New York Placenames in Film Titles
Jay H. Bernstein
Kingsborough Community College - CUNY
From 1914 to 2006, 396 feature films with titles containing New York placenames
were released. This pattern emerged during the silent era, peaked from the late
1920s to the early 1940s, and then dropped off steadily before rebounding in the
1970s.This article discusses the cinematic representation of cities and urban life in
the movies and the special place of New York as an "imagined city" and a cultural
icon. New York's associations in the popular imagination help explain the frequent
occurrence of themes of negativity, violence, nightlife, and grandiosity (royalty or
divinity) in these titles. The use of New York placenames in titles creates guideposts
in a socio-cognitive map of the city.
The titles of theatrical films reveal certain patterns. Recent
years have brought us New York Minute (2004), Brooklyn Bound
(2004), Union Square (2004), Autumn in New York (2000), Maid in
Manhattan (2002), Love at Times Square (2003), and many others
containing New York placenames. Far from being a recent
phenomenon, references to New York places have been a familiar
trope in movie titles since the dawn of the film medium. Between
1914 and 2006, 396 different feature films were released with titles
containing New York placenames-either the whole city or one of
its constituent boroughs, neighborhoods, streets, or locations. What
is encoded in the mention of New York or a New York placename
that could account for its popularity in movie titles?
The study of titles brings together problems of language,
representation, and meaning as they apply to an aspect of products of
human imaginative creativity. The titles of primarily creative or
entertaining (as opposed to informative) works are not required to
indicate directly the contents of the works they name, but they must
contain some kind of information that can be analyzed and
55:2 (June 2007): 139-166
Copyright 2007 by The American Name Society
140 • NAMES 55:2 (June 2007)
Titles are kinds of names, and thus the theory of names
ought to comprehend titles. Zelinsky (2002) includes titles of artistic
creations in his taxonomy of names, but earlier, more fully
developed discussions of the theory of names (Algeo 1973; Pulgram
1951) do not mention them; nor does Nuessel (1992) cover titles in
his book-length review of onomastic studies. The study of titles has
developed independently from the study of names, and has been
dominated mainly by literary scholars and art historians (e.g., Adams
1987; Genette 1988; Levin 1977; Welchman 1997). In addition,
there is a separate literature on titles of scholarly and scientific
articles, written by information scientists (e.g., Buxton and Meadows
1977; Haggan 2004; Piternick 1991). By contrast, writings on film
titles are found mainly in newspapers and general interest
magazines. Typical is an article in Forbes magazine on film titles
that contain the word "millionaire" or otherwise suggest millions of
dollars (Brown 1999). Only three academic articles (Degler 1976;
Frey, Piernot, and Elnhardt 1981; Tarpley 1985) have studied titles
of motion pictures. The most extended and serious (but non-
specialist) treatment of movie titles is by Leslie Halliwell (1986),
famous as the creator of standard, annually-updated reference guides
on film. His essay, "Curiosities of Film Titles: What's in a Name?,"
considers the many facets of movie titles, covering their derivation
from the Bible, the Book of Common" Prayer, songs, nursery rhymes,
and other sources, including placenames. He specifically singles out
New York as having the "most appeal" as a placename mentioned in
movie titles (Halliwell 1986, 334), and notes that "London provides
a comparatively meagre list" (Halliwell 1986, 336).1
Places of all kinds are a common motif in movie titles,
occurring in nearly 30 percent of all film titles (Tarpley 1985). By
referencing a known location, placenames set the stage for the story
and establish a tone, thereby bringing it into a field of recognition;
their well-established cultural associations resonate with the public.
As Tarpley (1985, 79) has written, "feature films, probably more
than any other influence, have formed public impressions of places
never visited in person."
New York Films. 141
New York and the Movies
It cannot be a coincidence that New York and its iconic
places are a recurring theme in titles. With few exceptions, film
titles, ·like slogans (cf. Lagerwerf 2002), are extremely concise
expressions, containing a few words to convey the subject matter or
"essence" of a film in order to create some kind of intrigue and to
persuade potential audience members to view it. The reason most
film titles are short is that such titles are more powerful, and more
likely to stick in the memory than long titles. Kellman (1975, 166)
has commented about titles that "the more shrunken they are, the
more effectively they function as titles." Individual words chosen in
a title are selected very carefully. The documentary film Brooklyn
Lobster (2005), about a lobster farming company, could have been
called something else, yet Brooklyn was deliberately mentioned in
the title. It may be inferred that the name Brooklyn was thought to
help promote the film. New York and its constituent locations are
clearly places on the psychological map, tapping into some
collective consciousness, perhaps even a kind of fabulous imaginary
New York City has been a theme in motion pictures even
before film was used as a narrative medium, and the pattern of
capitalizing on the city's glamour, panache, or romance through
titles started before the advent of feature-length silent films. Rather
than fading away after an initial fluorescence, the trend continued.
Once certain early titles, such as Broadway Rose (1922), became
established cinematic landmarks, they could be recycled and quoted
in later titles, such as Broadway Danny Rose (1991).
