For those of you who love cities, movies, and by extension, cities in movies, here's a batch of capital DVD titles, and the capitals that inspired them.
Vienna - The Third Man (1949): Holly Martins (Joseph Cotten) travels to Post World War II Vienna to unravel the mysterious demise of old friend Harry Lyme (Orson Welles). He starts with few clues, and the little information he manages to gather simply doesn't hang together. Holly perseveres in his treacherous investigation, aided by a police inspector (Trevor Howard) who'd also like answers. Is Harry Lyme really dead, and if not, why fake his own death? The enormous talents of the film's key contributors help explain why this atmospheric, ageless film still works so well: old Mercury Theatre (and "Citizen Kane") colleagues Welles and Cotten in front of the camera, and behind it, screenwriter Graham Greene, producers Alexander Korda and David O. Selznick, and director Carol Reed, who shot this on-location. "Man" also features one of the best uses of music in all film, with Anton Karas's original zither score adding to the bizarre proceedings.
New Orleans - Panic In The Streets (1950): Early Elia Kazan suspenser centers around an increasingly desperate search for two criminals on the lam in New Orleans (played by Jack Palance and Zero Mostel), who, unbeknownst to them, have been infested with bubonic plague. If health inspector Dr. Clint Reed (Richard Widmark) and police captain Tom Warren (Paul Douglas) don't nab their quarry fast, the killer plague will spread and put the whole country at risk. This breathlessly exciting film is one of our best manhunt pictures, with the plague twist adding an extra jolt of tension. Kazan's peerless on-location shooting never obscures the terrific acting from the four central characters, both hunters and hunted. Palance is particularly magnetic as a brutal fugitive.
Tokyo - The Tokyo Story (1953): An enduring classic from Yasujiro Ozu, the story follows elderly couple Tomi and Shukishi, who set off from their rural village to visit their children in modern-day Tokyo. But when they arrive, doctor son Koichi and salon proprietor Shige are too busy to visit and send the disappointed old folks to a health resort. Only their daughter-in-law Noriko takes time to show them the city. Later, an unexpected illness leads the children to regret their selfish inattention. This melancholic dissection of family dynamics in postwar Japan may sound simplistic, but "Story" packs an emotional punch as it observes the erosion of traditional values in modern lifeways. And Ozu's deft direction reflects the nuances of everyday existence like no one else.
Paris - Rififi (1955): Tony le Stephanois (Jean Servais), an aging, tired thief just released from prison, enlists some old colleagues to pull off one last jewelry heist before retiring. Though the robbery is meticulously planned, enormous risk still attends the caper. More than fifty years after its release, "Rififi" retains a gritty realism. The heist sequence, done completely in silence, is justifiably famous, and Servais's lead performance conveys a sad, twisted nobility. The jarring conclusion of this small masterpiece also lingers in the brain. Location shooting in Paris adds pungent Gallic flavoring. A must-see from famed noir director Jules Dassin.
New York - Sweet Smell of Success (1957): Desperate to promote one of his clients, slimy press flack Sidney Falco (Tony Curtis) turns to the most powerful man he knows: acid-tongued gossip columnist J.J Hunsecker (Burt Lancaster). Falco gets what he needs from Hunsecker, but in turn must help him ruin a jazz trumpeter (Martin Milner) with eyes for the poison-pen scribe's younger sister (Susan Harrison). Turning from his comedic work at Britain's Ealing Studios to direct this dark meditation on ambition and the perversity of power, Alexander MacKendrick relied on playwright Clifford Odets and writer Ernest Lehman for their scripting talents. The final product remains one of our most cynical, caustic glimpses into the underbelly of Manhattan show business, featuring top performances from both Lancaster and Curtis. "I love this dirty town," proclaims the Walter Winchell-esque Hunsecker, and you don't doubt him.
Rome - La Dolce Vita (1960): Gossip columnist Marcello Rubini (Marcello Mastroianni) aspires to be a serious writer, but his work for the tabloids is far too lucrative to forfeit. One night, he picks up a lonely heiress, Maddalena (Anouk Aimée), and embarks on a hedonistic romp through Rome--eventually hooking up with buxom Hollywood starlet Sylvia (Anita Ekberg), whom he meets at a press conference. Eventually, Rubini's lusty but hollow adventures with sex, booze, and all-night parties bring him to a point of crisis. Federico Fellini's signature work is most often remembered for the zaftig Ekberg's swim in the Trevi Fountain, yet its nearly three hour running time includes a procession of unforgettable scenes, as the sublime Mastroianni marches numbly into the vacuous, debauched life of modern-day celebrity in Rome. A sharply observed, absorbing study of dizzying decadence from Maestro Fellini.
Washington, DC- Fail Safe (1964): Through the unlikeliest of circumstances, an American aircraft loaded with nuclear warheads is headed towards Moscow, and cannot be recalled. Racing against the clock, the U.S. President (Henry Fonda) contacts the Russian premier through his interpreter, Buck (Larry Hagman), to inform him that a faulty radio transmission has sent the bombers past the "fail-safe" point. Is it too late to save Moscow and avert World War III? Of all the doomsday thrillers that have unnerved us since the 1960s, nothing beats Sidney Lumet's chilling "Fail-Safe". Throughout the film, set in the control room of Strategic Air Command, Lumet expertly uses his camera to build claustrophobia and a feeling of doom. Walter Matthau also makes your blood run cold as a dispassionate nuclear-arms expert.
London- Alfie (1966): Self-styled English playboy Alfie (Michael Caine) is crazy about women and guiltlessly indulges himself without an ounce of shame. When he discovers his live-in girlfriend is pregnant, Alfie behaves like a cad, selfishly pursuing a variety of other "birds". But Alfie's happy-go-lucky days can't last forever, can they? Based on a play by Bill Naughton, Lewis Gilbert's "Alfie" is a black comedy of mores and manners about a naïve womanizer who wonders, as in the title song, "What's it all about?" Caine, in a star-making role, is sensational as the charming but emotionally clotted Alfie, whose hilarious asides to the camera leaven the film's heavier moments. Even today, Gilbert's unsparing riff on the emptiness of sexual conquest resonates, and it's fun to absorb the electric vibe of swinging sixties London.
New York- Serpico (1973): This superb film is based on the true story of one very stubborn, courageous and honest cop. Officer Frank Serpico (Al Pacino) joins the N.Y.P.D, decides he won't take bribes, and promptly gets ostracized by his colleagues. Fed up, he finally decides to expose the widespread corruption in the force, a move that nearly costs him his life. Under Sidney Lumet's assured direction, we see the established, shady practices in one of the country's largest police departments occurring virtually out in the open. Watch "Serpico" for a still shocking history lesson, and to catch Pacino in one of his best early roles.
Los Angeles- Chinatown (1974): Cynical, brooding, and knotted with mystery, Roman Polanski's "Chinatown" stands as one of the most superbly crafted, post-'40s noirs ever made . Hired by glamorous Evelyn Mulwray (Faye Dunaway) to snap incriminating photos of her husband, private dick Jake Gittes (Jack Nicholson) thinks he's on a routine investigation of spousal infidelity. It turns out Evelyn is actually the daughter of powerful baron Noah Cross (John Huston), and the seamy revelations only mount from there, drawing Jake deeper into a hornet's nest of incest, betrayal, and corruption in1930's Los Angeles. The cast, of course, can't be beat: Dunaway is both seductive and impenetrable, while Jack operates at the top of his game as the Chandler-esque former cop. Legendary real-life director Huston also delivers a titanic performance as the wily, arrogant Cross. Watch for Polanski himself as a knife-wielding thug with a grudge against nosy people.
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