Beyond the silver screen

Chris Leadbeater takes a trip through America's most renowned movie locations

America's constellation of movie stars has always emitted a glow that can be seen beyond Hollywood. It shines in snapshots of disparate eras: Elizabeth Taylor's sorrow-tinged glamour; Marilyn Monroe's platinum smile; Steve McQueen's inscrutable glare; Clint Eastwood's gunslinger growl; Robert De Niro's angry leer; Meryl Streep's Oscar sparkle.

But in many ways, the US film industry's brightest star is America itself. Here is a place, 3,000 miles wide, that throws up nearly every possible landscape: jagged mountains, tropical beaches, swaggering cities, dust-choked deserts, sea-lashed islands, heat-veiled swamps. And within these geographical stripes, almost every celluloid story can be told.

True, much magic has been concocted on sound stages in Los Angeles, or via digital sleight of hand. But America's hard horizons have long been the canvas on which these fantasies are daubed – whether the topic is cosmopolitan couples in New York, cowboy bravado in Nevada, criminal chaos in Chicago or seafront romance in California. Cinema has taken much from America. And yet, the relationship has always been mutually beneficial. The significant case is Monument Valley. A century ago, few outsiders knew of this craggy wonderland, which straddles the state line between Arizona and Utah. But that was until Hollywood directed a spotlight.

Folklore has it that Harry Goulding, a 1920s settler in this Navajo enclave (and the founder of Goulding's Lodge, which still welcomes visitors today), decided that the sandstone monoliths visible from his window were the answer to the area's woes as the Great Depression cast its suffocating blanket. His evangelical forays to studios in Los Angeles yielded interest – and within a decade, the Valley had become established as the predominant setting for any Wild West drama worth its salt.

Nowadays, it is as simple to view America through the big screen as through your own eyes. But to enjoy the country vicariously – via, say, Woody Allen's fretful Manhattanite in Annie Hall – is to observe only half the image. To venture in person to a location that you have already seen virtually is one of the joys of travel. And you can find this special experience in most corners of the USA, but especially in the following eight destinations…

New York

The Big Apple has twinkled endlessly on screen, from a monster-ape's scaling of the Empire State Building in King Kong (1933) (which used footage shot from the skyscraper as well as stop-motion trickery) to the East Village romance of When Harry Met Sally (1989) (the "fake orgasm scene" was filmed at Katz's Delicatessen at 205 East Houston Street). Robert De Niro's psychotic metamorphosis into Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver (1976) had him rolling along the grimy Broadway of the Seventies, and the end-game to Wall Street (1987) saw Michael Douglas' capitalist tyrant Gordon Gekko receive his comeuppance in Central Park. Woody Allen, meanwhile, has rarely strayed from New York. Diane Keaton's apartment in Annie Hall (1977) was on 70th Street, and Manhattan (1979) – effectively a love letter to the city – dipped extensively into Greenwich Village.

Iconic moment: Marilyn Monroe's pose on a subway grate in The Seven Year Itch (1955), part-filmed at 586 Lexington Avenue.

Hawaii

The tropical majesty of America's last hurrah has proved itself indispensable. An island remote enough for the commercial rebirth of dinosaurs – as seen in Jurassic Park (1993) – could not have worked without the verdant wonder of Kauai and its Manawaiopuna Falls, or Oahu, where scenes were shot in Kualoa Valley.

The Descendants (2011), George Clooney's bittersweet drama about struggling with family life, flits in and out of Honolulu – but also makes use of the glorious crescent Hanalei Bay on the north coast of Kauai.

Hanalei also cropped up as Johnny Depp stomped through the waves in Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End (2007). And while the majority of surf thriller Point Break (1991) was filmed in California, some of the action was shot at Waimea Bay on Oahu.

Iconic moment: the first sighting of Jurassic Park, as the arriving helicopter swoops over the sheer cliffs of Kauai's Na Pali Coast.

New England

New England's genteel leafiness has long been the setting for many a movie. The burnished trees of Massachusetts dispense a soft backdrop to steely ambition in Facebook biopic The Social Network (2010), which used Phillips Academy in Andover and Wheelock College in Boston as stand-ins for Harvard University. The pretty town of Cambridge lights up the screen in Good Will Hunting (1997) – as does the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, which plays itself on occasion as Matt Damon's janitor-maths-genius wrestles with his demons.