As a cultural icon and emblem, New York City is part of
what may be called America's "mythology." Many myths of
American culture, such as Horatio Alger's archetypal "rags to
riches" stories, take place in New York. Historian Thomas Bender
(2002) has described the city's resonance as a city of movement and
street life; a center of culture and power; a "center of difference"; a
center of modernity in thought, fashion, and architecture; a place
whose ethos is captured in a "sky line"; and a cosmopolitan world
center, not just a center for the United States. As such, its cultural
142 • NAMES 55:2
meaning transcends that of "America," even as it both exemplifies
and in no small measure created "America.,,2 New York evinces
complex and conflicting attitudes and feelings about social power
and the dangers of urban life, as well as passions about ideals,
yearning, ambition, belonging, and other themes in the modem
human drama. The city's image is one of extreme contrasts:
impossibly high glossiness, chic, and allure on the one hand and
gross depravity, griminess, and danger on the other hand. The
commercialism of Wall Street and Madison Avenue has its antithesis
in b0hemian Greenwich Village and SoRo; the high culture of the
Metropolitan Opera is countered by the low culture of Coney Island;
and the fabulous wealth of penthouse life on Fifth Avenue is
countered by the dire poverty' of tenement life on the Lower East
Side (before gentrification). At its core, New York cannot be defined
by any single pervasive quality, but enigmatically, must embrace its
The city's density and compactness make it especially
suitable to cinematic portrayal. These qualities also create· a
claustrophobic environment that can make the city a pressure cooker,
contributing to the personality traits associated with the stereotypical
New Yorker: snobbery, neurosis, street smarts, outward toughness
and assertiveness (if not downright rudeness), a fast pace of speech,
and a belief that New York is the center of the universe. In the
popular imagination and in cultural iconography, New York, with its
compressed, crowded spaces, is the dialectical antithesis of the West,
with its open spaces.
Cinematic Representations of Imaginary Cityscapes
The portrayal of New York in motion pictures is a prime
example of what Welchman (1997,28) calls "imaginary geography."
Cities are places in the mind. People's mental images of cities
combine memories and fantasies, and often the memories originate
in the watching of movies. The drama of the city is a mainstay of
cinema, providing iconic images that furnish the mental landscape
with internalized landmarks, routes, and vistas. New York's
New York Films· 143
imaginary geography is particularly well-embedded, since the city is
persistently and abundantly portrayed in film.
In his book Imagining the Modern City (1999), Donald
considers "the city" a category of thought and experience. The ethos
of the city as a place of anonymity, impersonality, and even
heartlessness (McArthur 1997, 29) has consequences in loneliness,
alienation, and social disorder. At the same time, the city is steeped
in narratives about success and excitement. Unlike the small
community, where people know each other personally and family
histories are known to all inhabitants, the urban encounter is with
strangers. In the absence of a social bond, the urban stranger may
treat you brusquely and impersonally. But he could change your life.
The encounter with a stranger, so typical of city life (especially as
portrayed in film), is full of possibilities that can lead to adventure
and perhaps romance, or to exploitation and potentially violence or
doom. These themes are common tropes in the urban film narrative.
Another theme discussed by Donald is that of the urban man
as a jlaneur, a sophisticated, well-dressed "man about town" who
strolls the city streets. The perspective on cities in literature and film
is characteristically that of the pedestrian. In contrast to the modern-
thinking urbanite, the person from the small town is naIve and
tradition-bound. But perhaps this description of the dichotomy is
stacked in favor of the city person. McArthur (1997, 23) presents the
opposition between the metropolis and the small town as portrayed
in classic films as one of hypocrisy versus honesty, cash relations
versus human relations, individual versus community, and excess
versus modesty. The sophisticated man about town could be a con
man, or worse. The attitude to cities presented in cinema, taken
altogether, is ambivalent.
The Present Research
The present article does not undertake an analysis of film
content, only titles. The research covers the representation of the city
and its parts in movie titles, patterns over time, and aspects of the
film titles. Its scope is limited to the 396 movies released between
1914 and 2006 identified by the author as meeting the following
144 • NAMES 55:2
criteria: (a) they were theatrically released; (b) they are feature-
length, with a minimum duration of 60 minutes or, in the silent era,
six reels; and (c) their titles clearly mention New York or a part of it.
By these criteria, films that were either made for television
or released directly on videotape are excluded, as are short features.
Documentaries are included, as are foreign language and foreign-
made films. In the case of street addresses and generic terms like
Chinatown, City Hall, The Ritz, or Uptown, the reference must
clearly be in New York. Nonstandard names were dealt with on a
case-by-case basis. Alphabet City (1984) is included because it is a
clearly understood and accepted (especially at the time the film was
made) nickname for a specific part of New York City in the Lower
East Side.3Crooklyn (1994) is excluded because even though the
title is an obvious play on Brooklyn, the term is not to the author's
knowledge an accepted nickname for that borough. Another potential
entry excluded in this study is The Panic in Needle Park (1971),
since Needle Park is not known to the author, a native New Yorker,
as an authentic nickname or slang term for a real place.4Other
borderline cases would include The Taking of Pelham One Two
Three (1974) and Moscow on the Hudson (1984). Numerous films
had to be excluded because of the criteria imposed. The author
compiled a separate list of 66 such titles before realizing that further
investigations on short and independent films might reveal this
second list to be the tip of the iceberg. Also, film titles such as The
Manhattan Project (1986), which use the same words as New York
placenames without referring to a location in New York, are omitted.
The 396 films forming the material for this study have only 376
unique titles among them, due to remakes and other instances of
films issued with already existing titles.
The City and its Parts in Film Titles
While the name of the city New York appears in 72 film
titles, that is only 18.5 percent of all New York film titles. The other
titles name parts of the city: the boroughs, sections, neighborhoods,
and other locations in the city. Table 1 diagrams the various parts of
the city named in titles by level of specificity and frequency of use.
New York Films· 145
Some ambiguity adheres to the analysis of the parts of the city b)
name, since placenames can have multiple levels of reference.
example, Brighton Beach refers to both a beach and a neighborhood.
