Over the long holiday weekend, I took a trip to the movies to catch I Am Legend, the latest in New York City destruction. While Will Smith, the only surviving human on the island of Manhattan, shuns what I imagine to be a deserted subway in exchange for his product-placed Ford cars, I couldn’t help but imagine the subway in an empty Manhattan. Devoid of people, there would be seats for everyone. Those would be the days.
Of course, Hollywood is not afraid of the New York City subways. (And why should they be? Subway crime is at an all-time low.) So with a slow news week upon us — not much happens in the aftermath of a fare hike when many are off for the holidays — let’s go to the movies. Or at least let’s ride the subways to the movie.
Any discussion about the subway movies must begin with the Joseph Sargent classic The Taking of Pelham One Two Three. Preying on the fears of New Yorkers during the city’s economic and social problems in the 1970s, the movie, based on a bestselling book, features a hijacking of a subway. Led by Robert Shaw, a group of men who clearly influenced Quentin Taratnino’s Reservoir Dogs take a subway car hostage and threaten death if they don’t get one million dollars. It’s up to an excellent Walter Malthau to rescue the hostages and catch the criminals.
The movie is notable for taking place in actual subway tunnels and for a mention in a Beastie Boys song. The MTA allowed filming in the then-abandoned Court Street station and tunnels. Currently, that station houses the Transit Museum. The movie was remade poorly in 1998, but Tony Scott is looking to rectify that misstep with a new remake starring Denzel Washington as Walter Mathau and John Travolta as Robert Shaw. It’s set to open in July of 2009.
On the other side of subway crime thrillers is Money Train, a 1995 movie with Wesley Snipes, Woody Harrelson and Jennifer Lopez. Harrelson, a disgruntled former employee of the the Transit Authority, conspires to rob the money train. While filming took place in Los Angeles, filmmakers modified an old R22 car that was eventually donated to New York City Transit. The film was criticized after its release when teenagers perpetrated copy-cat crimes in firebombing token booths. Authorities, however, did not believe that the crimes were related to the movie. The money trains have since been retired.
Moving back in time, we come across The Incident, Martin Sheen’s movie debut. For this one, the New York Transit Authority outright denied permission to film. Two kids board a train late at night and begin to psychologically terrorize the passengers. Filmed in black and white, it’s a snapshot into another era when the subways were considered dangerous, and this movie, more than any others, has set the tone for the Hollywood portrayal of the New York City subways as a dark, lonely and dangerous place.
Finally, we come to The French Connection. This one needs no introduction. It is simply the greatest train chase scene in movie history. See it.
Of course, there are always other seminal moments of film history in the subways. Patrick Swayze meets a subway ghost in Ghost, and On The Town features Miss Turnstile, a relic lost to history. But these four featured here are great starting points, and three of them — all but The Incident — are out on DVD. While you may not have to take the train to work this week, catch a train in the movies instead.