Home Subway Movies Second Ave. Sagas goes to the movies

Second Ave. Sagas goes to the movies

by Benjamin Kabak

As I’m out of New York for a few days this week, I’m not going to be around to cover all of the breaking subway news. I did, however, want to make sure that some fresh content finds its way to the site, and I’ll be running a few of my archived pieces. We’ll start off with a gem from December 27, 2007, three years ago today. December is, after all, always a great time for movies.

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 anyone left alive. Who would drive the trains remain to be seen, and it would probably make sense to seal the subway tunnels to avoid a zombie apocalypse.

But I digress. Hollywood has always loved the New York City subways. Film makers have preyed on tales of crime-filled subway rides, glorified life in the tunnels and found new and creative ways to hijack trains. What follows are a few of my favorite subway movies.

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, notable for its wit and irreverent take on New York City circa 1975, the movie was filmed on location in the subway system and garnered a mention in a Beastie Boys song. The MTA allowed Sargent to film in the then-abandoned Court Street station and tunnels between what is now the Transit Museum and the Hoyt/Schermerhorn stop. The movie was remade poorly in 1998 and again in 1999. See the Mathau/Robert Shaw version and skip the over-the-top Denzel Washington/John Travolta version. The new one has twice the action and none of the fun of the original.

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 denied permission outright to film in the subways, and it’s easy to see why. 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 William Friedkin classic stars a young Gene Hackman trying to break up a France-based narcotics ring as they smuggle drugs into New York. Hackman must drive through and around traffic underneath the elevated train line as he chases his French suspect who has hijacked a train in Brooklyn. You can watch the famous train chase scene right here on YouTube, but it’s worth it to watch the entire flick.

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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John December 27, 2010 - 4:10 pm

Aside from the quirkiness of featuring a dramatic portrayal by Ed McMahon, “The Incident” is also interesting for the filmmakers’ very faithful recreation of an IRT World’s Fair Low-V subway car (since only 50 of those were ever made, it’s a pretty unique car to get it’s own mock-up, instead of one of the more common railcars on the system in the mid-1960s).

And, if you can get past the questionable racial images in the early part of the cartoon, the Disney studio offered up a very accurate recreation of the inside of an R-1/9 car (complete with route sign) at around the 2:45 mark of the 1953 short “Social Lion”.

jim December 27, 2010 - 4:48 pm


Walter December 27, 2010 - 5:53 pm

Don’t forget that great scene set on the 42nd Street Shuttle platform at Grand Central in The French Connection.

Larry Littlefield December 27, 2010 - 6:31 pm

The Warriors — New York in an era some are nostalgic for for reasons I don’t understand.

If you are out of town, don’t plan on getting back anytime soon.

Jerrold December 27, 2010 - 6:58 pm

That’s right, Larry.
Most likely by coincidence, he picked a the perfect week to get out of New York City.

Jerrold December 27, 2010 - 6:59 pm

Coming to think of it, we don’t know where he went.
Maybe he went to Boston or someplace else like that where they got what we got or worse.

Jerrold December 27, 2010 - 7:08 pm

It should be added here that “THE INCIDENT” is from 1968 and was also based on a book.
Some people at that time who only HEARD about that movie assumed that the two teenage villains must be black or Puerto Rican. They were white, and among their victims was a black couple whom they harass with intense racial insults. Before those two punks even board the train, they knock down, terrorize, and rob an elderly white man.

Scott Mercer December 27, 2010 - 8:49 pm

In spite of MONEY TRAIN taking place in the New York subway, all the subway scenes were filmed in Los Angeles. A somewhat lengthy section of railroad track (maybe as long as one mile) which is on the surface, had a cover built over it to resemble a subway tunnel. It’s right next to Chinatown. Filmed around 1995.

This was in the former railroad yard known as “The Cornfield”, which is now a State Park. One of the railroad tracks running through there is now part of the Gold Line, part of Los Angeles’ growing rail based mass transit system. It opened to passengers in 2003.

Building 11 December 27, 2010 - 10:21 pm

“The Incident” had a great cast — not only Martin Sheen and Ed McMahon (who, in trying to look scared had the same look on his face as when one of Johnny Carson’s jokes didn’t work out), but also Beau Bridges, Ruby Dee, Tony Musante, Gary Merrill, Brock Peters, Donna Mills and others).


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