyfall (2012)

Director Sam Mendes

Skyfall (2012)

As exhilarating rooftop action sequences go, the opening set piece to Sam Mendes’ Bond debut Skyfall is a crowning example. Judi Dench’s M informs us of the stakes: a rogue mercenary is in possession of a stolen hard drive containing details of undercover agents; to lose it could be their death sentence. 007 (Daniel Craig) is charged with chasing down the bandit, where they hightail atop the rooftops of Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar on motorbikes, the margin for error getting narrower and narrower.

It’s not a particularly original setup – good guy hunts down bad guy in a dangerous mode of transportation. But, as the music crescendos, engines roar, ties flap in the wind and bikes zip past a blur of terracotta tiles, is your heart anywhere but in your mouth? 

Her (2013)

Director Spike Jonze

Her (2013)

Spliced with Joaquin Phoenix’s Theodore composing a letter to his ex-wife Catherine, the final scene of Spike Jonze’s melancholic meditation on loneliness finds the heartbroken protagonist roaming his building’s rooftop as a dusky, lilac sky darkens around him.

The view is sublime, and yet so vast it’s daunting. As the camera orients itself, Theodore sits next to his friend Amy (Amy Adams), and the final shot becomes one of hope and companionship in an alienating society.

Birdman (2014)

Director Alejandro G. Iñárritu

Birman (2014)

It’s fitting that a film exploring a precarious, Icarian relation to fame has several scenes taking place on a rooftop – a setting that embodies a zenith, but also the tragic potential for downfall.

Although Michael ‘Birdman’ Keaton has his own moments of rooftop soul-searching, the scene that really takes off is between Emma Stone’s Sam and Edward Norton’s Mike as they play a game of truth or dare. Sitting cross-legged, looking ponderously out across the bustling metropolis that is Manhattan, Sam is asked by Mike why she doesn’t just jump. But the scarier thing in that moment is revealing her true self to him. 

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