Subway Movies and Documentaries

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While there are dozens of movies that feature the New York City Subway in some capacity, from long rides to fleeting glimpses, this list is only including films where the subway plays a major role or gives the viewer a good view of older equipment or disused areas and the like.

Must See

Beat Street (1984)

A slightly dated but nonetheless fascinating snapshot of musical history, Beat Street is an urban musical detailing the roots of hip-hop. Set in early-1980s New York, the film focuses on the lives of a small group of young people setting their experiences against the larger backdrop of the city's burgeoning music scene. The story of up-and-coming DJ Kenny (Guy Davis) and his relationship with jazz musician Tracy (Rae Dawn Chong) may only be a device, but it's surprisingly effective, as is the ultimately tragic tale of graffiti artist Ramon (Jon Chardiet). The movie's real raison d'être, however, is to showcase the sounds of the street, so it's full of some of hip-hop's most influential names--Melle Mel, Doug E Fresh, Kool Moe Dee, the Rocksteady Crew, Jazzy Jeff, and Arthur Baker. And while the combination of electro and rapping may sound a little crude to modern ears, there can be no doubt that Beat Street is the sight and sound of history being made. Amazon.com review

Die Hard With A Vengence (1995)

A scene early in the film involves a bomb on a subway train and Bruce Willis' character racing against time to disarm it. The action takes place at "Wall St." station (a Hollywood set). The beginning of DVD Scene 7 shows car R-30 8397 trailing the train, and it is this car that later decimates the platform. When Willis' character finds the bomb, the interior car number can be seen: R-29 8656, and when he throws the bomb off the train, the interior of the last car is shown to be R-29 8593, but the exterior scene is an R-30 signed up as a "C" (a common error; see the entry for Jacob's Ladder; both the R-10 cars used in that film and the R-30 cars ended their service life on the "C" and no one bothered to change the signs). And last but not least, one of the middle cars on the train is R-30 8408, which was also used in Money Train and Blade (the most famous subway car movie star!) IMDB Lookup.

French Connection, The (1971)

This Best Picture winner is a early 1970s cops-and-robbers film featuring Gene Hackman. Subway scenes include a chase scene underneath the West End El in Brooklyn, and a surveillance scene in the Grand Central Shuttle. Trivia: Car #6609 used on the 42nd St. Shuttle scene. This car is now at the New York Transit Museum and was also used in Pelham. Also seen in the shuttle was car 6671. The West End train is incorrectly marked as an N because the R-42s chosen for the movie didn't have B signs; one of the cars in this scene is #4572. IMDB Lookup.

Incident, The (1967)

Martin Sheen (in his screen debut), as well as a surprisingly good Ed McMahon, are terrorized in 1939 World's Fair Low-V's on the Bronx portion of the Third Avenue El. This film has a great cast all around, with Beau Bridges (also in his film debut), Tony Musante (later of Toma fame), Jack Gilford, Brock Peters among others. The movie still rings true in 1999. I believe it was the Woodlawn branch of the IRT. Scenes at Mosholu Pkwy in the Bronx were common. It is probably the best subway film for realism ever made. Two thugs terrorize an entire car of passengers, and 80 percent of the movie takes place on the subway itself. Certainly a more believable story line than Pelham, as it is less complicated to buy into and probably has happened numerous times in the NY subway system over the years to varying degrees for real. It says a lot for the human condition, people's apathy or involvement levels and how easy it is to be at the wrong place, at the wrong time. IMDB Lookup.

Money Train (1995)

A passable action thriller starring Woody Harrelson and Wesley Snipes in which they attempt to hijack the transit system's money collection train. The Money Train car used in the movie was a prop constructed by the film company and the Coney Island Overhaul Shops. A scene near the beginning was filmed at 14th St.-Union Square (masquerading as Wall St.) but almost all other station scenes were filmed on a 4000-foot long station and tunnel set constructed in California. Surplus R-30-type cars (including 8408) were shipped out from New York. Other scenes that were probably filmed in the actual subway: Wesley's entrance into the Times Square station on motorcycle looks pretty legit, the 7th-8th Ave. passage is seen (or reproduced very well) as is the escalator from the Flushing line. But the platform he ends up on isn't the Flushing line @ Times Sq. Also, Woody gets pickpocketed on a #4 train passing through 33rd St. station; he's on R-62 1707. IMDB Lookup.

