Home Subway Movies Second Ave. Sagas goes to the movies

Second Ave. Sagas goes to the movies

by Benjamin Kabak

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.

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Raymondm December 27, 2007 - 10:13 am

I love French Connection but i think you also forgot to mention “The Warriors” i think there was also some mention in that.

BNY December 27, 2007 - 11:00 am

Ah – but in I Am Legend, I would choose the product-placed Ford cars over the New York subways, too, because of the “darkness.” I just saw this movie over the holiday weekend as well. It was interesting and Will Smith’s acting continues to get better and even more convincing with every film project, but I found myself disappointed with the movie overall. I know a critique of I Am Legend was not the point of this blog post. But there it is. My random 2 cents for 2nd Ave.

Gary December 27, 2007 - 11:16 am

Don’t forget “Jacob’s Ladder” partly filmed in the abandoned express shell under the Bergen Street station!

Kid Twist December 27, 2007 - 11:44 am

So many great lines in “Pelham.”

Dispatcher: Boy, I never thought I’d see the day when talking to murderers took priority over running a railroad.
Garber: Get off it, will you, Frank? My only priority is saving the lives of these passengers.
Dispatcher: Screw the goddamn passengers! What the hell did they expect for their lousy 35 cents – to live forever?

Underground Movies « Trainjotting December 28, 2007 - 3:54 pm

[…] It’s clever. It’s here. […]

simon December 29, 2007 - 7:25 pm

As mentioned above, “Warriors” should be on the list- almost half of the movie is shot in the subway as they’re escaping from the Bronx to Coney!

rexlic December 29, 2007 - 9:33 pm

As I recall, there was a “Twilight Zone” with Shelley Berman as a beset-upon urban schnook, whose wish for an end to his over-populated existence is granted. Life with no one else around turns out to be less liberating than he thought, but he does take the subway to work. Even as a kid I wondered just who was running the train…

Second Ave. Sagas | Blogging the NYC Subways » Blog Archive » Remember Miss Subway a few decades later December 31, 2007 - 2:16 am

[…] week, during my post on subway movies, I omitted On The Town. The Comden and Green musical follows three sailors on leave in New York for […]

Scott Mercer January 9, 2008 - 1:55 pm

Money Train looks like it was filmed in the New York subway, but was filmed in Los Angeles. But it was not filmed in the Los Angeles subway, either. HUH?

That’s right. The movie makers built a 1/2 mile long subway tunnel replica in an abandoned railroad yard (Southern Pacific) dating from the 19th century, located just north of downtown L.A., known as The Cornfield. I think they built a fake station there too. It was removed after the movie was done, and eventually the whole railroad yard was removed.

It is currently in the process of being turned into a desparately needed public park. The neighborhood is still an industrial zone right next to Chinatown, but if current trends continue, all the industrial parcels in the area are going to turn into residential buildings eventually. And I mean medium to large apartment blocks, not houses.

So, reviews of P123, and a little Los Angeles history. A variety of topics on SAS.


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