Great Movie Moments #2: Opening Scene of New York, New York (1977)

August 23, 2010 by Simon Kinnear in Features with 1 Comment

My regular look at the moments (scenes, characters, shots, whatever) that define why I love watching movies.

This week, it’s the turn of Martin Scorsese; a director so good that I could probably create 100 “Great Movie Moments” just from his films. But here’s one to be going along with.

It’s the opening sequence of his misunderstood, hugely underrated New York, New York, the first of his periodic attempts to remake a Golden Age genre (in this case, the musical) in his image. New York, New York is dazzlingly experimental, a brave (some would, and have, say foolhardy) attempt to mix the artifice of Vincente Minelli with the raw realism of John Cassavetes.

At ground level, it’s one of Scorsese’s intimate, lethal character studies, charting the volatility of the relationship between Robert De Niro’s saxophonist and Liza Minelli’s singer. Yet look at the context: the trademark Scorsese rage and passion is staged in front of lush, extravagantly theatrical sets and costumes to die for, the harsh reality counterpointed by the beauty of the fantasy. Minelli’s casting, and the echoes of Judy Garland in George Cukor’s A Star is Born, are entirely deliberate, because this is exactly the kind of film Liza’s parents didn’t make. In those days, you had to pull your punches. Scorsese, in contrast, is happy to hit us square in the face.

Risky stuff, and of course the audience was massively alienated by a film that looks to be a charmer and then turns out to consist of two hours’ of bitter arguments. Yet if you’re aware that this was made at the height of Scorsese’s “cocaine period,” the grandstanding makes perfect sense. Here was a director who thought he could do anything. Remarkably – for all New York, New York‘s longeurs and raggedness – he frequently pulls off miracles of filmmaking that justify the bravado and self-belief.

Nowhere more so than in the astonishing opening sequence, where De Niro and Minelli find each other amidst the tumult of VJ Day celebrations. Usually, the boy-meets-girl stuff is known as the ‘meet cute’; here, the introductions are so barbed and frosty we’re looking at cinema’s greatest ‘meet acute.’ De Niro and Minelli are volatile and electrifiying, trading banter too deadly to be called flirting…and the absolutely huge soundstage, bustling with activity, provides the perfect setting. The film will bear out the sense that there’s no way in hell things will work out between these two. But it all starts here. After all, how can a relationship thrive when it is born in such passion and panic?

But what passion! What panic! In the very first minute, Scorsese pulls off one of the most impressive coups of his career: an elaborately choreographed camera move that becomes the most outrageous visual gag ever seen outside of a comedy. [Spoilers below…so watch it here first!]

De Niro, on the pull, done up to the nines in Hawaiian shirt and loafers, struts confidently to the club… but he’s instantly swarmed by the jubilant crowd. Momentarily, he’s lost, as ace cinematographer Lazlo Kovaks begins an audacious aerial tracking shot, soaring higher and higher, further and further away from the crowd. And then it pulls back to reveal a neon sign, a burning red arrow, angled downwards back into the crowd. And suddenly we realise who the arrow is pointing at: De Niro.
That must have been some cocaine, Marty.

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One Comment

  1. AnonymousJan 22, 2011 at 3:03 pmReply

    It's M-I-N-N-E-L-L-I (sigh).

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