Table 1. Taxonomy of New York Places by Level of Specificity and
Incidence in Film Titles
New York (72)
Boroughs Manhattan (45) Brooklyn (30) Bronx (10) Queens
Multiple levels Broadway (street and Brighton Beach (beach
section) (104) and neighborhood)
Bowery (street and Sunset Park (park and
neighborhood) (14) neighborhood)
Chelsea (hotel and
General East Side, West Side
Sections Uptown (3) South Bronx (2)
East Side (Le. Lower
East Side) (2)
Neighborhoods Harlem (21) Coney Island (3) Astoria
Greenwich Village Flatbush (2)
Hell's Kitchen (2) Bensonhurst
Sugar Hill (2) Gravesend
(Lower East Side)
Streets Tenth Avenue (6) Metropolitan Avenue Cross Bronx
Fifth Avenue (5) 29
Wall Street (4) Carroll Street
Avenue A (2)
Locations Times Square (6) Brooklyn Bridge (2) Hellgate
Central Park (2)
World Trade Center
Madison Sq. Garden
146 • NAMES 55:2 (June 2007)
Grand Central (train
15 Maiden Lane
15 Park Avenue
Avenue, part of
Ellis Island (now part
of Hudson County,
• Less specific and often larger than neighborhoods
The most common New York place in movie titles is not
New York but Broadway, with 104 titles, which is 26.6 percent of
the total. Compared to the term New York, which has numerous and
complex connotations, the appearance of Broadway in a movie title
has a relatively distinctive meaning. There are many Broadways in
the United States and other English-speaking countries. In fact, each
of the five boroughs of New York City has a street called Broadway,
but there is no ambiguity about the location and significance of
Broadway itself is an unusual name for a New York street,
since it is a one-word name unqualified by "Street," "Avenue," or
another such term. Manhattan's Broadway is a remarkable street
indeed. It begins at the borough's southern end at Bowling Green
and follows its own eccentric path northward, defying the
conventions of Manhattan's grid pattern. It extends not only to the to
the borough's northernmost tip, above West 220
Columbia University's Baker Field, but further north through the
Broadway Bridge into the Bronx, where it continues as Broadway
through Yonkers, at which point it becomes US Route 9. (The road
continues, after another name change, up to the Canadian border!)
New York Films· 147
In movie titles, Broadway refers not exactly to Broadway as
a street and certainly not to the whole length of Broadway in
Manhattan but to New York's prime "theater district" focused
around Times Square at the juncture of Broadway, Seventh Avenue,
and 42nd Street, extending about a block or so on either side of
Broadway, from about West 40
to West 50
streets. (Indeed, Times
Square and 42nd Street, mentioned in eight other titles, refer to the
same place in the movies as does Broadway.) The so-called
Broadway district has dominated the production of stage theater in
the United States since the end of the 19
century (Bloom 2004,
xiii). As a trope in movie titles, Broadway is synonymous with stage
performance and its professions and crafts in the way that
Hollywood is synonymous with the motion picture industry and
Washington is with national politics and the work of government.
Throughout the history of film, "Broadway" movies have
both promoted and reflected on Broadway theater, including the
performers and their occupations, along with other personnel
(producers, directors, managers, agents, etc.) and others, such as
hangers-on and hustlers. The incidence of Broadway titles has risen
and fallen with the fortunes of the theater, peaking early, with ten
titles in 1929.
The City of New York has consisted of five boroughs since
its incorporation in 1898, only slightly postdating the advent of
motion picture technology, but Manhattan is unquestionably the
center-except in the sense that no borough is directly west of it-
and the other boroughs are called outer boroughs. Only Manhattan is
in New York County, with the postal designation, "New York, N.Y."
The extent to which the boroughs are named in movie titles suggests
their relative salience. Manhattan leads with 45, but Brooklyn is not
far behind, with 30. Next is the Bronx, with 11, and only one film
title mentions Queens.
The representation of the boroughs in movie titles can also
be observed by looking at the titles that name more specific
neighborhoods, streets, locations, and addresses. Seven Manhattan
neighborhoods are mentioned in film titles, as are four Brooklyn
neighborhoods, and one Queens neighborhood. Some areas named in
148 • NAMES 55:2
movie titles are better thought of as sections than neighborhoods.
Sections, like Broadway, are less specific and generally larger than
neighborhoods, though the dividing line between a neighborhood
and a section is indistinct. The sections of Manhattan found in movie
titles are East Side, West Side, Off Broadway, and Uptown.
Additionally, three separate movies are titled East Side, West Side.
By including both sides of the dichotomy, these titles do not merely
name sections of Manhattan but suggest that they are about the
whole city in general, as if to say "everything from beginning to
end." Indeed, Charles B. Lawlor and James W. Blake's immortal
song, "The Sidewalks of New York," has the lyric: "East Side, West
Side, All around the town." "The town" is Manhattan; the other
boroughs do not register. This song was written in 1894, before the
incorporation of the five-borough City of New York, but the
sentiment persists to this day.
Combining all placenames by borough, Manhattan leads
with 260 titles (65.7 percent of all titles), followed by Brooklyn, with
45 titles (11.4 percent). The Bronx is far behind, with only 13 titles
(3.3 percent), while Queens has only 3 titles (0.8 percent). Staten
Island is the only borough not mentioned in the title of any feature-
Brooklyn's presence in so many movie titles is noteworthy
given that it is an outer borough. Perhaps this is due to the fact that a
large number of Americans trace their ancestry through Brooklyn,
which was a self-sufficient city on a par with New York before its
incorporation in 1898. As a result, many titles of Brooklyn films
seem nostalgic and wistful, as epitomized in A Tree Grows in
Brooklyn (1945).6 Even those titles mentioning vampires and gorillas
seem benign and silly rather than menacing. At the other end of the
spectrum are the Bronx films, the titles of which are
characteristically tough (e.g., South Bronx Heroes ) and
dysphoric (e.g., Bronx Executioner ). Probably the most iconic
Bronx film is Fort Apache, the Bronx (1980), whose title draws an
explicit Hollywood analogy between the beleaguered borough and
the Wild West.