There is, of course, a bleaker New England. Damon is on more dastardly form in Martin Scorsese's Boston mob thriller The Departed (2006), in which the pivotal roof stand-off was shot at 12 Farnsworth Street in the Fort Point district. And Martha's Vineyard will forever be linked to shark attack classic Jaws (1975), cast by Steven Spielberg as the fictional Amity Island.

Iconic moment: rising tension as the shark in Jaws snatches a young boy from an airbed at Joseph Sylvia State Beach on the Vineyard's north coast.

Florida

Miami dances with danger – and Al Pacino is at his most engagingly unpleasant – in Scarface (1983), the saga of a Cuban immigrant's rise to drug baron. Elements of the infamous chainsaw sequence were shot outside 728 Ocean Drive, amid the Art Nouveau elegance of South Beach, while the Fontainebleau Miami Beach resort also nods its head.

Rather less bloody, sporting farce Caddyshack (1980) saw Bill Murray let loose on the Grande Oaks Golf Club in Davie and the Coral Ridge Country Club in Fort Lauderdale. And sections of Tom Cruise's Nascar tribute Days of Thunder (1990) were committed to camera on the hallowed curves of Daytona International Speedway, Daytona Beach. But a more innocent age haunts Key Largo (1948), where Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall make eyes as gangsters and storms wreak havoc on the sands of the Florida Keys.

Iconic moment: the opening of Key Largo shows US Route 1 and Seven Mile Bridge in quieter days, before mass tourist development began.

The South

A city soaked in history and sultry warmth, New Orleans shimmers superbly as the home of decadent 18th-century bloodsuckers in Interview with the Vampire (1994). Sorrowful sites such as Lafayette Cemetery No1 flicker as Brad Pitt struggles with his inner predator. But in truth, New Orleans never looks dreary on camera. Few would call Hard Target (1993) – where Jean-Claude Van Damme is pursued by professional killers – a classic. Yet director John Woo's lingering shots of the French Quarter show the city in its full glory.

Neither Gone With The Wind (1939) nor To Kill a Mockingbird (1962) were shot in the region. But the racial tension of The Help (2011) simmered in the Mississippi towns of Clarksdale, Greenwood and Jackson – while Johnny Cash's proving grounds of Memphis and Nashville provided firm foundations for Walk the Line (2005).

Iconic moment: Pitt begins his tale in Interview with the Vampire by galloping through the tall trees of Oak Alley Plantation.

Chicago

The seamier side of New York's naughty cousin – gangsters and guns – has often proved fertile box office terrain, but rarely better than in The Untouchables (1987), where Kevin Costner's Eliot Ness pursues De Niro's Capone. Union Station, Roosevelt University and the Blackstone Hotel on South Michigan Avenue are all visible.

The same city, in sunnier guise, informs Ferris Bueller's Day Off (1986), where Matthew Broderick's teenage truant calls in at Wrigley Field (home of the Chicago Cubs) and the Sears (now Willis) Tower.

Iconic moment: the Union Station shoot-out in The Untouchables, bullets flying on the stairs as a pram falls in slow-motion.

California

As the heartland of the USA's film industry, LA features heavily in front of the camera – whether in the boutiques of Rodeo Drive refusing to serve Julia Roberts's Pretty Woman (1990), or Quentin Tarantino's diamond thieves arguing over breakfast at Pat & Lorraine's Coffee Shop (4720 Eagle Rock Boulevard) in Reservoir Dogs (1992).

But other California cities have also starred. San Diego's Hotel del Coronado pretended to be Miami's Seminole Ritz in Some Like it Hot (1959), and San Francisco is a screen legend. Its slanted streets host Steve McQueen's tough-guy cop routine in Bullitt (1968), pictured above, (Frank Bullitt's apartment is at 1153 Taylor Street in Nob Hill) and Alfred Hitchcock's taut psycho-drama in Vertigo (1958). Sideways (2004) staggered through the wineries of the Santa Ynez Valley.

Iconic moment: the car chase in Bullitt, which smashes around Fisherman's Wharf, Hyde Street and Laguna Street.

The West

Monument Valley is forever tied to director John Ford – and to John Wayne, whose hoof-heavy adventures in She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949) and The Searchers (1956) kicked up in America's most recognisable desert vista. Western aficionados should also visit Old Tucson Studios, just west of Tucson, Arizona – where cowboy face-offs including The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976) and Gunfight at the O.K. Corral (1957) have been created.

Iconic moment: genres collide in Back to the Future Part III (1990), as Michael J Fox jumps back to 1885 and into Monument Valley.

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