The Best Movies About New York City in the 1970s

It wasn’t always luxury waterfront high-rises and Eataly.

Mick Jagger and Martin Scorsese’s  HBO series Vinyl, premiering this weekend, is a homage to the 1970s New York City music scene. While that era was a pivotal time for punk and rock ‘n’ roll, it was also a historic time for movies depicting a grittier, seedier New York City that’s almost unrecognizable to the rich man’s playground NYC is today. With disproportionate representation from Martin Scorsese, Al Pacino, and Robert DeNiro, here are some of the most iconic movies set and shot in 1970s New York. 

Taxi Driver (1976)

Robert DeNiro’s Travis Bickle is a misguided vigilante disgusted by the seediness and corruption of mid-seventies New York City. Scorsese’s classic presents a New York that today’s gentrifiers think we are nostalgic for, but probably wouldn’t last a day in. The film was shot during a garbage strike during a heat wave, which must have been pleasant.

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Serpico (1973)

Sidney Lumet directed Al Pacino as Frank Serpico, a talented NYPD detective who put himself in great danger after exposing corruption within the force. Much of the film takes place in the West Village, where the real Serpico lived.

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Dog Day Afternoon (1975)

Based on a true story of a routine Brooklyn bank robbery gone horribly wrong, Sidney Lumet’s Dog Day Afternoon takes place almost entirely in one location. Lumet reunited with Al Pacino, who played Sonny Wojtowicz, based on the real robber John Wojtowicz, who was described in the Life magazine article that inspired the movie as having Hollywood looks, and compared specifically to Pacino. Wojtowicz robbed the bank in part to help his transgender girlfriend pay for sex re-assignment surgery. Though he was arrested and sentenced to jail, he was able to pay for her surgery after the rights to his life were optioned.

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The Panic in Needle Park (1971)

Al Pacino’s second film is also rumored to be the first mainstream movie to feature actual drug use. Needle Park is the nickname for Sherman Square on the Upper West Side, which of course is far cry today from the outdoor drug den that it was 40 years ago.

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Saturday Night Fever (1977)

John Travolta rose to fame as a disillusioned Bay Ridge kid whose only source of real happiness was Saturday Night at the disco club. The Verrazanno Bridge and a White Castle restaurant are featured heavily in the movie. Fun fact: The author of the New York Magazine article that was the source material for the movie later said he made it up.

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Annie Hall (1976)

Woody Allen’s Annie Hall took place at a time when $400 a month for an Upper West Side one bedroom was considered expensive. It launched Diane Keaton’s career and might be responsible for the lingering animus between die-hard New Yorkers and happy West Coasters.

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Mean Streets (1973)

Martin Scorsese wrote the screenplay for Mean Streets while driving around his childhood neighborhood of Little Italy with co-writer Mardik Martin. Robert DeNiro and Harvey Keitel co-star as friends perilously caught up in a NYC crime and gambling ring.

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The Taking of Pelham 123 (1974)

There was a time when actually dangerous to take the New York City subway, and The Taking of Pelham 123 presents a worst-case scenario: A downtown 6 train is hijacked and the passengers held hostage as their captors demand a $1 million dollar ransom. The MTA initially refused to cooperate with the production because of a fear that it might lead to a “copycat” hijacking. It did not, but the movie was remade in 2009 with co-stars Denzel Washington and John Travolta. 

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