From Brando and Leigh to Abbott and Costello: Some of the Best (and Worst) Movies About New Orleans

Since the early days of the silent "flickers" over a century ago, New Orleans has been a setting for some memorable - and less than memorable - movies. We might as well start at the top with one of the best and most well known movies set in New Orleans. "A Streetcar Named Desire" (1951), starring Marlon Brando and Vivien Leigh, is perhaps the most successful screen translation of any Tennessee Williams play. "Streetcar" is a story of contrasts and confrontations both violent and subtle: refinement versus earthiness, class distinctions versus social equity, and a longing for the past versus an acceptance of the present. We never see Blanche and Stella's family home, Belle Reve, but the contrast between it and the movie's main setting in the Kowalski's cramped, run-down New Orleans apartment encases the entire story in a constricting confrontation. When Blanche voices another dichotomy - "I don't want realism, I want magic" - we both sympathize with and pity her and thus realize the contrasts in ourselves.
Besides "Streetcar", two other movie versions of Tennesse Williams' plays are worth a mention. In " "Suddenly Last Summer" (1959), New Orleans high society is richly evoked by Katherine Hepburn's aging matron holding court in her elaborate garden and pronouncing "daquiri" as "da-kir-`REI". We suspect Hepburn to be as mad as she accuses her niece, played by Elizabeth Taylor, of being; Montgomery Clift is the young doctor engaged by Hepburn to "cure" Taylor's character with a lobotomy. A lesser known film is "This Property is Condemned" (1966). "Suggested" by a one-act Tennessee Williams' play, this cinematic fleshing-out is a solid Southern Gothic mother-daughter drama. New Orleans exists throughout much of the movie only in the characters' imagination as the ultimate place to escape to and shed their small-town shackles. Starring Natalie Wood and Robert Redford, her character eventually chases after his and finds him when New Orleans finally makes its appearance in the last twenty minutes of the movie. The French Quarter looks great during a rainy night-time sequence and just when it appears that the adaptation may have steered the movie version to a happy ending, tragedy ensues in true Williams fashion. (Also stars a thirteen-year old Mary Badham, in one of her only other movie roles after playing Scout in "To Kill a Mockingbird".)
Most movie stars have made at least one New Orleans film. John Wayne, Bette Davis, and Marlene Dietrich all made movies set here, ranging from notable to forgettable. Paul Newman reprised his "Harper" role in "The Drowning Pool" (1975), in which a routine blackmail investigation in New Orleans leads to monied oil interests and multiple homicides. One of the better star turns in a New Orleans movie is "The Cincinnati Kid" (1965), starring Steve McQueen. During the Great Depression, McQueen is New Orleans' top poker player and Edward G. Robinson is the big shot from up north who comes to town for a high-stakes five card stud show-down. Though the last half of the movie takes place in the hotel room where the poker game occurs, even the interior scenes throughout the entire movie are rich with New Orleans atmosphere. (Watch Robinson closely to learn the proper technique for eating oysters on the half shell.)
Another notable star vehicle is Elvis Presley's "King Creole" (1958). Elvis's fourth movie is considered by many fans to be his best, and he once mentioned that it was his favorite. He plays a busboy at a French Quarter nightclub trying to realize his musical dreams despite his father's disapproval. Most of the songs spring organically from the story and it shows the direction Elvis could have developed as an actor, had he not descended into cinematic mediocrities such as "Kissin' Cousins".
A decade before "King Creole", New Orleans got the full Hollywood musical treatment in the eponymous "New Orleans" (1947). A whisper-thin plot weaves together the musical numbers in this somewhat obscure movie. But the performances - and the performers - more than make up for it: Louis Armstrong, Billie Holliday, Kid Ory, and others provide lessons in the tangled evolution of jazz, blues, ragtime, and dixieland in New Orleans circa 1917. The story in the second half of the movie meanders through Chicago and Birmingham - Birmingham, England that is (don't ask) - but luckily the music is never more than seven or eight minutes of tedious dialog away.
If you prefer supernatural thrillers instead of musicals, 1987's "Angel Heart", starring Mickey Rourke and Lisa Bonet, is one of the best. Dismissed by some critics, "Angel Heart" is a polarizing love-it or hate-it movie. This highly stylized noirish thriller set in the 1950s follows a New York private detective to New Orleans on a case that has more twists and turns than the back alleys of the French Quarter where much of the movie was filmed.
Another New Orleans movie was released the same year as "Angel Heart", but is notorious for different reasons. Opinions about "The Big Easy" (1987), starring Dennis Quaid and Ellen Barkin, are strongly divided among New Orleanians. Some think that it is one of the worst movies ever made about New Orleans, but some disagree and think, no, it is definitely the worst movie ever made about New Orleans. Yes, it is a decent if somewhat routine story, and the leading stars are great together, but somehow "The Big Easy" manages to combine every cheesy cliche about New Orleans and every hackneyed corrupt-police plot point into one movie.
