The History of New York as Seen By Martin Scorsese

Photo by David Shankbone

New York is often considered to be the gateway city to the world; high energy, globally influential center of art, culture, fashion, and finance. In New York, art is not only respected but treasured.

It’s a mecca for theatre, dance, television, film, music, and museums. Many of the world’s greatest artists call it home. Among filmmakers, New York is often as much of a part of their films as the main character themself. And although directors such as Spike Lee, Woody Allen, and Sidney Lumet have established their love for the city on film, one director continuously tells stories across the history of New York again and again; Martin Scorsese.

His work covers era after era, documenting its progress from its beginnings to the present day. There’s still plenty of time to be fleshed out and hope the legendary director will continue to fill in the blanks using movie sets from the Empire State Building to New York hair salons and everything in between.

Here’s a look at a few time periods that are recognized in Scorsese’s history of New York.

Late Nineteenth Century: Gangs of New York and The Age of Innocence

Scorsese takes a look at two very different social classes during this time period. In Gangs of New York (2002), the focus is the Five Points district of Lower Manhattan in 1863. With a focus on Irish immigration and the ongoing Civil War, Gangs of New York follows William “Bill the Butcher” Cutting (Daniel Day-Lewis) a crime boss and political kingmaker working under the helm of “Boss” Tweed (Jim Broadbent).

The film culminates in a violent confrontation between Bill The Butcher and his mob with protagonist Amsterdam Vallon (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his allies (aka the New York City draft riots of 1863.

The Age of Innocence (1993), based on Edith Wharton’s 1920 novel, was set in upper-class New York City in the 1870s, during the so-called Gilded Age. The story focused on a young lawyer who falls in love with a woman separated from her husband, while he is engaged to the woman’s cousin.

And, unlike the Gangs of New York, we are looking at the highest end of civil society. Two very different worlds, mere miles away from one another. It is interesting to note that although Scorsese has examined this time period twice, neither was filmed in New York. Gangs of New York shot at Cinecittà Studios in Rome, where all of the sets were built completely on exterior stages and The Age of Innocence was shot primarily in Troy, New York, and Philadelphia.

Prohibition: Boardwalk Empire

The next historical period that Scorsese looked at was the era of Prohibition, which was the setting of Terrence Winter’s HBO series, Boardwalk Empire. Scorsese served as Executive Producer of the series and directed the pilot, which ran from 2010-2014 and although was set in New Jersey, the series consistently dealt with the crime bosses of New York crime families. The series followed the birth and rise of organized crime in ‘the world’s playground’ at the dawn of Prohibition.

The Forties: Raging Bull and New York, New York

Born in 1942, Scorsese focused on the era of his childhood with his 1980 film, Raging Bull, a biopic of boxer Jake LaMotta (Robert De Niro). The film opens with a flashforward, before going to 1941 and follows Jake’s rise and fall through 1964. Bronx boxer LaMotta’s life is chronicled through his relationship with his brother, Joey (Joe Pesci), and love interest Vikki (Cathy Moriarty), who he meets when she was 15 and eventually marries. The film, which critic Roger Ebert proclaimed as the best film of the 1980s chronicles LaMotta’s rise and fall and redemption, both personally and professionally. LaMotta leaves the Bronx briefly, moving to Miami, before returning to the Big Apple.

Scorsese’s 1977 film New York, New York was a musical tribute to the city, that begins on VJ Day in 1945 and chronicles the tumultuous relationship between Robert De Niro and Liza Minnelli as a pair of musicians and lovers over a period of years. Unlike Raging Bull, New York New York‘s Big Apple was distilled through Scorsese’s cinematic eye; a love letter to a style of filmmaking no longer produced. And in order to achieve that he filmed a version of New York that he grew up watching onscreen; New York, New York was filmed on MGM sound stages and often used locations such as the Millennium Biltmore Hotel.

The Seventies: Mean Streets, Vinyl, Taxi Driver, and Goodfellas

Scorsese established his voice in the Seventies and it seems to be a time period that he seems most interested in chronicling. Many of these were shot during the time in which they took place, while others are considered “period pieces.” Scorsese’s earliest critical success, Mean Streets (1972) was a contemporary coming of age film about Italian American Charlie (Harvey Keitel), who is trying to move up in the local New York Mafia and his relationship with his younger friend, Johnny Boy (Robert De Niro), a small-time gambler in debt with many local loan sharks. Although the film is set in Little Italy, most of the film was ironically shot mostly in Los Angeles, with only 6 of its 27 shooting days in New York.

