5 Great “Big City” Films

5 Great "Big City" Films

Anyone who’s spent much time in metropolitan areas knows that each big city has a distinct personality. Filmmakers have long taken advantage of this fact, allowing urban centers to be not just the backdrops for their stories, but practically characters. Woody Allen’s work is a prime example: What would Hannah and Her Sisters, Annie Hall, and Manhattan be without New York City? Here are a few movies that celebrate the good, the bad, and the ugly of major American cities and their inhabitants.


How can a film without a single on-location shot qualify as a celebration of New York City? Fritz Lang’s While the City Sleeps relies on studio sets for its very few outdoor scenes, and the establishing skyline doesn’t pretend to be anything but a hand-painted set. It works because a city is more than its buildings. In Casey Robinson’s screenplay, based on Charles Einstein’s 1953 novel The Bloody Spur, the characters’ actions, attitudes, and dialogue define Manhattan. On its surface, this is a homicide thriller, but we know who the murderer is in the first scene (it’s John Drew Barrymore). The real point of the story is to show how the news media exploits crime for ratings. That practice is commonplace now, but it used to be centered in New York.


Edward Mobley (Dana Andrews) is a Pulitzer Prize-winning TV newsman, part of the Kyne News Syndicate, which has just been passed to its founder’s lazy playboy son, Walter Kyne, played with wide-eyed bafflement and bravado by Vincent Price. Kyne pits three of his top newsmen—George Sanders, Thomas Mitchell, and James Craig—against each other, competing for the new job of Executive Director. Mobley gets caught in the middle of their battle. The underhanded dealings, the snide remarks, the workaholism fueled by alcoholism, the use of sex as corporate currency (Rhonda Fleming, Sally Forrest, and Ida Lupino hold all the power)—these are hallmarks of the frantic NYC media life of the 1956. We don’t need a shot of Times Square to recognize Manhattan’s pounding heart.     A / G / I / KV / Y 




Fast-forward into the 21st century, to a very different movie that’s just as much a love song to Manhattan’s frenetic pace. Written and directed by David Koepp, Premium Rush stars Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Wilee, a bike messenger who gets finds his life in danger when a customer specifically asks for him to pick up a parcel. Unfortunately, gambling-addicted cop Michael 

5 Great "Big City" Films

Shannon wants what’s in that package—at any cost. Good thing fellow messenger Vanessa (Dania Ramirez) steps up to help.


The normal whoosh of bike messengers in traffic turns even more breathless as Shannon chases bike-bound Gordon-Levitt from the safety of his car. The client is up at Columbia University and the package is going to Chinatown, so the movie becomes a lightning-paced tour up and down Broadway. This film uses only on-location shots, mostly outdoors, so 

lovers of NYC will enjoy recognizing landmarks block by block. Action fans will love all the hair’s-breadth near-misses as bikes maneuver between moving cars, thanks to visual effects orchestrated through a combination of a crack stunt team and the CGI magic of Zoic Studios. The sound design alone makes this movie a thrill; Jamie Baker and his Foley team put the viewer right there on the street with the yellow cabs.     A / G / I / KV / Y 




Not every city has that East Coast vibe. In 1974, David Mamet wrote Sexual Perversity in Chicago, a lean, sarcastic play about dating in a midwestern city in the 1970s. More than ten years later, the play inspired a screenplay by Tim Kazurinsky and Denise DeClue for Edward Zwick’s romantic comedy About Last Night. The only remnants of Mamet’s signature 

acidic, stylized dialogue are hilarious passages where Bernie (Jim Belushi) flaunts his sexual exploits to his pal Danny (Rob Lowe). Yet, while the language may have lost its zing and the expanded plot runs toward Hollywood predictability, there are few finer cinematic tributes to the city of Chicago.


From a baseball diamond in Grant Park and a walk over the Chicago River on the Adams Street Bridge to the commute north from the Loop on a clattering L train, Zwick and cinematographer Andrew Dintenfass capture the essence of the Windy City. The focus on noisy bar life squares with midwestern reality. Zwick filmed pubs on Division Street, and the interior of Mother’s, the characters’ favorite 

Where to See Some Big City

All of the films here are available on all of the non-subscription streaming services, as well as for download on Kaleidescape, except for the The Last Black Man in San Francisco, which isn’t available on iTunes.


A = Amazon Prime / G = Google Play
I = iTunes / K = Kaleidescape
V = Vudu / 
Y = YouTube

hangout, is a studio set exactly replicating the real thing, although they chose a bar across the street from Mother’s to be its exterior.


As for the film itself, there are some interesting moments of truth about relationships as Danny dives too fast into a commitment with Debbie (Demi Moore). Debbie’s best friend Joan (Elizabeth Perkins) is the snarky-tongued female counterpoint to Belushi’s character, and she gets in some prime jibes about male behavior while simultaneously craving men.
A / G / I / KV / Y 




On the West Coast, filmmakers have viewed Los Angeles from many angles and in many different lights. One distinctive view is Ulu Grosbard’s Straight Time, based on Edward Bunker’s novel No Beast So Fierce. Dustin Hoffman is Max Dembo, newly 

released from a six-year prison sentence for armed robbery. The opening sequence shows him lost in the wide, cold world of L.A., trying to get his bearings and re-enter life.


The fates and the system are stacked against him. An irresponsible friend (Gary Busey) and an unsympathetic parole officer (M. Emmet Walsh) make going straight impossible. A nice girl who thinks she wants adventure (Jenny Mercer) falls hard for Max, even as he returns to his life of crime with an old colleague (Harry Dean Stanton, who flat-out steals the film). 

5 Great "Big City" Films

There’s nothing nostalgic or sweet about this version of the city. To the accompaniment of David Shire’s sultry jazz score, Grosbard focuses on gritty L.A. as an empty shell. Its wide streets and wide sky ironically symbolize what a harsh, suffocating prison society can be.      A / G / KV / Y

5 Great "Big City" Films


Some 500 miles north of L.A., writer/director Joe Talbot gives cinematic life to a unique perspective on San Francisco. This is the true story of a black man named Jimmy Fail (playing himself) and his best friend Jonathan (a wonderful performance by Montgomery Allen), who decide to go live in a historic mansion when the owners move out. Jimmy has been told his whole life that his grandfather built the house, and he believes he has an ancestral right to it.


This is a quiet yet intense film about the search for belonging. Jimmy and Jonathan, thoughtful and artistic, don’t feel they fit in with the colorful characters in their own poverty-line neighborhood. But they don’t seem to belong in a four-million-dollar house either. The spot between those extremes eludes them, a place where they could celebrate their heritage yet also be modern individuals. Innovative editing and the use of slow motion make everyday actions take on an otherworldly quality. There’s a lot of humor, too. San Francisco comes across as both a great mystery and an old friend, holding secrets in her fog and answers just over the rise of each hill.     A / G KV / Y

Anne E. Johnson

Anne E. Johnson is a freelance writer in Brooklyn. Her music journalism appears
regularly in
Copper Magazine, Classical Voice North America, and Stereophile. She’s
also the author of several novels and over 100 short stories, mostly science fiction
and fantasy. Learn more on AnneEJohnson.com.

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