Chinatown is to Los Angeles as Taxi Driver is to New York.
New York: Taxi Driver (1976)
Movies about New York tend to present it as either a dream setting for romance or a gladiatorial arena designed to kill you or drive you nuts. (A third group, practically as dead as the dodo, depicts it as just another place where people are trying to raise their families and live their lives.) In the 1970s, the idea that anybody could find happiness and fall in love in New York was all but banished from the screen until about 1977, when it was revived by the unlikely pair of Woody Allen (Annie Hall) and John Travolta (Saturday Night Fever); mostly, filmmakers from William Friedkin (The French Connection) to Sidney Lumet (Serpico, Dog Day Afternoon) depicted New York as a shooting gallery where your level of heroism depended on how well you functioned in chaotic squalor. It was Martin Scorsese, the director most openly in love with New York at its most abrasive, who best realized a vision of the city as Hell — a visually electrifying view of New York through the eyes of the last person in the world who ought to be living there.
Los Angeles: Chinatown (1974)
Screenwriter Robert Towne updated a style of hardboiled detective story that, thanks to Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett, will always be associated with Los Angeles, and applied it to an alternate history of Los Angeles itself. Chinatown uses the collapse of the St. Francis Dam as the basis for a conspiracy story about how a vast, murderous plot brought water to the desert. It was such a successful piece of mythmaking — and so powerful are the movies — that today many people think that John Huston scammed and whacked half of Southern California to steal from Poseidon, just as many people think that Tommy Lee Jones and the gay Mafia killed John F. Kennedy. Chinatown itself is a movie-spawned dream of the thrill of both romance and corruption, and it would be less powerful if it were set anywhere but the city where the movies come from in the first place.
San Francisco: Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978)
The original Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), directed by Don Siegel, was set in a fictional small town in California — Anytown, U.S.A. The later Body Snatchers (1993), directed by Abel Ferrara, was set on a U.S. Air Force base. (The more recent The Invasion was made for no reason by bad people who will have to answer to their god.) Both settings have obvious possibilities for anyone using this time-honored alien-takeover story to satirize the drive towards conformity. But the idea really takes root in Philip Kaufman’s version, set in San Francisco, a place of great beauty with an impressive cultural history, yet one that has spawned some of the goofiest trains of thought and creepiest movements on record. Kaufman and his cinematographer, Michael Chapman, manage to make everything beautiful and charming about the place look ominous. Their San Francisco is an ideal setting for a movie in which extraterrestrial colonizers talk self-help bilge to their prospective victims. It also features a dog with a dude’s head. Some years, he could have been a plausible candidate in the mayoral race.
Chicago: The Untouchables (1987)
However painful or embarrassing it must be for honest citizens, Chicago’s history as the brassiest of all organized-crime venues is a continuing gift to the movies, with returns coming in as recently as last summer’s Public Enemies. The Untouchables has no pretense to historical reality; it’s a big, melodramatic wallow in American mythology, as if Al Capone had been so thoughtful as to have his days storyboarded. But a reminder of Chicago’s glorious past and present is always there in the on-location photography of architecture by Frank Lloyd Wright and Louis Sullivan, part of the reason it remains probably the best-looking American city in movies. There is still no more photogenic or history-enriched place in America to rob a bank; make your career plans accordingly.
Boston: Gone Baby Gone (2007)
Ben Affleck’s adaptation of Dennis Lehane’s novel goes easier on the cartoon accents and pop-eyed sociology than Clint Eastwood’s version of Lehane’s Mystic River; it feels like the work of someone who knows the territory. Not a man who has to prove his Beantown bona fides, Affleck is able to focus his attention on the complicated story while instinctively understanding what details and locations will best capture what Patrick Radden Keefe called "the city’s clannish insularity, the fine-bore segregation of its neighborhoods… the mix of effete, overeducated latte swillers and ‘gritty, working-class’ knuckleheads." The movie’s ambiguous use of Morgan Freeman serves as a subliminal reminder of the racial tensions that went public with the busing crisis, but it’s the well-worn homes and the cast — especially Amy Ryan and her sidekick/voice coach, Jill Quigg — who nail the local vibe. Capturing a city can often be a simple matter of casting the right people, even if your iconic Boston babe, Ryan, happens to hail from Queens.
