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.


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.


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.


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.


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.

The Independent travel offers: Discover a world of inspiring destinations

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Sales and Office Administrator – Sports Media

    £23,000: Sauce Recruitment: A global leader in sports and entertainment is now...

    C++ Software Engineer - Hounslow, West London - C++ - to £60K +

    £40000 - £60000 per annum + Pension, Healthcare : Deerfoot IT Resources Limite...

    VB.NET and C# developer (VB.NET,C#,ASP.NET)

    £30000 - £45000 per annum + Bonus+Benefits+Package: Harrington Starr: VB.NET a...

    Visitor Experience volunteer

    Unpaid voluntary role: Old Royal Naval College: To assist the Visitor Experien...

    Day In a Page

    Save the tiger: The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

    The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

    The big cats kept in captivity to perform for paying audiences and then, when dead, their bodies used to fortify wine
    A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery all included in top 50 hidden spots in the UK

    A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery

    Introducing the top 50 hidden spots in Britain
    Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

    Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

    How a disease that has claimed fewer than 2,000 victims in its history has earned a place in the darkest corner of the public's imagination
    Chris Pratt: From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

    From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

    He was homeless in Hawaii when he got his big break. Now the comic actor Chris Pratt is Hollywood's new favourite action star
    How live cinema screenings can boost arts audiences

    How live cinema screenings can boost arts audiences

    Broadcasting plays and exhibitions to cinemas is a sure-fire box office smash
    Shipping container hotels: Pop-up hotels filling a niche

    Pop-up hotels filling a niche

    Spending the night in a shipping container doesn't sound appealing, but these mobile crash pads are popping up at the summer's biggest events
    Native American headdresses are not fashion accessories

    Feather dust-up

    A Canadian festival has banned Native American headwear. Haven't we been here before?
    Boris Johnson's war on diesel

    Boris Johnson's war on diesel

    11m cars here run on diesel. It's seen as a greener alternative to unleaded petrol. So why is London's mayor on a crusade against the black pump?
    5 best waterproof cameras

    Splash and flash: 5 best waterproof cameras

    Don't let water stop you taking snaps with one of these machines that will take you from the sand to meters deep
    Louis van Gaal interview: Manchester United manager discusses tactics and rebuilding after the David Moyes era

    Louis van Gaal interview

    Manchester United manager discusses tactics and rebuilding after the David Moyes era
    Will Gore: The goodwill shown by fans towards Alastair Cook will evaporate rapidly if India win the series

    Will Gore: Outside Edge

    The goodwill shown by fans towards Alastair Cook will evaporate rapidly if India win the series
    The children were playing in the street with toy guns. The air strikes were tragically real

    The air strikes were tragically real

    The children were playing in the street with toy guns
    Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite – The British, as others see us

    Britain as others see us

    Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite
    How did our legends really begin?

    How did our legends really begin?

    Applying the theory of evolution to the world's many mythologies
    Watch out: Lambrusco is back on the menu

    Lambrusco is back on the menu

    Naff Seventies corner-shop staple is this year's Aperol Spritz