In February 2016, HBO started airing Vinyl, a new series set in 1973 that was co-created by Scorsese, and once again, he directed the pilot. The series’ focus is Richie Finestra (Bobby Cannavale), founder and president of American Century Records, who are hustling to resurrect his label and find the next new sound as the music business is moving away from sex, drugs, and rock n’ roll and toward sex, drugs, punk, and disco. Already renewed for a second season, we’ll likely see time pass as well as we move deeper into the decade.

One of Scorsese’s most iconic films, Taxi Driver, is set in 1976 and depicts a very frightening New York. Starring Robert De Niro as Travis Bickle, Taxi Driver takes a look at New York City during the post-Vietnam era. Bickle is a mentally unstable veteran who drives a cab throughout the night where his obsession for violent action is fueled by both the entitled and criminal activity, while he attempts to save a preteen prostitute (Jodie Foster) from her status quo. Bickle narrates his position on his world as he walks the streets, “all the animals come out at night – whores, skunk pussies, buggers, queens, fairies, dopers, junkies, sick, venal. Someday a real rain will come and wash all this scum off the streets.”

Again, despite the few years’ differences in all of these projects, each take on the city is completely different.

Finally, the decade is one of several chronicled in Scorsese’s epic, Goodfellas (1990), which was based on the non-fiction book, Wise Guy by Nicholas Pileggi, which chronicles the rise and fall of mob associate Henry Hill and his friends over a period from 1955 to 1980. Among the time-specific events depicted in the film is JFK’s Air France robbery in late 1967, the largest cash robbery that had taken place at the time in and in 1978, the Lufthansa heist at John F. Kennedy International Airport, stealing $6 million. Goodfellas‘ look at organized crime ends with Hill getting arrested in 1980 and being entered into the Federal Witness Protection Plan.

The Eighties – The Nineties: The King of Comedy, After Hours, The Wolf of Wall Street and Bringing Out The Dead

Scorsese’s The King of Comedy (1983) was shot on location in New York and chronicled Robert De Niro’s obsessive Rupert Pupkin character’s kidnapping of his idol, late-night talk show host Jerry Langford (played by Jerry Lewis). Although there’s not much New York-centric within, the film was shot on location and features several great establishing shots throughout the city.

In 1985’s After Hours, Scorsese made a black comedy about Paul Hackett (Griffin Dunne) who experiences a series of misadventures during an evening stuck in New York’s SoHo District from which there is no escape. The film captures both the culture and the locations of SoHo during the mid-Eighties as well as the assorted artists, musicians, and eccentrics that New York is known for. The film was described as the genre, “yuppie nightmare cycle” combining screwball comedy with film noir. Its ensemble cast included Rosanna Arquette, Verna Bloom, Catherine O’Hara, Linda Fiorentino, Teri Garr, John Heard, Cheech Marin, and Thomas Chong.

Beginning in 1987 and running through 1995, 2013’s The Wolf of Wall Street follows the rise and fall of New York City stockbroker Jordan Belfort and recounts his career as a stockbroker and how his firm Stratton Oakmont engaged in rampant corruption and fraud on Wall Street.  Shot throughout New York, the film captures the excess of the Eighties yuppie mentality and the drug-fueled career of the white-collar criminal Belfort.  Much of the film is set in offices on Wall Street and at Belfort’s home on Long Island.

1999’s Bringing Out the Dead was based on the novel by Joe Connelly and focused on Manhattan in the early 1990s. Frank Pierce (Nicolas Cage), a burned-out paramedic works the graveyard shift in a two-man ambulance team with various different partners (played in the film by John Goodman, Ving Rhames, and Tom Sizemore). Constantly exhausted and depressed, the somewhat mentally unstable and obsessive Pierce is a nonviolent parallel to De Niro’s Travis Bickle; both trying to help people during the underbelly of New York City in the early hours of the morning.

It’s remarkable that after directing dozens of projects, Martin Scorsese continues to be inspired by New York and is able to show completely different aspects of the city, even during the same time period. Hopefully, with future projects, the auteur will put some focus on the present-day Big Apple with as much enthusiasm and insight as he’s done in the past.

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