Style Wars (1983)

Motion picture produced by Tony Silver and Henry Chalfant; directed by Tony Silver. Focuses on the graffiti subculture of New York City. Includes interviews with graffiti artists and break dancers, along with documentary footage. Does not focus so much on the subway and underground regions but includes some good shots of older subway cars. A "director's cut" was recently released on videotape with extra footage, and a DVD to be released in 2003 with a whole 2nd disc of extra footage, interviews, photos, and music. Style Wars has a promotional web site.

Taking of Pelham 1-2-3, The (1974)

The "Godfather" of all subway films is this 1974 picture starring Walter Matthau, Martin Balsam, and Jerry Stiller about a hijacking of a subway train. Based on the novel by John Godey. A made for television remake in 1998 was filmed in Toronto and did not have the same unique New York flavor. IMDB Lookup.

There is a large page of Notes on The Taking of Pelham 1-2-3 (1974) which is too long to include in this review, but breaks down each of the subway scenes in the film.

Warriors, The (1979)

About a Coney Island gang trying to get home from a gang rally in Upper Manhattan after being accused of shooting a rival gang's leader. They are running away from a whole bunch of other gangs, and are using our beloved subway to get from place to place. It's a pretty insipid plot but there are some great subway shots: "M"s at Wyckoff, "J"s (mismarked) along the Broadway Brooklyn line, several different incarnations of Hoyt-Schermerhorn. R-27s and R-30s are the starring cars, among others. The plot of The Warriors is based on an episode of Ancient Greek History, Xenophon's Anabasis, in which the various rival city-states of Greece meet to unite but an assassination forces the groups into chaos. The members of one particular city-state engage in the odyssey of returning to their home state which is identified with the sea (Coney Island). One of the characters in the movie even says "when we see the ocean, we know we're home" or something like that. One of the characters in the Greek Story is an artist, as one of the characters in The Warriors is a graffiti artist. As I recall, in the movie the assassination took place at the meeting of the various gangs in Van Cortlandt Park (the scene was actually filmed at the monument on 100th Street and Riverside Park.) The Upper West Side is also featured in the film when the Warriors enter the 72nd Street Station (south of Verdi Square). Inside the station however, the signs indicate that it's 96th Street. I believe that the characters also make reference to catching the train at 96th Street in the dialoge as well. One of the scenes takes place in a subway bathroom, even though subway bathrooms had been closed at the time the movie was made. Other stations used include Hoyt-Schermerhorn, Union Square, Eastern Parkway (the abandoned fare control where the Warriors jump the turnstiles to escape from the first gang) and 62nd Street-New Utrecht Ave. (you don't see the name of the station but you can't miss one half of the splinter group entering a BMT stationhouse then the camera pans up to see them above the entrance). A funny thing: the trains the gang members ride on are always R-27/30s, even though the IRT is implied for half of that trip. The train markings vary considerably, too. IMDB Lookup.


Daybreak Express (1953)

Directed by D. A. Pennebaker. Scenes on and around the elevated subways of New York City appear in rapid succession to the beat of Duke Ellington's recording of his own composition, Daybreak Express.

River of Steel: The Building of the New York City Subway

A film by Kerry Michaels and Stuart Math. River of Steel examines the effects of the construction of the New York City Subway on the people of New York.

Sounds of New York (1990)

Videorecording by Bill Freda Inc. Producers, William Freda, Jr., Howard Grossman. Director, William Freda, Jr. This documentary is a colorful portrait of street musicians in New York, a city where many kinds of music can be heard on street corners, in parks, and even in the subway. Many of the musicians also offer comments on the pleasures and perils of performing in the streets.

Stations of the Elevated (1980)

Motion picture by Manfred Kirchheimer. A lyrical study of the graffiti-covered trains of the New York City subway system. Bearing messages like "Earth Is Hell," "Slave," and "Crime," they reflect the impoverished lives of their authors. Using the jazz music of Charles Mingus, director Kirchheimer contrasts the illegal work of the graffiti artists to the "sanctioned vandalism" of advertising billboards which promote polluting products and warped values.

Subway, The Empire Beneath New York's Streets

Produced by Transit Gloria Mundi Productions. A fairly comprehensive (but non-technical) look at NYC subway history, including the elevated lines, Beach Pneumatic, IRT construction, the rise of the BRT/BMT, and the Independent. Features include the Malbone Street wreck, recent expansions, computer-generated 3D track maps, views of interlockings, and more.