Austin: Slacker (1991)
Austin’s contemporary reputation as the ultimate hipster hangout among sun-baked college towns began in the ’70s, but it wasn’t until Richard Linklater started playing pinball with the local misfits, crazies, and other assorted motormouths that the city got an image-defining movie to call its own. Slacker is the cinematic equivalent of sitting up all night listening to a call-in radio show about UFOs and the death of Marilyn Monroe.
Las Vegas: Leaving Las Vegas (1995)
Going into this movie, you might wonder why a man would consciously drink himself to death, but about halfway through, you might begin to wonder why anyone would go to Las Vegas for any other reason. (That’s not an insult, Las Vegas! I promise!) The never-ending noise and flashing lights, the freak show on the streets, the callousness of strangers — it’s all a perfect backdrop for Nicolas Cage’s feature-length suicide note of a performance, though it’s not always clear whether he’s competing with the spectacle or trying to drink himself to some new level of awareness where it’ll all seem reasonable. Leaving Las Vegas might be unbearably harsh if it weren’t for the blessed presence of Elisabeth Shue, who, as the hooker who attaches herself to a man far too sodden for sex, demonstrates that the tawdriest, tackiest gestures can sometimes be offered in the name of love.
New Orleans: The Big Easy (1986)
The movie that settled which of New Orleans’s many nicknames would go national is a tale of squalid corruption and murder that plays like a fast-talking romantic farce, sold to the public with a heavily hyped sex scene. A lot of locals would judge that combination to be about right. In a city that’s seen more than one high-profile murder trial with an NOPD member as defendant, they’d certainly understand why a cop (Dennis Quaid) whose chosen level of corruption stops at perjury, free meals, and cutting in line at Tipitina’s might qualify as a hero. The movie’s not without its touristy lapses — where the hell did that marching band come from? And did that police-station clerk really have to ask, "Who did I look like, the grand marshal of the Mardi Gras?", a line that in real life would have gotten him transferred to the nearest swamp? But putting on a show for the tourists has been the city’s main source of income since the oil and the ports dried up, so locals watching The Big Easy may decide that a little self-exploitation is about right, too.
Portland: Drugstore Cowboy (1989)
Long before his Academy Award nominations, Gus Van Sant made Portland an underdog contender for coolest American city in the movies with his first string of features — Mala Noche, My Own Private Idaho, and this tribute to the joys and horrors of a life spent searching for the next high. With Robert Yeoman’s cinematography, and loose-limbed yet precisely tuned performances by Matt Dillon, Kelly Lynch, James Remar, and Max Perlich (and a guest appearance by William S. Burroughs), Drugstore Cowboy perfectly captures the charms of a city where it also looks as if it just finished raining, and also suggests why living there might make you want to buy drugs.
Baltimore: Hairspray (1988)
With all due respect to Barry Levinson’s Baltimore classic Diner, we’re throwing our wooden nickel in with John Waters, because he is, in spirit, the hometown director that all notable American cities deserve: a self-made weirdo driven to search the hidden corners of his town for the freakiest people he can find, not out of hostility but in the name of love. Waters understands, as the Chamber of Commerce doesn’t, that his movies bring in a livelier brand of tourists than their brochures ever could. Hairspray is his masterpiece, because it’s the one where he managed to graft his love of sleaze and vaudeville to an actual piece of family entertainment, thus doing untold damage to who knows how many youngsters whose unsuspecting parents rented the video. (That said, the proudest moment in Waters’s oeuvre may be when Cristina Ricci, exposed to the decadent horrors of the New York art scene in Pecker, exclaims, "I don’t belong here. I’m a Baltimore girl!" She sounds like the gang in Casablanca singing "La Marseillaise" to the Nazis.)