“The city is a character” is a cliche among filmmakers discussing their latest magnum opus, but the fact that it became a cliche in the first place reveals much about the role urban and regional planning has played in cinematic history. Movies have long revealed broad, meaningful changes in how humans perceive and interact with the world around them. Some of these attitudes seem quaint and outdated by today’s societal standards, while others are more relevant than ever.
Back to the Future trilogy (dir. Robert Zemeckis, 1985, 1989, 1990)
The time-traveling adventures of Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox) and Emmett “Doc” Brown (Christopher Lloyd) received widespread cultural attention this fall as time itself reached a milestone: October 21, 2015, the future showcased in garish, optimistic fashion in the trilogy’s second installment, finally became the present, and then the past. But planning is an underlying element of all three films: Courthouse Square, the central gathering spot of Hill Valley, is a walkable park in 1955 filled with couples, painters and green space, but by 1985 it has become a parking lot. “Back to the Future: Part II"s vision of 2015 restores the natural beauty with a reflective pond, but the movies’ 1980s perspective still manages to creep in: underneath this pond is an underground mall, a future which has become reality in cities like Toronto.
Land use and the creep of suburban sprawl play an underlying role in the trilogy as well. Doc comments on how the mall where he conducts his experiment used to be a farm, and Marty’s intervention in 1955, during which he knocks over one of the farm owner’s pine trees, ends up changing the mall name from “Twin Pines Mall” to “Lone Pine Mall.” Additionally, Marty encounters the 1955 construction plot for what would become his decaying 1985 bedroom community, part of the postwar suburban boom. In a “history repeats itself” bit of social commentary, a similar bedroom community, Hilldale, is under construction in 1985 and a suburban slum by 2015. What at the time was a light-hearted jab at Reaganomics has born out in reality - a growing problem as American populations migrate to urban centers in greater numbers.
The Third Man (dir. Carol Reed, 1949)
This film noir classic starring Joseph Cotten and Orson Welles takes place in Vienna, literally split in four pieces between the United States, the United Kingdom, France and the Soviet Union in the wake of World War II. This renders one of the world’s great cultural crossroads, normally rich with street life and a place of “glamour and easy charm,” a shell of its former self. “Wonderful! What a hope they had!” the narrator sarcastically quips during the introduction. “All strangers to the place and none of them could speak the same language. Except a sort of smattering of German.”
The movie’s Vienna is nearly bereft of human beings and populated primarily by very striking shadows, shadows where figures like villain Harry Lime (Welles) can lurk and subvert morality for their own personal gain. Lime’s particular plot involves selling diluted penicillin to hospitals, causing children to die of meningitis. In an iconic scene atop a Ferris wheel (introduced at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, and itself a symbol of the rise of the city), Lime delivers a monologue that lays bare his bleak, cynical worldview: individuals now matter less than the nations and symbols that represent them, the same attitude that gradually cast many of the great cities of the world in drab, gray concrete and asphalt. “Look down there,” he tells Cotten’s Holy Martens, pointing at the people on the ground. “Tell me. Would you really feel any pity if one of those dots stopped moving forever?”
Lime is eventually apprehended in a thrilling sewer chase and shootout (villains weren’t allowed to get away in 1949), but his chilling message endures, reflecting the growing anxieties of the modern metropolis.
Duel (dir. Steven Spielberg, 1971)
Originally a made-for-TV movie, Spielberg’s debut feature is also one of his most exciting action thrillers, telling the story of a motorist (Dennis Weaver) on a desert highway who cuts off a semi, which then makes a mission out of trying to murder him. There isn’t much more to the movie, and there doesn’t need to be, but it’s also a great portrait of the burgeoning Interstate Highway System and the lonely, often terrifying automobile culture that emerged alongside it. Weaver and the completely anonymous, unseen semi driver are the only characters onscreen for most of the movie, which plays out as a game of highway cat and mouse.
A particularly memorable scene subjects the viewer to our driver’s internal monologue as he parks at a truck stop to seek shelter from the growing threat. Any one of the patrons could be the culprit, and he ends up mistakenly confronting another man in the cafe, earning him a punch in the stomach. It’s a break from the action for Duel, which takes place mostly on the road, but it reflects what was in the ‘70s a new reality in the American landscape: the open road, an anonymous place and almost its own Wild West in a way. Most importantly, it’s a perfect playground for a director like Spielberg, who knew how to play with tension and suspense right off the bat.