Other Films

Crocodile Dundee (1986)

Noteworthy in regards to the NYC Subway in that it used the abandoned lower level of 9th Avenue station on the West End line in Brooklyn for some subway scenes. IMDB Lookup.

Death Wish (1974)

A major plot point of "Death Wish" is that Charles Bronson is putting himself in places that would attract him to muggers so he could shoot them. What better place than in the subway? Opening scene features the #7 line along Queens Blvd in WF paint scheme. IMDB Lookup.

Ghost (1990)

Patrick Swayze's character takes an otherworldly ride on the subway, including a ghost lesson on the abandoned platform at 42nd Street Lower Level. Cars used in the shoot: R-40 #4208; R-38s 4134, 4138, 4143. IMDB Lookup.

Ghostbusters II (1989)

No real subway content here but the station that the Ghostbusters descend into and discover the "River of Slime" is based on the City Hall Station but was just a set based on the station. There is also a scene in which the Ghostbusters descend into a rail tunnel but this is probably just a set and not based on any particular location. IMDB Lookup.

Godzilla (1998)

Another passable action thriller, made on the principle of "the more helicopters the better", but there are a few subway-related scenes: They use the PATH tunnels to get into Manhattan from Jersey. I'm pretty sure this was actually filmed on PATH property in the real emergency exit from the "uptown" tunnels, westbound, where the line splits to go to Hoboken or Pavonia. If it was a set it was damn accurate down to the empty wooden wire spools in the exit corridor (which were at the time clearly visible from a passing train from 33rd St to Hoboken or Pavonia). Later they climb thru a wrecked subway car, R-30 #8410. It was painted the color it would have been at retirement (redbird red) so I suspect it was the real deal. This was probably one of a bunch of cars trucked out to Hollywood for Money Train, which included #8408 seen in Blade. IMDB Lookup.

I Love Lucy: Lucy & The Loving Cup (1957)

Lucy gets a "loving cup" stuck on her head and, when she tries to leave the Lexington Ave Express, ends up getting back on board with the crowd. To this day it's still hysterical. Subway scenes: The whole episode! Low-V cars on the Lexington IRT, station sets for Flatbush Ave. and Bleecker St. Stock footage of R-12s of the #7 line (somehow edited in flipped over so that the signs read backwards), and R-1/9s on the AA. Interior scenes are done in a studio mockup which looks like a cross between a Low-V and a BMT Standard.

Jacob's Ladder (1990)

Tim Robbins stars in this psychological thriller about a Vietnam Vet's descent into insanity. Or so it appears! There is a long scene with Robbins' character riding a train of R-10 cars, and then being trapped in the (now-abandoned) lower level of Bergen Street station- which was re-tiled and used specifically for the movie. Trivia: One of the R-10 cars is #3143, wearing its final dark green paint scheme. The scenes were probably filmed in mid-September and October, 1989 just prior to the "Farewell to the R-10" fan trip (of which car #3143 was a part). Some of the other cars were number #2974, #3145, #3182. Museum car #3184 was probably also in this train. The train is signed C-Rockaway Park yet Robbins' character exits it at Bergen Street (F/G line). The director's notes on the DVD indicates that they used lower Bergen St. for filming and added extensive IND stripe and station name tile and advertising posters at time of filming. They had me fooled. Looked like original IND to me! IMDB Lookup.

Just Another Girl on the IRT (1992)

You know where this was shot. Every station on the 2,3 West Side express from Wall St to 72St were shot. Also shot of Flatbush Ave station. Girl riding on the 2 from Flatbush. Shot of girl @ Junius St. It must have been an evening on the weekend because the 4 was entering the station in both directions. IMDB Lookup.

King Kong (1933)

The 1933 classic with Fay Wray features Kong wreaking havok on the 6th Avenue El, and shows the interior of a Low-V El car (#4977). The forgettable 1976 remake substitutes the destruction of the Astoria El, and R-16-type cars (#6311 was one, but the interiors were sets). IMDB Lookup.

Little Fugitive, The (1953)

Also known as The Coney Island Kid. An award-winning independent film (way before indie films were in vogue). This film tells the story of a boy tricked into thinking he's killed his older brother, and flees to Coney Island to hide. Subway content: Scenes of BMT Standards at Stillwell Avenue. Some nice scenes of the Parachute Jump ride in action as well. IMDB Lookup.