New York Films· 149
Interestingly, several foreign made and foreign language
films name Brooklyn and the Bronx in their titles. The Brother From
Brooklyn (1995) is Hungarian, but The Uncle From Brooklyn (1995)
is Italian, as are Anna From Brooklyn (1958), Un Gangster Venuto
da Brooklyn (1966), and From Corleone to Brooklyn (1979). An
Angel Passed Over Brooklyn (1957) is Spanish, and Murderers Club
of Brooklyn (1967) is German.? Meanwhile, 1990: The Bronx
Warriors (1982), Escape from the Bronx (1983), Endgame - Bronx
Lotta Finale (1983), and Bronx Executioner (1989) are Italian, while
Rumble in the Bronx (1995) is Hong Kong Chinese, and Quackser
Fortune Has a Cousin in the Bronx (1970) is Irish. Clearly, these
places outside the central city have resonance beyond American
shores: some from kinship and immigration, others through
nightmarish visions of a Hobbesian future.
Perhaps the popular image of the Bronx in film, fantastical at
least to the extent that occurs in science fiction, has a basis in reports
on news television and in photojournalism; perhaps it is grounded in
first-hand experiences or eye-witness accounts of acquaintances. But
though the Bronx itself resonates as an icon, the finer details of its
geography are relatively obscure, as observed in film titles. The only
section of the Bronx found in a movie title is the infamously
dangerous and bleak South Bronx, whose name includes the name of
the borough, as does the only Bronx street name used in the movie
title, Cross Bronx, an expressway with un-scenic views driven on
mainly to go through the Bronx without stopping anywhere in it.
New York films tend to accentuate a sharp divide between
Manhattan and the outer boroughs. Even when outer-borough life is
depicted nostalgically, as with Brooklyn, these boroughs are seen as
places one leaves behind if possible.8Singer (2003, 53) comments
that people in Brooklyn are depicted in cinema as "struggling,
declasse, [and] entrapped by the social order of the immediate
milieu, the neighborhood." By contrast, "many contemporary films
set in Manhattan depict a class-based social milieu of privilege and
purpose" (Singer 2003, 52). In movies, protagonists from outer
boroughs yearn to leave their parochial neighborhoods for the big
city-a classic example being Tony Manero in John Badham's
150 • NAMES 55:2 (June 2007)
Saturday Night Fever (1977). But according to urban anthropologist
Roger Sanjek (1998), residents of New York's working and lower-
middle class neighborhoods in the outer boroughs generally prefer to
move not to the central city but to the suburbs as they gain a foothold
on middle class life. Those who gravitate to Manhattan to live are
more frequently upwardly mobile suburbanites, out-of-towners, and
members of "a segment of global elites from other countries"
(Sanjek 1998, 35).
Several films mention the names of neighborhoods and
sections. Second only to Broadway, the most popular section or
neighborhood by far is Harlem, with 21 titles. Harlem, located far
uptown from the city's commercial centers in midtown and
downtown Manhattan, is famous as the center, even the "capital," of
black New York (if not black America), with both positive and
negative connotations-positive because of its urbane sophistication
and its "exotica" quotient from the standpoint of "white America,"
and negative because of poverty, blight, and the dangers of crime,
gangs, and street violence. Harlem titles display the most extreme
range of attitudes possible, from Hell up in Harlem (1973) to
Paradise in Harlem (1939). Besides Harlem itself, two films are
named after Sugar Hill, which is a section of Harlem.
After Harlem, the next most commonly named part of New
York is the Bowery (also a street in the Lower East Side). This area,
more a sub-neighborhood than a full-fledged neighborhood, has long
been known as New York's "skid row," a hangout for winos and
panhandlers. Fourteen film titles contain the word Bowery. This high
number is due mainly to the famous Bowery Boys film series, which
consisted of nearly 50 titles made between 1946 and 1958, including
four containing the word Bowery. The Bowery Boys grew out of
another series, The East End Kids, with 23 movies from 1938 to
1945" including three with the word Bowery in the titles. These titles
do not pick up on the "skid row" connotation but rather the
mentalities, experiences, and living conditions of immigrant and
first-generation American communities, especially Irish, in
Manhattan slums during the years surrounding World War II. The
East End Kids film series unsentimentally portrayed juvenile
NewYork Films· 151
delinquents in living in rough and often unhealthy conditions, but as
the Bowery Boys they were no longer good kids gone bad, even
though they still "engaged in raucous horseplay" while hanging out
on the sidewalk. On the contrary, "they would somehow manage to
save an orphanage or accomplish some other worthy deed" (Sanders
2001, 168). The Bowery has not figured in a movie title since the
1957 slice-of-life documentary, On the Bowery.
Another salient neighborhood is Greenwich Village,
mentioned in five titles. This neighborhood in lower Manhattan is
famous as a hotbed of political radicalism and bohemian lifestyles, a
place where eccentricity. and free expression were tolerated (and
gawked at by out-of-towners) when conformity was expected
elsewhere, including the rest of New York. But only two of the five
titles appear to capitalize on this stereotype of "the Village" (as it is
known): Next Stop, Greenwich Village (1975), about a young man
who leaves Brooklyn to pursue his dream of making it in show
business, and the lesser-known Greenwich Village Story (1963), also
known as Birthplace of the Hootenanny, about a struggling young
writer and his live-in girlfriend, a ballerina. Another film, the
musical Greenwich Village (1944), is also about show business, but,
set in the prohibition period, it does not pursue the bohemian angle.
Two other films, The Pope of Greenwich Village (1984) and Murder
in Greenwich Village (1937), concern crime rather than
bohemianism or the arts.
Six Brooklyn neighborhoods occur in film titles, including
three mentions of Coney Island, a beach and recreation district
besides being a residential area, famous for decades beyond New
York as an amusement park with breathtaking, state-of-the-art rides.
Coney Island's amusement park also featured gambling, sideshows,
and other provocative· entertainment, .considered lowbrow and low-
class in N ew York's status hierarchy. Most of the other
neighborhoods mentioned in film titles (see Table 1) are fairly
average, generic urban neighborhoods.
