New York (on film): A View from a Window

Greenwich Village View: Rear Window was filmed on a set built at Paramount Studios in LA

Movies have long been filmed on location in New York City, from the earliest days of silent film production. But New York films set within interiors that offer a view of the city–or even just a suggestion of the city outside– often brilliantly evoke the city as a thematic element that propels the plot forward. Indeed, these films set within sets often use the city to evoke the great “world outside,” as it were, and infuse the drama with a heightened sense of the film’s moral underpinnings.

Particularly through the late 1940s and early 1960s, films that used the city as a backdrop offered some of the most memorable dramas that struggled with postwar question of morality and the shifting divisions between the public and the private in a new (cold war) world.

No doubt the most famous of these films is Alfred Hitchock’s Rear Window (1954), a masterful film set in New York City’s Greenwich Village. The drama unfolds from the viewpoint of the characters within a single apartment. Their private space offers them a view into the lives and drama of their neighbors, living around a courtyard. The viewpoint is significant–this, after all, is a view from “behind,” a look at the lives of others without public filters. And it is the window that offers the voyeur/viewer a chance to watch myriad personal, private dramas–including a crime–enacted.

“Although we do not see the foreground window frame, we see the whole background of a Greenwich Village street,” the original screenplay reads, setting the scene for Rear Window. “We can see the rear of a number of assorted houses and small apartment buildings …. people born and bred to life within earshot and eye glance of a score of neighbors have learned to preserve their own private worlds by uniformly ignoring each other, except on direct invitation.”

The film is a perfect cold war vision of an America struggling with questions concerning the morality of judging others’ based on a subjective point of view. What is moral and what is not moral when all one has to judge is incomplete evidence derived from a spy? What is a “crime” and what is simply a private matter?

Hitchcock with his actors on the set of Rope

Hitchcock confronted elements of these questions in his earlier film, Rope (1948). Here, he used the city as a theatrical backdrop for the suspense that unfolded on a single night within a single apartment. Like Rear Window, Rope dealt with issues of post war morality, played out against the backdrop of the city. In a dark and disturbing story, it is the apartment itself–not the dangerous city outside–that serves both as the location for a crime and the site of its (indefensible) defense.

Technically, Rope was a tour de force for Hitchcock, shot in continuous takes, only fading when the film ran out and needed to be changed. Still, the crime and its moral exploration, (loosely based on the 1924 murder case of Leopold and Loeb), was a bit too dark for some contemporary viewers, and, in many cities, there were efforts to ban the film.

C.C. Baxter’s Reward: A Room with a View

Director Billy Wilder also explored issues of social morality in the modern world in his film, The Apartment (1960).

Jack Lemmon, as C.C. Baxter, is trapped within a variety of sets that convey his character’s plight–from the mind-numbing corporate office to the small upper west side apartment he loans out to his bosses in order for them to engage in “private” dates with young ladies. In turn, Baxter climbs the corporate ladder, eventually earning an office with a view.

The separation between the public world of corporate America and the private world of the labor force is shown to dissolve entirely within the course of Wilder’s film. In a largely immoral competition to succeed and to conquer, the film suggests, there are no “private” spaces—not in huge office spaces where workers spend their 9 to 5 days, nor even in their own apartments, where they supposedly retreat from the real world. The film is the perfect companion piece to William H. Whyte’s 1956 study, The Organization Man.

Office Space: the sets of The Apartment tell the story

In Sidney Lumet’s 12 Angry Men (1957, based on a 1954 teleplay by Reginald Rose), jurors on a murder case are closed–in real time–within a deliberation room choked not only by the city’s heat and sounds that waft within the interior, but also the very complex case they are debating, a case that rose from the city streets themselves.

Henry Fonda led the all-star cast debating truth; looking for justice in the city

In Lumet’s stunning work, the characters are literally shaped by their environment (ironically, one of the very issues the jurors debate in their arguments over the murder case).

In the process of filming, the deliberation room was actually made smaller and smaller in increments by moving the walls of the set toward the action–hence increasing the feelings of claustrophobia and heightening the tension of the plot. The city’s heat, which fans the flames of the anger that exists in this close quarter, is all but visible as it enters the room through the open windows.

Delbert Mann’s Dear Heart (1964) delves into the complex relationship between two convention-goers who meet in a New York City hotel. As their relationship develops, they, along with the characters around them, confront the moral dilemmas produced by being “let loose” in the big city and living in a world where morality seemed increasingly loosely defined. (Before its release, the film was initially titled, “The Out-of-Towners,” a title that would later be used by Arthur Hiller is his 1970 film starring Jack Lemmon and Sandy Dennis.) The hotel’s private spaces are portrayed in sharp contrast to the public convention rooms below; a Greenwich Village apartment visited later in the film offers the promise of a truly private world where dreams can be realized.

Moral questions: Page and Ford in a hotel room high above the city streets

Mann’s Dear Heart is a provocative look at an America on the verge of the revolutionary values simmering beneath its surface by the early 1960s. The spaces that the characters inhabit– from the hotel lobby to the small courtyard restaurant downtown — offer a sense of a city that is dense, crowded, complex and morally confused. The most intimate moments of the film take place in the most intimate of spaces: the private rooms where the characters can be alone despite the looming presence of the world outside, the world glimpsed through a window.

All of these films–and many others–reveal a sense of a country shifting under the weight of a new, modern, postwar world. The seismic changes wrought by the World War, the Cold War threats of global war, the altered landscape of American domestic life, –with its accompanying changes in the work force and in gender roles, and in so many other areas–can be glimpsed through the windows that looked out on a city that stood for America itself. Below on the street, life was still moving forward, but it was a different place to be sure. It was the place of a Lonely Crowd.

~Jenny Thompson

The NY window today: 21st century morality tales on HBO’s Girls



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