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From Gangster City to Gotham City: The Changing Image of Chicago in Hollywood Films

From Gangster City to Gotham City: The Changing Image of Chicago in Hollywood Films

Chicago is one of the most photogenic cities in the world. Its sparkling lakefront, dramatic skyline, diverse ethnic neighborhoods, and gritty industrial sites have long captured the attention of locals and visitors alike, including Hollywood movie producers. Here the city often serves as not only a backdrop, but also as a starring role--almost as important as the characters themselves.

For over a century, starting with The Tramp and the Dog (1896), hundreds of movies have been set in Chicago. They contribute to a sense of civic pride, so much so that the City of Chicago Dept. of Cultural Affairs and Special Events (CASE) has even documented them all on its website. Many films were thrillers based on crimes that occurred when the city was under the spell of the Mafia. The Mafia’s string of illegal gambling, prostitution, bootlegging, and murders thrust Chicago into the international spotlight both in real life and in blockbuster Hollywood films such as Little Caesar (1930), The Public Enemy (1931), and Scarface (1932) defining it for decades as the city of gangsters.

Call Northside 777 (1948) was the first Hollywood movie to be filmed on location in Chicago. This film-noir reality-based story focused on a journalist’s attempt to solve the mystery behind the murder of a Chicago police officer, years after two men had been arrested and convicted of the crime. In his search for the true killer, the reporter discovers that these prisoners had been wrongly accused. The film includes shots of Chicago’s Polish neighborhoods, along with back alleys and streetscapes. Other scenes feature the interiors of the Wrigley Building, Merchandise Mart, Holy Trinity Church, the Back of the Yards, along with tenements, apartments, and saloons, much as they were in real life during the immediate aftermath of World War II.

Some of the best-known films later set in Chicago include The Blues Brothers (1980), Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986), The Untouchables (1987), The Fugitive (1993), and The Dark Knight (2008). Many of these blockbusters are spotlighted in Chicago Architecture Center’s popular walking tour, “Lights, Camera, Architecture.”

Our graph, based on information obtained from the Chicago Dept. of Cultural Affairs and Special Events (CASE), illustrates the number of films set in Chicago for over a century, placing these five films in historical context. An initial spike in the early 1900’s preceded another set of spikes in starting in the mid-1980’s, with an all-time high peaking in the late 1990’s, and continuing into the early 2000’s. The city was always a favorite choice as a set for movies, many of which were crime/drama genre.

Image developed by the authors. Source: City of Chicago. http://www.cityofchicago.org/city/en/depts/dca/supp_info/chicago_film_office6.html. Image Courtesy of Kathryn H. Anthony, Fernando Nebot Gómez, and Yashasvini Rao
Image developed by the authors. Source: City of Chicago. http://www.cityofchicago.org/city/en/depts/dca/supp_info/chicago_film_office6.html. Image Courtesy of Kathryn H. Anthony, Fernando Nebot Gómez, and Yashasvini Rao

Our focus here is on how these five films reflect changing images of Chicago from Gangster City to Gotham City across three decades during which the city experienced an urban renaissance. Our analysis reflects upon how the image of Chicago portrayed in cinema relates to the elements of Kevin Lynch’s classic book, The Image of the City. A comparison of Lynch’s typology of landmarks, paths, edges, districts, and nodes in these movies highlights the shifting streetscapes, landmarks and character of Chicago.

Courtesy of Kathryn H. Anthony, Fernando Nebot Gómez, and Yashasvini Rao
Courtesy of Kathryn H. Anthony, Fernando Nebot Gómez, and Yashasvini Rao

Chicago’s image in film shifted somewhat during the 1980’s and beyond, coinciding with the emerging revitalization of its downtown. The Untouchables highlights the city’s infamous mafia history and political corruption. Many movies shot during this time like The Blues Brothers, High Fidelity, Ferris Buller’s Day Off and The Fugitive offered a postcard view of city pre- and post-revitalization. The Blues Brothers features quick moving shots and car chase scenes from the mills in neighboring Gary, Indiana to the 95th Street Bridge, to what was then known as the Circle Interchange just west of downtown. Ferris Buller’s Day Off draws a postcard image of Chicago as a modern global city replete with downtown civic life, Wrigley Field nostalgia and suburban affluence. The image of Chicago as a backdrop kept transforming but the essence of the city remained.