Twenty different New York streets are named in 34 movie
titles. With four exceptions, all streets are in Manhattan. The most
common streets named in titles are Tenth Avenue, with six titles,
152 • NAMES 55:2
followed by Fifth Avenue, with five titles. The salience of Fifth
Avenue is easily understood. For two and a half miles, from
Washington Square Park (in Greenwich Village), where the avenue
begins, up to 59
Street, the southern boundary of Central Park, it is
the hub of the city, the central spine dividing the East Side and the
West Side, featuring many expensive stores and other
internationally-known destinations. From there on up to the famous
Mount Sinai Hospital, which extends from East 98
to East 102
Streets, it is the primary habitat of New York's jet set, associated
with elegance and opulence. More difficult to explain is the
occurrence of Tenth Avenue, an obscure and ~ainly dingy street
running through the meatpacking district and Hell's Kitchen from
to West 59
Street. The six films containing the name of
Tenth Avenue were made from 1928 to 1957.
A few of the other New York streets named in movie titles
are famous-Wall Street, Madison Avenue, and Park Avenue-but
most are not.9All the streets just mentioned have unique and iconic
personalities. Wall Street, named in four titles, is synonymous with
the world of finance and investment, and Madison Avenue has equal
stature in the world of advertising. While both have the status of
"capitals" in their respective domains, they should now be
considered symbolic or "imagined" places, like the Bowery's
synonymy with "skid row," since many agencies and firms have
relocated to other areas in New York or the suburbs. Park Avenue,
like Fifth Avenue, is known as the residential neighborhood of the
rich and famous. The other streets named in movie titles may have
distinct cultural associations, but they are not world-famous.
Most of the 16 specific locations named in film titles are
significant as nodes, "strategic spots in a city into which an observer
can enter" (Lynch 1960, 47), often "convergences of paths" as in
Times Square, or other points of concentration, such as Central Park,
Grand Central Station, or various well-known hotels and theaters.
But none of the three addresses mentioned in movie titles are
internationally known or significant, and it can be argued that the
1961 film Breakfast at Tiffany's lent the Fifth Avenue jewelry store
of that name more fame than vice versa, and indeed, the girl's name
New York Films· 153
Tiffany went fr~m obscurity to great popularity in the United States
following the film's release. The plethora of these titles suggests that
New York locations are crucial to the stories, themes, and selling
points of a great number of movies. Even the subway system, long
an iconic and distinctive aspect of New York life, is picked up on in
two film titles.
It will be noted that the usage of placenames in titles calls up
the mental map of a pedestrian or subway rider rather than that of a
The phenomenon is similar to that in which a series of
games between the Yankees and the Mets is called a "subway
series." While residents of outer boroughs commonly own cars, most
Manhattan dwellers do not, due to the difficulties involved in
parking (and indeed driving) there. As a result, Manhattan lifestyles,
which dominate the depiction of New York in film, are anathema to
a "car culture." Otherwise we might see references in film titles to
the FDR Drive, the Lincoln Tunnel, and other such roads, not to
mention the George· Washington Bridge, arteries known well to
commuters living in the outer boroughs and beyond.
Manhattanites frequently travel on roads outside Manhattan,
such as the Van Wyck and Grand Central Expressways, to go to
airports in Queens, which themselves are places on New York's
cognitive map. But since they generally ride in taxicabs, they do not
give much thought to the route. A script written by a taxi or
limousine driver might introduce a different point of view, which
could be reflected in the title. But would it be produced?
Among the many New York placenames yet to be deployed
in film titles, some that seem ripe for such use are SoHo, Tribeca,
Central Park West, Riverside Drive, and Lincoln Center in
Manhattan; Dumbo, Williamsburg, Park Slope, and Atlantic Avenue
in Brooklyn, Jackson Heights and the Rockaways in Queens;
Riverdale and Yankee Stadium in the Bronx, and Riker's Island.
Some of these places are already engrained in popular culture and
the national consciousness, while the others are well known to New
Yorkers who come in contact with local media.
Themes, Feelings, Resonances
154 • NAMES 55:2 (June 2007)
Kaplan and Bemays (1997, 127) observe that "a name pulses
with all sorts of overtones and undertones, shimmers with lights and
darks, shadows, speaks with flickers of meaning and half meaning."
However true this may be of personal names, which is the subject of
their book, it is even more the case for titles of creati ve works, and
eloquently sums up the polyphony of tones, references, and qualities
that infuse titles .. Consider the moods evoked in the titles of films
containing the name of the city: The Darling of New York (1923);
Escape From New York (1981); Happy New York (1997); The Killer
that Stalked New York (1950); A King in New York (1957); Little Old
New York (1940); Naked in New York (1993); Sheila Levine is Dead
and Living in New York (1975); Tarzan's New York Adventure
(1942). Only 39 New York film titles (9.8 percent of the total) are
purely nominal, naming nothing but a place or location.
exceptions, the rest combine placenames with other words that often
suggest a theme or emotional tone. Even titles that just name places
can convey a mood: Hell's Kitchen is not just the widely accepted
name of a neighborhood more politely referred to as Clinton but
expresses a distinctly ominous tone. Similarly, Alphabet City, a
nickname for the portion of Manhattan's Lower East Side where
avenues are named with letters rather than numbers, conveys a
certain flavor for those who know the city firsthand (see Allen
1993b). Several general themes emerge from a study of New York
film titles. In terms of sentiment or emotion, we can distinguish
those titles with a positive tone from those with a negative tone.
Kelly (2000) has pointed out that culture and language are skewed
heavily toward the positive even though .life itself presents (at best)
an even balance of positive and negative.
For example, "happy" occurs almost three times
more often than "sad" in American written texts.
"Good" outnumbers "bad" by almost six to one, and
"beautiful" more than "ugly" by the same margin.
Even when people mention positive and negative
words together, they give top billing to the brighter
New York Films· 155
side of life . . . [as in such phrases as] "happy and
sad," "good and bad," "rich and poor," "life and
death," and "sweet and sour." (Kelly 2000, 4)
In light of these observations, the predominance of negative
as opposed to positive tones in New York movie titles is striking.
