Grand Central Terminal on Film

February 2, 2013 marked the 100th anniversary of one of New York City’s architectural treasures, Grand Central Terminal.

In my opinion, it’s the most  beautiful structure in New York City, and even after ten years of living here I’m still in awe each time I walk through this iconic station.  At one point after I moved to Manhattan I reverse commuted from Grand Central Terminal to Connecticut every day for four years, and the highlight of each day was taking that first step back into the Main Concourse after a long day at work.

I first started taking the train into Grand Central from the suburbs back in the early 90’s.  It was grungier back then, and after several years of cleaning and maintenance the station was returned to its pristine former glory in 1998.  In honor of that rebirth, the MTA provided a set of commemorative post cards on each seat of each train that departed from the terminal that day.  I still have mine.

One of my favorite memories of GCT was during the 1994 World Cup when the MTA set up a large screen TV in the Main Concourse.  Keep in mind, there are no seats in the Main Concourse, so everyone watching was simply standing near the TV as they waited to board their trains.  I forget which teams were playing that first round game, but the crowd gathered around the TV was enjoying the game and showing emotion as the teams battled it out.  And then out of nowhere some schlubby guy, completely clueless, walks up to the TV and changes the channel!  A riot almost broke out and he’s lucky he got out of there alive!

Grand Central Terminal is incredibly cinematic, and I’m a sucker for a movie that’s shot in that station. IMDB lists about sixty films that have been shot in Grand Central, but I have to think that there have been more.  Some of my favorites over time include The Freshman, Carlito’s Way, Midnight Run, Seconds, and Amateur.  However when I look back at some of these films, the first thing that crosses my mind is how under-utilized Grand Central Terminal was in most of them, particularly one of my favorite indie films, Hal Hartley’s Amateur.  But then I have to remind myself that I’m biased by the fact I walk through Grand Central Terminal a couple of times a week and still can’t get enough of it.  And while there’s an incredible amount of beauty in every corner, stairway and path in the station, too much of it just for the sake of showing it on film can disrupt the flow of a scene.  But when done right, just one shot from the right angle of the Main Concourse is enough for someone to remember a scene shot in GCT.

There are three films in particular that stand out the most in my mind for their directors’ use of Grand Central Terminal.  These are the films I’m reminded of every time I walk through Grand Central.

North By Northwest (1959)

North By Northwest Movie Poster

Alfred Hitchcock’s North By Northwest is a great example of how a director can utilize Grand Central Terminal to give the audience the experience of the Main Concourse at rush hour.  Cary Grant’s walk from a phone booth on the East end of the Main Concourse, past the information desk, and to the ticket booth on the Vanderbilt Avenue side captures what thousands of people go through on a daily basis.  This was the second film Hitchcock shot in Grand Central Terminal, the first was 1945’s Spellbound with Gregory Peck and Ingrid Bergman.

Superman: The Movie (1978)

Superman The Movie - Poster

If you’ve been reading my blog for awhile now, you would know that Superman: The Movie is one of my favorite films of all time and the comic book movie that I measure all others against.  In the film, New York City was Metropolis, and Lex Luthor’s underground hideout was built on a soundstage, but several sequences were actually shot in Grand Central Terminal.  One of the shots of the Main Concourse (with the giant Kodak Colorama photo) may ahve actually been my first introduction to Grand Central Terminal, and I always enjoy seeing what GCT (and New York City) looked like back when Superman: The Movie was shot during the summer of 1977.

The Fisher King (1991)

The Fisher King Movie Poster

I’m a huge Terry Gilliam fan, and The Fisher King is my favorite of his films.  It was released in 1991, and this was the Grand Central Terminal that I walked into to the first time I took a Metro North Train in from the suburbs.  Gilliam’s amazing sequence in the Main Concourse as Parry (Robin Williams) follows Lydia (Amanda Plummer) as hundreds of commuters break into a waltz is in my opinion the greatest depiction of Grand Central Terminal on film.  Ever.  That scene changed how I saw Grand Central Terminal, and I still think of that sequence every time I walk past the information booth in the Main Concourse and wonder how Gilliam and cinematographer Roger Pratt were able to get the light to reflect off of the clock in that amazing scene.

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