Screen double

Celluloid Skyline

James Sanders <em>Bloomsbury, 496pp, £30</em>

ISBN 0747559791

Presenting the skyline of New York as a manifestation of our collective imagination sounds mawkishly topical, but you won't read a more lucid or measured insight into a city's consciousness than Celluloid Skyline.

Its thesis is simple. The real urban space made up of Manhattan, Queens, Brooklyn, the Bronx and Staten Island competes with another one made up of Manhattan, Taxi Driver, Breakfast at Tiffany's, Midnight Cowboy, 42nd Street, Fatal Attraction and so on. The second (movie) New York is not mythical - it is a parallel city rebuilt by King Kong's puppeteers. Both cities have their own geography, schedule and coherence. Movie New York is the equivalent of Manet's Paris or the London of Charles Dickens. (At the beginning of the 20th century, New York's aesthetic was also fiction - notably the short story - but cinema quickly became dominant, the medium that New York presented to America and which America in turn used to invent itself.)

The city is a natural film set, a world we mere mortals can seem too small to inhabit. It is a city built for Superman, Batman, Kong and the caricatures of Wall Street and The Hudsucker Proxy. (In comparison, how parochial Big Ben looks on the big screen, like a toy-town structure compared to the buildings of New York.)

Back in its infancy, cinema had to overcome the inadequacies of sound technologies (among other things) by going to a world where landscapes, sunshine and indoors were all possible. But the Hollywood studios could not resist building replicas of New York streets and interiors.

The rear window and fire escape of the row house on the Upper East Side where Audrey Hepburn sings to George Peppard in Breakfast at Tiffany's is merely the backdrop to a semi-convincing romantic scene, until you recognise that the object of desire is New York itself. Imagine Cat People elsewhere, or put the hotel and train-station scenes of North by Northwest somewhere ordinary. It is the New York landmarks of Planet of the Apes, Independence Day and AI that haunt us. In Three Days of the Condor, Robert Redford's life seems simultaneously threatened and protected by New York's buildings.

Architecture is the soul of every city, but in the movies, New York is the capital of the world - its buildings and topography delineate the spirit of modern man. In Celluloid Skyline, James Sanders, an architect, documentary-maker and New York historian, unravels New York's psyche by opening up its houses, apartments, skyscrapers, offices, hotels, train stations, docks, Central Park. His list is voracious. He uses 500 production and reference shots from 400 movies to illustrate his close readings.

Comparing King Kong (1933) with its remake (1976), Sanders sees two cities four decades apart, but also two structures - the Empire State Building and the twin towers - and myriad meanings embedded in the contrast. There is a neat section on what lofts tell us about freedom. And there is a compelling treatise on the way offices shape our lives and represent the changing values of our world - through The Apartment, The Big Clock, The Best of Everything, Funny Face and Working Girl.

From the late 1940s onward, location shooting enabled movies to paint with New York's open spaces, adding new dimensions to their characters: think of On the Waterfront or musicals such as West Side Story and Saturday Night Fever. Sanders watches Broadway play the dark act of city life, in movies such as Sweet Smell of Success (Sandy Mackendrick's overblown world of gossip columnists and agents) and John Schlesinger's Midnight Cowboy. The portentous atmospheres of Death Wish, The Warriors, The French Connection, Klute and Taxi Driver go one step further, turning the capital of the world into an urban hell, its very pavements reeking with evil.

Among his other arguments, Sanders's encyclopaedic exploration of interiors and architecture in three films by Woody Allen - Annie Hall (1977), Manhattan (1979) and Hannah and Her Sisters (1986) - is splendidly used to capture changes in civic sympathies and a more optimistic view of urban life. And his essay on perhaps the greatest New York movie, Rear Window - filmed on a single Greenwich Village set at Paramount Studios - in which an immobile photographer, played by James Stewart, solves a murder while spying on his neighbours, is among the most perceptive in the mighty Alfred Hitchcock library.

Douglas McCabe is a film critic

This article first appeared in the 19 August 2002 issue of the New Statesman, Prison can be the right place for kids