Seventeen titles (4.3 percent) use negative words, compared to ten
(2.5 percent) using positive words.
Positive titles use words like Love, ,Gold, Happy, Darling,
Heroes, Champs, Pride, and Romance. A Great Day in Harlem
(1994) is obviously a positive title, and Rainbow over Broadway
(1933) can also be considered positive, because rainbows have
fortuitous connotations. By contrast, negativity in titles is expressed
not only in words such as Bad, Damage, and Dead, but also in terms
like Broke, Drifter, Prisoner, Slaves, Madness, and Broken hearts.
Negative connotations are also found in The Case Against Brooklyn
(1958) and 2019: After the Fall o/New York (1983), even though the
negativity cannot necessarily be pinned on a certain word. But
negative words may not necessarily have purely negative meanings.
Fever and Rage can mean passion, and the expression Burning up
Broadway, which on the surface is negative (and is the title of a 1923
film), can mean huge success on Broadway. And it is well known
that in vernacular English, Bad can mean Good, although the film
Broadway Bad (1933) seems to antedate such a connotation.
Nevertheless, negative tones certainly figure at least as much as and
probably more than positive tones in New York movie titles,
contrary to Kelly's findings about supposedly universal preferences
in naming. Of course, it should be no surprise that placenames and
all the more so personal names should be positive: there is ~n
understandable motive on the name giver's part to celebrate and
demonstrate affection and pride in one's place and offspring. A
negative title for a creative work is not necessarily a suggestion of
worthlessness or a sign of disrespect. To the contrary, it can create
allure. New York's reputation for hostility, danger, and the
toughness New Yorkers need to manage them, are part of the city.'s
romance in the popular imagination, although few of these titles
156 • NAMES 55:2 (June 2007)
seem to capture these qualities. Of the titles seen as having negative
tones, nine name Broadway, two Brooklyn, and two Harlem. The
relatively few positIve titles name several different parts of New
York. Besides simple negativity, violence is a theme in 25 titles,
(6.3 percent of New York movie titles). Violence is seen in the use
of terms such as Murder (used in eight titles, along with Murderer
and Murderers, as well as two occurrences of the near-synonym
Slaughter and one of Killer), Gun, Bombshell, Blitzkrieg, Bullets,
War, Battle, and Gangster. A classic example of a violent title is
Bronx Executioner (1989). Although no individual words in the titles
Rumble in the Bronx (1995), Gangs of New ~ork (2002), or The New
York Ripper (1982) are violent, the overall import of each of these
titles is sinister and violent. These titles capture the sense of New
York as a dangerous place. Violent titles are given to films naming a
range of New York places: Harlem (and Lenox Avenue, which is in
Harlem), Times Square, Tenth Avenue, Greenwich Village, Grand
Central (Station), and the Bowery, as well as Brooklyn and the
Bronx. Just as a negative word in a title is not necessarily negative, a
violent word in a title can have a nonviolent and indeed positive
connotation: a Bombshell can be an attractive woman, and a
comedian who slays an audience is one who wins them over by
making them laugh.
Several other qualities are regularly found in New York film
titles. Themes of heroism (e.g., The Colossus of New York ),
intellect (e.g., Queens Logic [1991 ]), the risque (e.g., Manhattan
Gigolo ), and weirdness (e.g., New York Vampire ) all
occur in multiple instances.
But another quality, the sacred, is a far
more prominent theme, found in 17 titles. This quality can be
detected in the use of the terms Angel, Bishop, Heaven, Madonna,
Miracle, Paradise, Pope, God, and Saint. A related connotation is
suggested in the use of terms for royalty, such as King, Emperor,
Czar, etc. Royal themes occur in 13 titles. The use of these kinds of
motifs seems mainly cynical, ironic, sarcastic, or at least
emphasizing the unexpected juxtaposition of the sacred or royal on
the one hand and the mundane and pedestrian on the other. Even
New York Films· 157
where the connotation is not ironic, as in Miracle on 34
(1947) or A King in New York (1957), the apparent out-of-place
quality of nobility or the miraculous in real life in a down-to-earth
city calls attention. The use of sacred themes (which seems related as
well to the positive theme), seems ·to play on the unexpected
presence of angels, saints, and so on, in New York. These terms, of
course, need not refer literally to angels or saints but to earthly
personages who, through their kindness or heroic deeds, can be
likened to angels and saints. The royal theme, on the other hand, has
no necessary connection to benevolence or heroism, but seems to
connote power, as in The Czar of Broadway (1930) and Emperor of
the Bronx (1988). But the terms can have other implications. Prince
of Central Park (2000) refers to a teenage runaway who becomes the
protege of a homeless eccentric who has appointed himself King of
Central Park. The Prince of Broadway (1926) refers to a
heavyweight boxing champion dubbed with that sobriquet because
he trains by drinking and dancing all night.
An even more noticeable motif in movie titles that lends to
their tone is the nocturnal theme, found in 23 titles. Besides words
like Night and Midnight, expressions like After dark and While New
York sleeps are patently nocturnal. References to the moon and
comets are also nocturnal, since these objects are only seen at night.