Malcolm X (1992)

The Transit Museum's BMT Triplex train was used in early scenes in the "Malcolm X" epic. The cars were repainted for the "Boston Elevated Railway" as the scene took place in Boston, not New York! IMDB Lookup.

Mr. Wonderful (1993)

Subway scenes filmed in lower Bergen Street. The final scene was shot by setting off pyrotechnics to simulate 3rd rail flashes and the car was rocked by the film crew, both to simulate movement although the train stood still for the whole scene. IMDB Lookup.

My Dinner With Andre (1981)

Has a small sequence in the beginning where Wallace Shawn rides the subway to meet his old friend Andre Gregory. This is a very nice and natural look at the subway around 1982. You can tell that they did it on the sly on a real train in service; hand held with almost no crew. Maybe just a cameraman and Wally. IMDB Lookup.

Naked City, The (1948)

Has a quick scene where some girls catch a train and another where the cops chase a killer up the stairs and through the turnstyle of an EL. The film also includes numerous background shots of various ELs and of people going down into the subway at various points. There is an interesting shot of a cop car racing past Verdi Square in this film, 35 years before The Warriors had a scene in basically the same location. Also, many street shots of New York with FACO and NYCO buses,even a Fifth Av Double-Decker. The climax of the movie has the murderer chased onto the Williamsburg Birdge while several trains of Standards are running by. IMDB Lookup.

Next Stop Greenwich Village (1976)

It's an autobiographical film (of director Paul Mazursky) set in Brownsville (Brooklyn) and Greenwich Village. It tells the story of a boy who escapes into the larger beat world of the Village (and ultimately California) in the years immediately following WWII. Shelley Winters is memorable as the mother. Not only does the subway figure in the title, symbolizing the trip from the Brownsville ghetto to the larger world of Manhattan, but the film features several scenes set in the subway, including a memorable scene on the Newkirk Avenue (Brighton Line) station after the main character visits his girlfriend in Flatbush. IMDB Lookup.

Nighthawks (1981)

Cops Sly Stallone and Billy Dee Williams chase bad guy Rutger Hauer through an R-1/9 series train. Cars on the train include: 800 (museum car, now at Seashore Trolley Museum), 1802 (museum car), 1208 (used on several late 70s fantrips then scrapped). Filmed at Hoyt-Schermerhorn (masquerading first as 57th St then as 42nd St). Also a chase scene (on foot) through the 63rd St. Tunnel construction. Lots of other good NYC location scenes in this film including action on the Roosevelt Island Tram. IMDB Lookup.

Saturday Night Fever (1977)

Views of the West End El over the opening credits (R-38 cars) and John Travolta riding an "RR" train of R-30 type cars, and an "N" train of R-46 cars passes by on the express. Trivia: Toward the end when Travolta gets on the RR train to Manhattan), the first two cars of the consist when the train arrives at the station are cars 8338-8339. IMDB Lookup.

Short Walk to Daylight, A (1972)

Eight people are trapped in a New York subway after an earthquake, and try to find their way out. This made for TV movie starred James Brolin. IMDB Lookup.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (1990)

The turtles' lair is based on City Hall Station complete with Low-V style train cars. Also a scene where the Turtles' friend is attacked in a subway station- probably Hoyt-Schermerhorn IND. (The shot was from one platform across to the other. The wall sign said Hoyt-Schermerhorn but the hanging sign says "City Hall".) IMDB Lookup.

Wild Style (1982)

Review by Chris Clarke: By far the best movie about grafitti and rap music. It chronicles a couple days in the life of a grafitti artist named Zoro, (played by real life artist Lee Quinones). The first half of the movie features several shots of el trains covered in grafitti, plus a couple scenes that were shot in a subway yard at night. IMDB Lookup.

Wrong Man, The (1956)

Semi-documentary by Alfred Hitchcock, starring Henry Fonda as a New York musician falsly accused of robbery. Subway content: Features Fonda's character riding early R-types as well as views of R-15's in their original paint scheme on the Flushing Line. It has at least one scene of Fonda's character heading home after a nighttime gig. It's about 3 AM, and unlike movies that would be filmed today, the subway is not presented as threatening and full of danger - just a vehicle for a tired guy to get home. "The Wrong Man" was filmed on location, and is an excellent movie of false identity - one of the best noir films made. IMDB Lookup.

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