NEW YORK - It rises like a glistening flute of champagne from the beer-bottle skyline, as if in toast to a New Year's mix of emotions: hope and loss; love found and love betrayed; what can be and what almost was. And when you see it, you know instantly, absolutely, where the movie wants you to be.
Ah, the Chrysler Building: Manhattan.
Not even the Empire State Building is as immediately identifiable, or can say so much so quickly. Shimmering in the morning sun or under spotlight beams at midnight, the 1930 Chrysler Building, which marked its 75th anniversary Friday, can evoke everything from East Side sophistication to Big City hollowness.
In Someone to Watch Over Me, Ridley Scott's 1987 thriller, a police detective and family man from Queens obsesses over a beautiful Manhattan socialite. And what dominates the western horizon from his working-class home in Queens, almost in taunt, is the 1,046-foot Chrysler Building, seductive, unreal.
In truth, the building has rarely glittered as brightly on film as it does in real life. Beyond anchoring the establishing shot of many movies set in New York over the last several decades, it is almost never the star. More often it has served as the dependable character actor who gamely supports the marquee attraction, a Van Johnson to Gene Kelly.
This second-billing relegation began when the Chrysler Building was but an ingenue. Movie lore has it that in the 1933 picture that bears his name, King Kong was originally going to swat airplanes from the building's silvery spire. But the Empire State Building, finished in 1931, soon stole the thunder, and the gig, when it eclipsed the Chrysler Building's blink-of-an-eye reign as the world's tallest. In clips and stills from that movie, there in the background sulks a dwarfed Chrysler Building.
James Sanders, the author of Celluloid Skyline: New York and the Movies (Knopf, 2001), jokes that any essay regarding the Chrysler Building in movies should be titled, "And the Award for Best Supporting Skyscraper Goes to ... "
"It was always appearing in establishing shots, and never quite getting the center of attention that maybe it should have had," he said. "There was always the Empire State Building there to upstage it."
The Chrysler Building figured in a few movies in the '40s, '50s and '60s, including Young Man With a Horn, a 1950 drama that starred Kirk Douglas as a gifted jazz trumpeter reaching for a high note the way the skyscraper reaches for the clouds. Better remembered, though, is An Affair to Remember, in which two lovers, played by Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr, agree to test the endurance of their love by meeting six months hence - at the top of the Empire State Building, of course.
Perhaps, as Sanders suggests, the Chrysler Building's distinctive look made it too much of a scene-stealing risk. Or maybe the fact that it was not illuminated at night for many years tempered its romantic allure.
Whatever the reason, movies almost never exploited its symbolic potential - until, perhaps, the release in 1978 of The Wiz, an all-black, all-New York version of The Wizard of Oz. The director, Sidney Lumet, used not one but five Chrysler Building crowns to evoke the Emerald City at the end of the yellow-brick road. The Manhattan skyline would not have worked, nor would five Empire State Buildings. But five Chrysler Buildings? Perfect.
Getting its own monster
Then, in 1982, Larry Cohen directed Q: The Winged Serpent, in which a flying monster nests at the peak of the Chrysler Building. A cult favorite for some and a waste of time for others, the movie nevertheless tapped into the building's darker mood, reflected best by the gargoyles that coil in sentry at the base of the crown. The Empire State Building has its giant ape; now, at least, the Chrysler Building has its giant serpent.
Cohen once said as much in an interview with the online magazine Cinema Gotham: "I've always thought the Chrysler Building was the most interesting building in the city and that it deserved to have its own monster."
In the years immediately before 9/11, when real horror overtook the fantastic, the Chrysler Building became a frequent cinematic casualty. In 1998 alone, the asteroids of Armageddon lopped off the top of the building, the tidal waves of Deep Impact lapped against its telltale spire and an errant missile intended for the scaly star of Godzilla hit the Art Deco landmark instead. Oops.
If these movies intended the Chrysler Building to serve as a sleek symbol of humankind's hubris - fitting, given the folly of its developer's quest to build the world's tallest building - they were outdone by Steven Spielberg in 2001. Toward the end of his futuristic film A.I.: Artificial Intelligence, aliens guide their craft through the underwater ruins of Manhattan, hooking a right at the Chrysler Building, stilled, beautiful and heartbreaking.
More and more, it seems, the building is finally emerging from the stage shadows of others. Matthew Barney's myth-laden, often alluring art film Cremaster 3 re-imagines the construction of the Chrysler Building as the building of a glittery false idol. In Spider-Man, the hero, played by Tobey Maguire, mourns a beloved relative's murder by perching on one of the Chrysler Building's silvery gargoyles and staring into the starry urban abyss.
And in a forgettable 2002 comedy called Two Weeks Notice, the building shares a long scene with Sandra Bullock and Hugh Grant, who discuss their love for the landmark while flying past it in a helicopter. But their witless banter turns to white noise as their silent co-star steals the film with the easy guile of a Barrymore.