This week New York Magazine explores our love-hate relationship with the MTA.
The movies love the New York subway. They love to show how crowded and awful and messy and grimy and evil it is, and occasionally its majesty. In some ways, the subway has become a metaphor for the city itself — we’re packed in, at the mercy of others, either hurtling toward our destiny or stuck along the way. But the subway is also sometimes a place of great humanity — the place where people connect in unlikely ways. Let’s be clear: There are too many subway scenes in too many movies for any one list to do justice to them all. But here are 20 of the best subway scenes from the movies. (Ranked, because what’s a subway ride without some irritation?)
20. The Naked City (1948)
Jules Dassin’s film noir was notable for being one of the first studio movies to use extensive location-shooting in New York, and it makes a point of including numerous shots of crowded subway cars and stations. But perhaps the most notable rail-riding moment comes during the film’s thrilling final chase and shoot-out, filmed on the Williamsburg Bridge as trains zoom back and forth on either side of the besieged villain.
19. Dressed to Kill (1980)
In Brian De Palma’s sex-drenched suspense classic, the camera swoops through subway cars as Nancy Allen’s plucky prostitute is first pursued by a gang of toughs, and is then suddenly attacked by the film’s central mysterious, murderous blonde (really, it’s a cross-dressing Michael Caine) — who is then thwarted by young Keith Gordon, wielding a can of mace.
18. Ghostbusters II (1989)
“You know how much negative energy it must have taken to create a river this size?” “Hey, New York! What a town!” So the subway in Ghostbusters II isn’t really the classic New York subway, but rather the Beach Pneumatic Transit, a prototype that was built and abandoned in the 1870s. The Ghostbusters explore it after they begin to suspect that the strange goings-on around them are being created by the city’s negative energy seeping underground. And that’s why this scene still seems so apropos: In movies, the subway so often represents what’s so wrong with the city. The idea of a river of “pure concentrated evil” flowing beneath the city is both inspired and kind of a no-brainer.
17. King Kong (1976)
John Guillermin and Dino De Laurentiis’s 1976 remake of King Kong might be one of the worst Kongs out there, but it does have the best subway scene in any of them, as Jeff Bridges and Jessica Lange attempt to flee the rampaging giant ape by jumping on a train — only to have Kong grab the train like it was a plastic toy (which, let’s face it, it probably was) and rip its top off like a can of sardines.
16. Death Wish (1974)
In this extremely disturbing, infamous vengeance flick, Charles Bronson guns down two muggers who accost him in an empty subway car. This is after he’s already shot several other people, so his descent from mild-mannered architect to ruthless vigilante is basically complete by this point, and there’s an unnerving casualness to his actions; we sense that he’s waiting for someone to come at him. Not a great scene, but notable for its troubling real-life overtones: It was echoed a decade later, when so-called “subway vigilante” Bernhard Goetz gunned down four teenagers on a downtown 2 train, setting off a hail of controversy and an infamous court case.
15. Ghost (1990)
This romance, about Patrick Swayze’s ghost trying to commune with his wife Demi Moore while also trying to catch the scheming business partner who wronged him, features a surprisingly powerful subway sequence. In it, our spectral hero jumps into and through subway cars, looking for another ghost (played by the great Vincent Schiavelli) who can knock things out of people’s hands. Swayze wants to learn how he too can connect with the material world — how he can actually touch things. Schiavelli’s melancholy, bitter spirit teaches him to get in touch with his anger. And then he reveals that he’s been haunting the subway “ever since they pushed me.” It’s a scene that’s funny, scary, and ultimately touching. (Kind of like the movie.)
14. After Hours (1985)
One of the funniest scenes in Martin Scorsese’s cult comedy about Griffin Dunne having a very bad night downtown comes as our hero tries to get home in the middle of the night, only to discover that the subway fare has gone up at midnight and he doesn’t have enough money. The subsequent exchange with the token clerk (“Couldn’t you just give me one token, please?” “I may lose my job.” “Who would know, exactly?” “I could go to a party, get drunk, talk to someone.”) is hilarious, surreal, and nerve-racking.
13. Saturday Night Fever (1977)
How often is a simple shot of a man sitting on a subway train this compelling? Well, when it’s John Travolta in full disco regalia, forlornly reflecting on his dead-end life after the tragic climax of Saturday Night Fever? Pretty damn compelling. The film’s stark contrast between disco glitz and working-class angst culminates in this moment, as our hero reassesses his life and his attitudes and resolves to change his ways.
12. Money Train (1995)
Woody Harrelson and Wesley Snipes followed up the success of White Men Can’t Jump with this underrated action comedy about two transit cops and foster brothers who decide to rob the nightly money-collecting train, both to pay off their gambling debts and get back at their sleazy captain, played by Robert Blake. The plot is intricate, and more than a little ridiculous — and it gets even more ridiculous as it hurtles towards its big, loud finale. The best thing about it is watching Harrelson and Snipes, clearly having a great time playing brothers who genuinely care about each other beneath all their wisecracking.
11. Pickup on South Street (1953)
In Samuel Fuller’s Cold War noir, Richard Widmark plays a pickpocket who inadvertently steals some hot microfilm when he takes Jean Peters’s wallet on a crowded train — and winds up involved with the Feds who’ve been secretly keeping an eye her. Among other things, Fuller could stretch a dollar, and his tense, tight construction of this quiet scene, focusing on faces and hands, remains a master class in building suspense.
