If you’ve only ever seen New York projected onto a screen it’s understandable that you may have a skewed idea of what the city is all about. Charles Bronson made a career of showing the city’s down, dirty and dangerous side in the Death Wish films, and The Warriors didn’t exactly earn high marks from the NYC Tourist Bureau.
Even comedies frequently paint the Big Apple as a scary place. Sure, romantic comedies make the city look great, but there is a tradition of setting hapless comedic characters loose in Gotham with predictably chaotic—for instance, see After Hours, a Kafkesque Martin Scorsese trip through the mean streets of NYC—though funny results.
This weekend’s Date Night sees two of television’s funniest actors, Tina Fey and Steve Carell, as an average married couple who get pulled into New York’s seedy underbelly after a case of mistaken identity.
It’s a funny premise that breathes the same air as another 40-year-old film. Neil Simon originally planned to write the story of Gwen and George (Sandy Dennis and Jack Lemmon), an Ohio couple who experience the worst of NYC life, as a chapter in his Broadway play Plaza Suite, but as the tale grew to include a series of calamities—exploding manhole covers! Cuban protesters!—the playwright realized he needed a larger canvas and wrote it directly for the screen. The Out-of-Towners (later remade starring Goldie Hawn and Steve Martin) set the template for the indignant, put-upon NYC tourist comedy. In this story even the police sympathize with—and maybe even envy—the unlucky day-trippers.
“You folks live out of town?” asks Officer Meyers.
“Oh yes,” replies Gwen.
“You’re lucky,” says the cop.
Gwen and George can’t even catch a break when they flee the city. On the plane home they get hijacked to Cuba.
King Shadov, an exiled king played by Charlie Chaplin in A King in New York has better luck, but just barely. Shot in 1957 but not released until 1973 because of its rapier jabs at American culture, the film follows a monarch who arrives in NYC only to discover his bank accounts have been drained. Broke and on unfamiliar terrain, he clashes with the American way-of-life, denouncing rock and roll, CinemaScope and Joseph McCarthy’s communist hunt. It’s one of Chaplin’s best—although lesser known— films and would make a great double feature with Date Night.