A Century of Grand Central Terminal, in the City and on the Screen

The Clock in Grand Central Terminal via <a" />
The Clock in Grand Central Terminal via

Grand Central Station in New York City is celebrating its one hundredth anniversary this year. Well, okay. So the enormous and iconic edifice that finished construction in February 1913 is technically Grand Central Terminal. Grand Central Station was the name of the structure that the current terminal replaced and the moniker still adorns the U.S. Postal office next door. But the world at large almost invariably refers to the current building as Grand Central Station, so we’re sticking with that in the name of democracy and freedom.

Before we get to the cinematic portion of this discussion, first a few fun facts: Grand Central is the largest train station in the world if you’re going by number of platforms (and isn’t that how all the cool kids judge train station size?). Of course, if you’ve noticed that rail travel isn’t quite the red-hot going concern it used to be, you won’t be surprised to hear that several attempts have been made over the years to replace the station with something that might be more financially remunerative. A permanent kibosh was placed on such speculation in 1968 when the building was declared a historical landmark. The Metropolitan Transportation Authority signed a 280-year lease on the property in 1994, so it looks like the trains will be running for a good long time yet. In related news: You can apparently sign 280-year leases on things.

It was inevitable that Hollywood would want to use such an extraordinary structure as a movie location. One of the earliest and most notable instances of this desire in action is Howard Hawks’ 1934 classic “Twentieth Century.” The film takes its name from the Twentieth Century Limited, a train that ran from Chicago to New York from 1902 to 1967 and was once considered the most famous train in the country. It tells the story of a washed-up theater actor, played by John Barrymore, who spends the journey trying to reignite his relationship with a former paramour turned movie star, played by Carole Lombard. “Twentieth Century” launched Lombard into stardom, gave silent and early sound film legend Barrymore his last great screen role, and practically created the screwball comedy. It is absolutely essential viewing.

It should come as no surprise that the master of suspense, Alfred Hitchcock, would find a way to use Grand Central on film. He did so for the first time in 1945’s “Spellbound.” Ingrid Bergman’s psychoanalyst and Gregory Peck’s amnesia victim use the station to flee from the prying eyes of the NYPD. They also use their time in the station to fall further in love, because they’re Ingrid Bergman and Gregory Peck circa 1945 and who could blame them. Hitch returned to Grand Central for his 1959 masterpiece “North by Northwest.” Cary Grant makes a phone call to his mom and blows his cover at a ticket window while trying to get a ticket on the – wait for it – Twentieth Century Limited.

A funhouse mirror version of Grand Central appears in “Seconds,” John Frankenheimer’s pitch black exploration of paranoia, ennui, and dashed hopes. Rock Hudson, a million miles from split-screens and Doris Day, plays a middle-aged man who has largely checked out of his own life. He accepts an offer from the mysterious “Company” to leave everything he knows behind and start a new existence. His life spirals down until it hits the basement and then starts drilling toward the earth’s core. See it, but make sure you’re in an unkillable good mood first.

Determined not to let Hitchcock monopolize all the good stuff, frequent Hitchcock homagist Brian DePalma staged a bravura foot chase in Grand Central to close out his 1993 film “Carlito’s Way” aka “The One Where Pacino Yells a Little Less.” Pacino’s Carlito is attempting to reach a train bound for Miami so that he and his girlfriend can put NYC in their rearview mirror forever. En route, he engages in a cat-and-mouse gun battle with the police and a group of thugs sent to kill him. The camera swoops around the various parties like another participant in the action. It’s a textbook suspense sequence.

I wouldn’t want to give the impression that the station’s appearance on screen always signals the imminent arrival of doom and gloom and gunplay. “The Fisher King” achieves a few glorious minutes of liftoff when a lovestruck Robin Williams spots his dream girl and imagines thousands of rush hour pedestrians breaking into a waltz. Superman foils Lex Luthor’s nefarious plan after escaping from his secret lair underneath the station (or a simulacrum on a London set) in the 1978 film. And the exterior of the terminal loomed in the background during the climax of last summer’s “The Avengers” when Bruce Banner revealed his big green secret and punched that giant space whale thing in its big stupid face and suddenly everything that was in my head when I was eight was on a movie screen in front of me and thank you SO MUCH, Joss Whedon.

Finally, production is currently underway on a big-screen movie adaptation of Mark Helprin’s much-loved 1983 novel, Winter’s Tale. Colin Farrell will play Peter Lake aka Grand Central Pete, an orphan in 1916 New York city who runs afoul of a street gang, finds true love with a consumptive young woman, and befriends a magic horse. The film will costar Russell Crowe, Will Smith, and Jennifer Connelly and be directed by Akiva Goldsman (writer of “Batman & Robin” … never forget). So it looks like we can rest assured that Grand Central Station will continue to grace movie screens for years to come. Or whatever has replaced movie screens 280 years from now.