These titles refer to the important association of New York with
nightlife: clubs, shows, dancing, and other kinds of recreation and
entertainment that occur at night. The salience of night in New York,
resulting in its cultural iconicity, is the subject of a recent book by
Caldwell (2005). Besides manifestly nocturnal titles, references in
movie titles to nightlife can be found in other titles, such as
Manhattan Cocktail (1925) and Bright Lights of Broadway
After all, cocktails are usually served at night, and bright lights are
turned on for performances at night. (The Manhattan is also the
name of a cocktail.) In addition, certain neighborhoods, particularly
Harlem and Greenwich Village, featured in many movie titles (see
above), are historically associated with New York nightlife
(Caldwell, 2005, 232-239). The nocturnal theme also plausibly
extends to most of the 15 titles referring to music and dance (e.g.,
158 • NAMES 55:2 (June 2007)
Harlem Aria , El Tango en Broadway ), since the
performance of these arts take place mainly at night. References to
literature, found in 10 titles (e.g., Brighton Beach Memoirs 
and Tales of Manhattan ), seem related to the intellectual
motif, however. In contrast to the profusion of nocturnal
connotations in titles, only two New York film titles have diurnal
connotations: Breakfast at Tiffany's (1961) and A Great Day in
Many of the themes commonly found in the titles New York
films seem typical of film (and probably literary) titles of all kinds,
rather than specific to the New York film. These include the mention
of a person by name (Broadway Jones ), occupation (New
York Cop ), or other defining characteristic (Times Square
Playboy ); events (It Happened in Flatbush ); direction
('neath Brooklyn Bridge ); travel (Headin' for Broadway
); and time (Autumn in New York ). Another theme
regularly found in New York film titles, the occurrence of which is
probably widespread in many kinds of narrative films, is that of
children (e.g., Tenth Avenue Kid ). This is because the use of
an expression for a youth (child, boy, girl, baby) need not refer
literally to a child, but may suggest that someone is a native of a
certain place. Such titles also suggest affection, diminutiveness, and
proximity, similar tones to those expressed in such titles as Little
Miss Broadway (1947) and Little Old New York (1940).
Patterns over Time
The presence of New York placenames in movie titles has
waxed and waned over time, but it peaked from the late 1920s to the
early 1940s. In the 17 years from 1926 to 1942, 152 films had New
York titles, accounting for over half of all such titles-an average of
8.9 titles a year. Of these films, 70 titles named Broadway, 20 named
New York, 16 named Manhattan, and the rest named other places.
Only two titles from this period named Brooklyn, though the
Brooklyn Bridge and Coney Island were named in other films, as
were Blackwell's Island (now Roosevelt Island) and Ellis Island.
New York Films· 159
Figure 1 illustrates the changing status of New York
placenames in movie titles over time. It shows that New York's
presence in film titles developed rapidly over the last years of the
silent era, dipping slightly in the early 1930s only to bounce back in
the second half of the decade, but then dropped steadily downward
throughout the 1940s and 1950s, reaching a low point in the period
from 1956 to 1960. The year 1956 was the first since 1921 in which
no titles with New York placenames were released. From then until
1968, only 19 such films were released, including the all-time
classics West Side Story and Breakfast at Tiffany's, both released in
1961. As New York placenames had previously become popular,
even fashionable, in movie titles, the practice outlived its charm and
had become stale through repeated use over time. Perhaps the city
itself had not gone out of fashion in the movies, but the practice of
including its placenames in movie titles had. From the low point of
the late 1950s, the usage of New York placenames in movie titles
has unsteadily increased over time, as seen in Figure 1, reaching a
height of only 27 titles in the years 1991·to 1995, as compared to 45
in the years 1926 to 1930 and 46 from 1936 to 1940.
Figure 1. New York Place Names in Film Titles over Time, 1921-2005
The rapid rise of New York's popularity in film as the
medium became established can be explained in part by the growing
significance of the city during the first 30 years of the twentieth
160 • NAMES 55:2 (June 2007)
century. Historian Bayrd Still (1956) calls the period from 1900 to
1930 in New York "the golden generation" because of the city's
ever-increasing affluence and sophistication (despite the persistence
of slums). The city dominated the cultural scene, becoming a
"cultural capital," in Still's words, by the mid-1920s. Though the
move to Hollywood had begun, the city remained important in film
Why, then, did New York places continue to dominate film
titles as the "roaring twenties" gave way to the "threadbare thirties,"
dipping only slightly in the first half of that decade? Films during
this time were meant to provide escapist entertainment from the
hardships of real life, both in New York itself and in the larger world
outside the city that was the audience for movies. Under the
circumstances, stories involving glamorous lifestyles and well-
heeled people provided welcome diversion. The tum toward grittier,
more realistic urban scenarios beginning in the later 1930s also
favored New York as a setting for movies. It was only during World
War II that New York's appeal in movies-or at least their titles-
peaked and began to recede. In the late 1950s, the nadir of New
York's popularity in film titles coincided not only with the decline of
several major studios which had previously exerted vast control over
the motion picture industry, but also with the decline in popularity of
both the musical and film noir genres (Lev 2003, 216-255), genres
intimately linked to the representation of the city in film
(Christopher 1997; McArthur 1997).
New York placenames resurged in popularity in movie titles
in the 1970s, when filmmakers used New York both as a trope of
nostalgia for the lost pleasures of a remembered life in a more
innocent city and to reflect nightmares of dystopian New York in the
popular imagination: a financially and morally bankrupt city overrun
by drugs, violence, and decay summed up in images of firebombed
buildings and subway graffiti, and in the headline, "Ford to City:
Drop Dead." The zeitgeist was perhaps captured most exquisitely in
Michael Winner's Death Wish (1974), but numerous 1970s films
expressed this negativity (Sanders 2001), including The Prisoner of
Second Avenue, Hell up in Harlem, and Escape from New York, all
New York Films·
negative titles featuring New York placenames. At the same time,
however, Woody Allen created Manhattan (1979), his classic paean
to the city. Other nostalgia-tinged films from the period include
Martin Davidson and Stephen Verona's The Lords of Flatbush
(1974), Paul Mazursky's Next Stop, Greenwich Village (1976), Mark
Rydell's Harry and Walter Go to New York (1976), and Joan
Micklin Silver's Hester Street (1975).
