Summer in the City on Film
Let’s face it: New York City is a place best experienced in cooler weather. The city’s name alone evokes images of pedestrians crowding the city’s streets in long jackets with cups of hot coffee in busy hands. And when you think of Central Park, it’s hard not to imagine the foliage peppering the skyline. Then, of course, there’s Rockefeller Center with its world-famous Christmas tree… Not to mention the nearby holiday shopping window displays that are just so good that tourists actually travel to see them.
The New York experience is so perfectly complemented by cooler months that it’s easy to see why so many Hollywood films take place during the holiday season. And while these films tend to perpetuate the idea of NYC as being a location living eternally between Halloween and Groundhog Day, there are still a few defiant filmmakers who braved the heat, embraced the humidity and made summertime in the city look good on camera. We’re here to share with you our favorite of these films along with some notable locations you can still visit in this city today.
Do the Right Thing (1989), dir. Spike Lee
Inspired by actual events that took place on Howard Beach in New York, Do The Right Thing was an instantly groundbreaking study of racism upon its release. Taking place on the hottest day of the year—an apt metaphor—the film centers around a neighborhood in Bed-Stuy as simmering racial tensions hit a boiling point, ultimately culminating in tragedy.
The film was shot entirely on Stuyvesant Avenue between Quincy Street and Lexington Ave during the summer of 1988. The film’s production designer, Wynn Thomas, had the task of making this otherwise gray and sterile-looking concrete backdrop look as hot as he and his crew members actually felt during filming. To do this, he used as many orange and red tones as possible, achieving a visual heatwave worthy of the one in the script.
Today, the block is called Do The Right Thing Way and, of course, we think it’s worth a visit. If not just for a look at cinematic history, nearby you’ll find many restaurants and bars—we recommend the nearby cafe Brown Butter Craft Bar & Kitchen, just a 19-min walk away.
Summer of Sam (1999), dir. Spike Lee
There is obviously one director in Hollywood that doesn’t have a problem with filming in New York’s most humid months and that is Spike Lee. Not only did he direct this next one on our list, he also has a film called “Red Hook Summer”. Sorry, Spike, that one did not make the cut. Summer of Sam, however, definitely did.
Set in the summer of 1977, Summer of Sam tracks a group of Italian-Americans as they descend into fear and paranoia amid the reign of terror brought on by serial killer David Berkowitz, otherwise known as the Son of Sam. Although most of the actual Son of Sam murders took place in Queens, this particular story is set in the Bronx and was consequently filmed mainly in the Country Club, Morris Park and Throggs Neck sections of the Bronx.
While most of the locations used in the film have since been destroyed, the film does actually feature scenes at both CBGB’s and Studio 54, both of which you can visit in their new incarnations as a John Varvatos store and The Roundhouse Theatre Company. However, we think you’d be better off heading straight to Throgg’s Neck. The Icehouse Cafe is a waterfront restaurant overlooking the scenic Throgg’s Neck Bridge. And while it wasn’t in the movie, the waterfront view sets the stage for a relaxing Italian meal.
The Warriors (1979), dir. Walter Hill
The Warriors centers around a fictitious NYC street gang called The Warriors, thus the title, who must make their way from the north end of the Bronx to their home turf of Coney Island after being framed for the murder of a respected gang leader. The film premiered in 1979 to lukewarm reviews but eventually achieved such cult status that it even caused Roger Ebert to amend his original review. Today, it’s considered a cult classic with several video game versions, spinoffs, and even a comic book series.
Filming began on June 26th, 1978. The entire film was shot on the streets of New York City from sundown to sunrise. While the ground covered by the film crew stayed true to the path of their fictitious leads, the film is notable for a climactic scene in which a gang called The Punks attack our heroes in the Union Square subway station. While that particular station has since gone through extensive renovations, once you’ve seen the film, it’s hard not to think of it if you find yourself at Union Square.
A fantastic film if you’re looking to cover some ground exploring the city, other notable locations include Riverside Park, Cypress Hills Cemetery, the 72nd St Station and Hoyt-Schermerhorn Station. But, really, if you want to pay homage to our Warriors, get yourself to their home turf and make a day of it at Coney Island. And, of course, it isn’t a trip to Coney Island without a stop at Nathan’s Famous.
Taxi Driver (1976), dir. Martin Scorsese
Nominated for four Academy Awards and coming in at #52 on AFI’s Top 100 Films, this is the highest ranking film of our NYC Summer picks and easily the most acclaimed. Most people know the famous “You talkin’ to me?” scene even without seeing the film. And, of course, that line wouldn’t be the same without Robert Deniro’s quintessential New York delivery.
The film follows Travis Bickle, a Vietnam vet suffering from PTSD, as he drifts through a nocturnal existence in the city as a taxi driver. Suffering from insomnia, Travis becomes increasingly detached from reality as he grows angry at the state of the city. The film’s writer, Paul Schrader, apparently came up with the idea after living in New York City during a bout of insufferable insomnia.
Shot during a heatwave in the summer of 1975, the film was shot mostly on the West side of Manhattan. At the time, the city was grappling with a sanitation strike and on the verge of bankruptcy. Luckily for the film, the city’s struggling architecture perfectly suits the nihilistic nature of its main character.
And while most of the locations used in the film have either been destroyed or turned into Duane Reades, there is one feature in the film that is still standing: The St Regis. In a decidedly non-Travis Bickle move, drop in and try a Red Snapper at their King Cole Bar. You may not exactly meet the mood of the film but you will enjoy yourself.
Kids (1995), dir. Larry Clark
Written by a 19-year-old Harmony Korine with Leo Fitzpatrick, Justin Pierce, Chloe Sevigny and Rosario Dawson all in their film debuts, the youth-led film certainly warrants its name. In fact, Larry Clark, the film’s director, was so intent on representing an accurate depiction of youth at that time, that he walked the streets of New York City looking for “street kids” with no acting experience to lead the film.
Kids was shot during the summer of 1994 with the city streets serving as major locations. Actor Leo Fitzpatrick was “discovered” in Washington Square Park screaming and swearing after his attempts at skateboarding tricks failed. While that park also stands as a location in the actual film, a visit is a reasonable way to connect to the setting of the film. And there are so many great restaurants nearby, that you may as well stay for dinner. Blue Hill is a favorite of ours.
The Seven Year Itch (1955), dir. Billy Wilder
The only film on our list not shot exclusively in NYC during the summer, The Seven Year Itch is worth an honorable mention if only for its central backdrop of a summer heatwave in the city. Centered around Richard Sherman, a New Yorker who sends his wife and son off on a Maine vacation only to find himself enamored of a new neighbor played by Marilyn Monroe, the film is iconic for its famous “white dress over a subway grate” scene.
And since we’re on the subject, the grate is real and it is located on 52nd Street and Lexington Avenue. While you’re there, take a walk a few blocks down and continue following those vintage vibes all the way to some Prohibition-inspired cocktails at The Stayton Room, a cocktail lounge reminiscent of The Roaring Twenties.
WORDS Hillary Sproul
IMAGE Spike Lee on set, Do the Right Thing, 1989