10. Carlito’s Way (1993)
As he tries to make his way to his beloved Penelope Ann Miller at Grand Central Terminal and to freedom, Al Pacino’s veteran mobster is pursued throughout the subway by a group of Mafiosi. Director Brian De Palma — no stranger to impressive train and train-station sequences after Dressed to Kill and The Untouchables — glides between cars and along platforms, building suspense. (All of that comes to a devastating climax when, right as he’s about to make his getaway, Pacino is shot and killed by a young John Leguizamo.)
9. Bananas (1971)
Woody Allen doesn’t shoot much in the subway nowadays, but this scene from his early freewheeling romp remains iconic. That’s in part thanks to the presence of then-unknown Sylvester Stallone as one of the two toughs who terrorize a subway car and assault an old lady before Allen’s nebbishy Fielding Mellish tries to intervene. It’s a purely silent mix of city nightmare and slapstick, with Allen at his Chaplinesque best as the shy clown whose attempt to save the day backfires.
8. The Clock (1945)
In Vincente Minnelli’s lovely wartime romance, Robert Walker and Judy Garland have a meet-cute in Penn Station (the old one), then proceed to fall in love over the course of an evening. Then, however, they get separated in the crowd at the Grand Central subway stop: She takes the local to 33rd Street while he, trying to find her, takes the express to 14th. (Amateurs!)
7. The Warriors (1979)
In Walter Hill’s cult classic, the title gang of teens have to make their way back home to Coney Island on the subway after a mass gathering in the Bronx ends in murder and chaos. Unfortunately, their way is blocked by fires, brutal cops, and other vengeful gangs. Filmed during the city’s most broken-down years, this hellish, dystopian vision of the subway isn’t exactly realistic: Hill films it more like an arena for combat than as a means for transport.
6. Spider-Man 2 (2004)
Subway purists may complain about this scene, since it purports to be set on an elevated R train running straight through the center of Manhattan — and there obviously is no such thing, at least not anymore. But it also happens to be the best scene in the entire Sam Raimi–Tobey Maguire Spider-Man series — indeed, one might argue, of any superhero franchise over the past two decades. And although having Spider-Man and Doctor Octopus fight over, inside, and all around the El is pure action-movie glory, what makes the sequence is its finale: Spider-Man, his mask off, nearly dies trying to keep the train from plunging into the sea. Then, in a deeply emotional moment, he’s lifted up and saved by the passengers, who realize that he’s just a kid, and they tell him that his secret’s safe.
5. Shame (2011)
Early on in Steve McQueen’s drama about a Wall Street sex addict, the protagonist (played by Michael Fassbender) seduces a married woman on the R train with one sustained stare from across a subway car. It’s an intensely sexy scene, but one that gains a creepy pathos when they exit the train, briefly touching hands. For her it was a harmless fling, and she goes merrily on her way while he desperately searches for her, under the delusion that it might lead to something.
4. SUBWAY Stories: Tales From the Underground (1997)
This wonderful HBO anthology film consists of a whole host of shorts made by a variety of directors, based on subway stories solicited from the public. (It aired on HBO, but it also had a very brief theatrical run.) They’re all worth seeing, but possibly the most intriguing one is “Sax Cantor Riff,” made by the great Julie Dash. It features Taral Hicks as a woman stuck on a subway platform, unable to reach her dying mother. She gets on a pay phone (remember those?) and speaks to her mom for possibly the last time … and she starts to sing, accompanied by a busking saxophonist. It’s a marvelous, magical, heartbreaking moment of connection — in a setting that all too often is used to exemplify discord, danger, and violence. (See: almost literally every other movie on this list.) Also: Look for, very briefly, a young Sam Rockwell.
3. The French Connection (1971)
Everybody thinks of the central, iconic action sequence in William Friedkin’s classic as a car chase, but it’s actually a subway chase. Because as he hurtles through traffic at breakneck speed, Gene Hackman’s gruff cop Popeye Doyle is actually chasing the elevated train right above him — or, more accurately, the hit man riding it. Indeed, that’s one of the things that makes the scene work so well — the way Friedkin constantly mirrors the train and the car, as they both go faster and faster and the excitement and chaos build. As Popeye does all he can to avoid hurting people, his quarry above seems to do all he can to hurt them, and to cause as much lunacy as he can.
2. The Incident (1967)
In Larry Peerce’s very tense, somewhat overlooked 1967 film, two drunken thugs (played by newcomers Tony Musante and Martin Sheen) terrorize a late-night subway train filled with a cross-section of New Yorkers. As much a social drama as it is a thriller, the film plays with the characters’ different attitudes to one another as the danger mounts. It’s also, however, a chilling look at a common nightmare: the possibility that you’ll wind up trapped in the train with a lunatic.
1. The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (1974)
It might be the ultimate New York City subway movie. (Avoid Tony Scott’s John Travolta–Denzel Washington remake, which, despite the talent level involved, isn’t very good. ) A group of four hoods takes a train hostage, and the entire system churns into high gear trying to deal with it, led by a wisecracking, cynical Transit Police lieutenant played by Walter Matthau. It’s a great thriller, to be sure, but it’s also a fascinating one — as it shows us in surprisingly fine detail the behind-the-scenes world of dispatchers and other officials who keep the network churning along. Great theme music, too.