We recently revisited Alfred Hitchcock’s war-era thriller Saboteur (1942) and, as actor Norman Lloyd dangled off the Statue of Liberty during the film’s climax, we got to thinking about other movies that showcased similarly famous manmade American attractions. We geeks think of things like that, making lists in our head while we sit in the dark, or drive, or lie in bed. And so, here's our lineup—a collection of ten films where a famous landmark figures into the plot.
The White House
Independence Day (1996)
Independence Day made a mint—$50 million its opening weekend—and went on to gross $817 million worldwide. Its huge cast included Will Smith, Bill Pullman, Jeff Goldblum, Mary McDonnell and Harvey Fierstein. And it was a loud, silly mess, one of those summer blockbusters that I believe actress Debra Winger once described as a movie that “picks you up and shakes you until ten bucks falls out of your pocket.” If the writing team did not work terribly hard on this movie, the special effects folks certainly did, as did the marketing department, whose campaign burned two images onto our retinas: the alien-laser-beam destruction of both the Empire State Building and the President’s DC digs.
Other movies involving The White House: The American President (1995), Being There (1979), Frost/Nixon (2008), JFK (1991), Lincoln (2012), Mars Attacks! (1996), Nixon (1995), Primary Colors (1998), Thirteen Days (2000), W. (2008)
Birdman of Alcatraz (1962)
Burt Lancaster earned an Oscar nod for his portrayal of Robert Franklin Stroud, the most famous inmate—after Al Capone—of San Francisco Bay’s island prison. The story can more accurately be described as Birdman of Leavenworth, as it was at that Kansas prison where convicted murderer Stroud first finds and takes cares of a baby sparrow, a gesture that leads to Stroud creating a mini bird habitat and conducting extensive research on the winged creatures to see what makes them tick. When he is eventually transferred to Alcatraz, the self-taught bird expert is forced to leave his feathered friends behind. Though the film received general praise, especially for Lancaster and Thelma Ritter, who played Stroud’s mother, it was criticized for presenting a softer, gentler version of Stroud, by many accounts a violent, volatile man.
Other movies involving Alcatraz: Escape from Alcatraz (1979), Murder in the First (1995), The Rock (1996)
Statue of Liberty
Frank Fry (Norman Lloyd) commits an act of sabotage at an aircraft plant and factory worker Barry Kane (Robert Cumming) gets the blame. And so, like any reasonable person, Kane evades the police and embarks upon a cross-country search to find Fry and his network of saboteurs in order to clear his name. It all leads to Liberty Island, where the chase finds Kane and Fry inside the statue and up the steps and ladder to the lady’s torch. Fry slips over the side and—in a scene with barely a sound—Kane saves him from falling by grabbing the sleeve of Fry’s coat. Then, slowly and in close-up, the stitching on Fry’s coat begins to give.
Other movies involving the Statue of Liberty: Escape From New York (1981), Funny Girl (1968), On the Town (1949), Planet of the Apes (1968), Remo Williams: The Adventure Begins (1985), Working Girl (1988)
Lost in America (1985)
“Nice damn, huh?” David Howard (Albert Brooks) asks his wife Linda (Julie Hagerty) as they peer over the railing into the gorge. “Do you want to go first, or should I?” It’s the preamble to David’s public meltdown at the concrete construction, a reaction to Linda losing their entire nest egg gambling in nearby Las Vegas. Called a yuppie Easy Rider, the story follows a west-to-east road trip in a Winnebago by an advertising executive who, along with his wife, quits his job and hits the open road.
Other movies involving Hoover Dam: Superman (1978), Viva Las Vegas (1964)
North by Northwest (1959)
The choice to resolve North by Northwest on the face—or faces—of Mount Rushmore was bold and outlandish, a grand gesture not without serious challenges. Director Alfred Hitchcock was denied permission to shoot at the South Dakota attraction—park officials balked at the idea of an attempted murder being filmed at a national monument. As a result, an enormous replica was built on MGM sound stages, with the chase involving Cary Grant, Eva Marie Saint and Martin Landau shot carefully to avoid the direct association of violence with the presidents’ faces.
Other movies involving Mount Rushmore: National Treasure: Book of Secrets (2007), North (1994)
United States Capitol/Washington Monument
Earth vs. the Flying Saucers (1956)
Ray Harryhausen created the stop-motion special effects for this science fiction drama, a Martian invasion tale that ranks as the artist’s least favorite films. Hugh Marlowe, miles away from All About Eve (1950), plays Dr. Russell Marvin, in charge of launching test rockets in order to gather information for future manned space flights. Martians abduct Marvin and his wife, who learn that the Martians’ peaceful demeanor masks their murderous intent. Before they are eventually vanquished, the Martians display what horrible aviators they are by slamming their spaceships right into our national monuments.
Other movies involving United States Capitol/Washington Monument: All the President’s Men (1976), Advise and Consent (1962), Born Yesterday (1950), Lions for Lambs (2007), Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939)
The Parallax View (1974)
The political assassination of a U.S. Senator atop Seattle’s Space Needle sets Alan J. Pakula’s conspiracy thriller violently in motion. The apparently lone gunman dies at the scene by tumbling off the roof of the tower but, as witnesses begin to mysteriously drop dead, reporter Joe Frady (Warren Beatty) investigates, uncovering a link between the murders and a mysterious training institute called the Parallax Corporation.
Other movies involving the Space Needle: Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me (1999), Harry and the Hendersons (1987), It Happened at the World’s Fair (1963)
Golden Gate Bridge
In the telling of his suspenseful tale of identity and obsession, director Alfred Hitchcock employs a number of sites familiar to San Francisco residents, including Portals of the Past, Palace of the Legion of Honor, Mission Dolores, Palace of Fine Arts and Coit Tower. The most internationally recognized landmark in town—the orange-hued Golden Gate Bridge—also dresses up the plot, its base serving as the scenic point where Madeline (Kim Novak) jumps into the drink and is fished out by an increasingly bewitched Scotty (James Stewart).
Other movies involving the Golden Gate Bridge: Dark Passage (1947), Foul Play (1978), High Anxiety (1977), Interview with the Vampire (1994), Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011), Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (1986), A View to a Kill (1985)
Pee Wee’s Big Adventure (1985)
Sure, John Wayne’s 1960 epic The Alamo was all over this place, but Pee Wee Herman made it fun. Tim Burton’s colorful saga about a stolen bike leads our hero, Pee Wee, on an earnest pursuit that takes him from Los Angeles to—on a fortune teller’s advice—the Alamo’s basement. At the famed Spanish mission, he joins a tour led by a gum-chewing guide named Tina (Jan Hooks), who, with cheerful condescension, informs Pee Wee that the structure contains no basement at all.
Other movies involving The Alamo: The Alamo (1960), The Alamo (2004)
Empire State Building
King Kong (1933)
The building has supported many a movie romance, but none so unusual as that between a young blonde actress and a giant gorilla. The famous climax of the picture, where the beast brings the beauty to the top of the Empire State Building and fights off fighter planes, was the first thing screenwriter and director Merian C. Cooper envisioned when crafting the story. He worked backwards from there. Though the much-maligned 1976 King Kong used contemporary settings and substituted the twin towers of the World Trade Center for the finale, Peter Jackson’s 2005 remake went back to the 1930s time period and the famed midtown Manhattan skyscraper.
Other movies involving the Empire State Building: An Affair to Remember (1957), Love Affair (1939), Love Affair (1994), On the Town (1949), The Producers (1968), Sleepless in Seattle (1993)