In sharp contrast to "The Big Easy" is 1986's "Down By Law" (1986). Jim Jarmusch's black and white film is a study of three characters living on the margins of New Orleans' criminal underworld. While most of the movie occurs when the three main characters are in jail and after they escape to the countryside, the first third that takes place in the city is one of the most accurate and atmospheric evocations of life on the down and out in the Crescent City.
Recent movies continue to try and capture the essence of New Orleans and the characters who populate it. If you can get over John Travolta playing a seedy, alcoholic, former literature professor with a bad southern accent and look beyond the somewhat tedious "search for family" plot involving Scarlett Johansson, 2004's "A Love Song for Bobby Long" offers some of the best-filmed New Orleans scenery in recent years and is a good cinematic preservation of what a lot of the city looked like prior to Hurricane Katrina. Just don't try to duplicate the walk home that Travolta's character takes over the beginning credits: its about twenty miles long and would involve crossing the river a few times (hey, whatever - it looks beautiful.) For anyone whose favorite movies include "Barfly", stories of destitute "on the skids" characters like these always have a perverse appeal.
You can see post-Katrina New Orleans in the big-budget thriller "Deja Vu" (2006), starring Denzel Washington. This science fiction/domestic terrorist story is a great popcorn action movie, but its setting in New Orleans can actually be a distraction. The city is grateful the producers spent their money here, but the location doesn't really add anything to the story.
Better representations of New Orleans since the hurricane can be found in two documentaries. The first is Spike Lee's "When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts" (2006). A four-hour movie made for HBO films, it generated mixed reactions in New Orleans but will likely be a defining statement of the disaster and its aftermath. For a study of Katrina and the environmental concerns that foreshadowed its impact, definitely try to see the IMAX film, "Hurricane on the Bayou" (2006 and still playing at various IMAX theaters around the country as of 2009). In production before Katrina, the film was updated and expanded to include the devastation of New Orleans as a prime example of the effect that coastal erosion has had on the swampland that serves as a natural buffer against hurricane storm surge. The movie also has some good live music, as its narrative focus is on local musicians Amanda Shaw, Tab Benoit, and Allen Toussaint.
For a more, shall we say, "light-hearted" New Orleans environmental drama, look for "On Hostile Ground" (2000). Ever wonder what a cheesy, 1970s-style disaster movie set in New Orleans during Mardi Gras would be like? This made-for-TV movie (actually shot in Toronto!) concerns a giant sinkhole that threatens to swallow parades and revelers on Fat Tuesday unless the hero-geologist can pump something that looks like insulating foam underground to shore up the French Quarter. This may actually beat out "The Big Easy" as the worst movie about New Orleans. It seems to be on one of the basic cable networks every couple of weeks or so.
Besides disaster movies, there are a large number of other genre movies set in New Orleans, ranging in quality from good to forgettable. For example: "Tightrope" (1984) with Clint Eastwood (cop hunts for a serial killer in New Orleans); "Runaway Jury" (2003) with John Cusack, Gene Hackmand, and Dustin Hoffman (jury consultant hunts a verdict in New Orleans); "Hard Target" (1993) with Jean-Claude Van Damme (a sadistic cabal of millionaires hunts homeless people for sport in New Orleans); and "Zandalee" (1991), with an over-acting Nicholas Cage (a husband's best friend hunts for...well, the fact that this went straight to video and was a favorite of teenage boys with access to late night cable TV in the pre-internet era can give you a hint of this movie's "plot"; at least the French Quarter and Erika Anderson both look beautiful in it).
If you're a fan of "so bad its good" movies, among the truly forgettable films set in New Orleans are exploitation films such as "The Monster and the Stripper" (1968). This movie features a group of hunters out in the Louisiana bayous who capture a bigfoot-like monster. And what"s the logical place for them to display a creature like that? In a strip club on Bourbon Street, of course! Predictably violent complications ensue. Similar "drive-in" style films set in New Orleans include "Mardi Gras Massacre", "Girl In Trouble", "Voodoo Tailz", and "Zombie vs Mardi Gras", all of which feature stories as likely and believable as any you could think up in the time it takes to finish reading this sentence.
And, for everyone waiting for the second cinematic pairing in this short article's title, yes, as unlikely as it sounds, "Abbott and Costello Go to Mars" (1953) has a New Orleans connection: en route to the red planet, our heroes' spaceship takes an unscheduled detour to the French Quarter, conveniently at the height of Mardi Gras, where revelers costumed in giant paper mache masks are mistaken for Martians. This is just a sample of some of the best, and more "eclectic", movies about New Orleans. For additional New Orleans movies and reviews, see my Master List of New Orleans Movies.