With New York making another resurgence in the 1990s,
even as the city distanced itself from the depressing years of fiscal
crisis, a diverse range of themes emerged, from Rumble in the Bronx
(1995) and Vampire in Brooklyn (1995) to All the Vermeers in New
York (1992), Little Manhattan (2005), and Went to Coney Island on
a Mission from God . . . Be Back by Five (2002). World Trade
Center (2006), named for a New York location heretofore
unmentioned in movie titles, premiered in September 2006.
Motherless Brooklyn, based on the novel by Jonathan Lethem, in
production at the time of writing, continues the established tradition
of negative associations in film titles featuring New York
placenames. Future titles will likely refer to neighborhoods that were
previously viewed with disdain but which are suddenly emerging as
next chic and trendy spot, such as Red Hook or the Meat-Packing
District, as well as new placenames, perhaps including the sobering
Ground Zero. Conclusion
Vehicles of creative expression and entertainment, movies
are also part of the cultural landscape, the knowledge base with
which people view and interpret the world around them. They
imprint upon the popular memory with iconic images, scenes,
characters, styles of hair and clothing, and verbal expressions that
may in turn be further recycled in other products. Far more than
literature, they are a mass art form, penetrating consciousness not
just nationally but in many cases globally. Representations of places
in film create imaginary landscapes--places in the heart and mind for
cogitating, speculating, and fantasizing about sites one has not
otherwise visited. Cinema provides entire sets of iconic images,
162 • NAMES 55:2
stereotypes, and mental maps for world cities such as New York,
along with London, Paris, Rome, and San Francisco.
The pattern of including New York placenames in movie
titles ebbed in the late 1950s, though it never disappeared, and has
slowly resurged. Recent evidence suggests it is on an upswing. This
bounce back to popularity after a long slide into decline could be due
in part to the recycling of old cultural materials, including existing
film titles, reprocessing them into new formats, and internal cultural
mechanisms whereby an element returns to popularity after a period
of dormancy-a process that can be observed in popular music,
hairstyles, children's first names, and other fashions. The first wave
corresponded to the growth of the city's cultural importance in the
first half of the 20th century; the second wave comes at a time of l).ew
kinds of immigration, unprecedented globalization, and
unprecedented anxieties about security, whether the foreign other or
the enemy within. Film titles can invoke old meanings in a generic
way, as in Uptown Girls (2003), or they may introduce new
reference points, as in West Bank Brooklyn (2002).
Among the motifs found in New York movie titles, the most
pronounced are negativity in general and violence in particular;
nightlife; and grandiosity in the use of terms for royalty and the
sacred. These associations are salient facets of New York's character
in the popular imagination. The grandiosity theme may also suggest
a sardonic view of self-importance that needs to be taken down a peg
and a sense of ironic contrast between the cosmic and high-and-
mighty on the one hand and the prosaic and down-to-earth
ordinariness of real life in the city.
Titles convey images, emotions, flavors, and tones in very
tight textual spaces, with little room for rhetorical flourish. Each
individual word used is likely chosen with the utmost care, and in the
case of a commercial movie, probably vetted by teams of executives.
A title· must sum up what a potential viewer is intended to know
before seeing the film. The fact that New York placenames occur in
so many movie titles over the entire course of film history, extending
through the foreseeable future, suggests the many ways that the
New York Films. 163
city's image is inscribed in the consciousness of all consumers of
American popular culture.
I thank Bruce Bernstein, Jeffrey Kroessler, Miriam Laskin,
Robert Singer, and Lisa Tappeiner for their helpful comments.
Degler (1975) and Tarpley (1985) both conducted systematic studies and
found more titles naming Paris than any other city, including New York. By
contrast, Halliwell's (1986) essay, though drawing on the author's
encyclopedic knowledge of film history, is unsystematic, and cannot be
considered more than off-the-cuff. But perhaps he recognized that not just
the whole city of New York but its various parts and locations figured in
Even though the term "America" should properly apply to all parts of the
North and South American continents, as well as offshore archipelagos such
as the Caribbean islands, natives of the United States call themselves
Americans, and think and speak of their homeland as America. Many
patriotic songs and sayings name America rather than the United States.
The term "America" is used here in this emic sense.
See Allen 199Ja. Films with other nicknames in titles ("Gotham" and "Big
Apple") were excluded from the main list not because of their titles but
because they did not meet length and theatrical release criter~a.
4Allen (1993a, 1993b) does not mention the expression, but the term
appears to refer to Sherman Square, a traffic island at Broadway and West
Street, described as "a small public area with benches, bushes, etc.,
where drug addicts are known to gather" (Leiter 1997, 646).
For present purposes, some nearly identical titles, e.g., Gangs of New York
(2002) and The Gangs of New York (1938), are separated.
The exception is a German film, Murderers Club of Brooklyn, a.k.a. Body
in Central Park (1967).
7Some of these films were released in the United States with different, non-
On the cable television series Entourage, when fictional up-and-coming
actor Vincent Chase boasts about his starring role in the new film, Queens
Boulevard, his agent Ari Gold scoffs at the film's significance by asking
him sardonically what's next--the Belt Parkway? Outer-borough roads and
locales may be brushed off as inconsequential compared to cosmopolitan
centers of action in Manhattan.
As with Broadway, only certain sections of Park Avenue, Madison
Avenue, and Fifth Avenue are cultural icons.
164 • NAMES 55:2 (June 2007)
10 Lynch (1960, 48) observes that an individual's mental map of the city is
liable to shift depending on one's perspective as a driver or a pedestrian.
11 Over the GW, about a rehabilitation center in New Jersey (across the
George Washington Bridge from Manhattan), premiered in limited release
in June 2007, after this essay was completed.
12 A title like 15 Maiden Lane counts as a "nominal" title (one that
straightforwardly names a location), but The House on Carroll Street and
West of Broadway go beyond the purely nominal, and are relatively
elaborate and "rhetorical."
13 The word Dirty on its own could be read as negative, but in the context of
the whole title, Dirty Gertie From Harlem, U.S.A. (1946), the connotation is
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