Set Locations

Our five maps highlight some of the central Chicago locations and iconic scenes shown in each of these films.

Map of The Blues Brothers film locations in downtown Chicago. Edited by the authors, base map source: https://i.pinimg.com/originals/8c/1b/51/8c1b5165d4ea0a249f735b812170c92b.jpg. Image Courtesy of Kathryn H. Anthony, Fernando Nebot Gómez, and Yashasvini Rao
Map of The Blues Brothers film locations in downtown Chicago. Edited by the authors, base map source: https://i.pinimg.com/originals/8c/1b/51/8c1b5165d4ea0a249f735b812170c92b.jpg. Image Courtesy of Kathryn H. Anthony, Fernando Nebot Gómez, and Yashasvini Rao
Map of Ferris Bueller’s Day Off film locations in downtown Chicago. Edited by the authors, base map source: https://i.pinimg.com/originals/8c/1b/51/8c1b5165d4ea0a249f735b812170c92b.jpg. Image Courtesy of Kathryn H. Anthony, Fernando Nebot Gómez, and Yashasvini Rao
Map of Ferris Bueller’s Day Off film locations in downtown Chicago. Edited by the authors, base map source: https://i.pinimg.com/originals/8c/1b/51/8c1b5165d4ea0a249f735b812170c92b.jpg. Image Courtesy of Kathryn H. Anthony, Fernando Nebot Gómez, and Yashasvini Rao
Map of The Untouchables film locations in downtown Chicago. Edited by the authors, base map source: https://i.pinimg.com/originals/8c/1b/51/8c1b5165d4ea0a249f735b812170c92b.jpg. Image Courtesy of Kathryn H. Anthony, Fernando Nebot Gómez, and Yashasvini Rao
Map of The Untouchables film locations in downtown Chicago. Edited by the authors, base map source: https://i.pinimg.com/originals/8c/1b/51/8c1b5165d4ea0a249f735b812170c92b.jpg. Image Courtesy of Kathryn H. Anthony, Fernando Nebot Gómez, and Yashasvini Rao
Map of The Fugitive film locations in downtown Chicago. Edited by the authors, base map source: https://i.pinimg.com/originals/8c/1b/51/8c1b5165d4ea0a249f735b812170c92b.jpg. Image Courtesy of Kathryn H. Anthony, Fernando Nebot Gómez, and Yashasvini Rao
Map of The Fugitive film locations in downtown Chicago. Edited by the authors, base map source: https://i.pinimg.com/originals/8c/1b/51/8c1b5165d4ea0a249f735b812170c92b.jpg. Image Courtesy of Kathryn H. Anthony, Fernando Nebot Gómez, and Yashasvini Rao
Map of The Dark Knight film locations in downtown Chicago. Edited by the authors, base map source: https://i.pinimg.com/originals/8c/1b/51/8c1b5165d4ea0a249f735b812170c92b.jpg. Image Courtesy of Kathryn H. Anthony, Fernando Nebot Gómez, and Yashasvini Rao
Map of The Dark Knight film locations in downtown Chicago. Edited by the authors, base map source: https://i.pinimg.com/originals/8c/1b/51/8c1b5165d4ea0a249f735b812170c92b.jpg. Image Courtesy of Kathryn H. Anthony, Fernando Nebot Gómez, and Yashasvini Rao
Composite map of all 5 film locations set in Chicago. Edited by the authors, base map source: https://i.pinimg.com/originals/8c/1b/51/8c1b5165d4ea0a249f735b812170c92b.jpg. Image Courtesy of Kathryn H. Anthony, Fernando Nebot Gómez, and Yashasvini Rao
Composite map of all 5 film locations set in Chicago. Edited by the authors, base map source: https://i.pinimg.com/originals/8c/1b/51/8c1b5165d4ea0a249f735b812170c92b.jpg. Image Courtesy of Kathryn H. Anthony, Fernando Nebot Gómez, and Yashasvini Rao

Our composite map illustrates some of the better-known set locations featured in all five films combined. A large concentration can be found in the central Chicago Loop, mostly within the area framed by Randolph, State, Van Buren and Franklin Streets. Along with the L-tracks, some of the city’s most well-known works of architecture and urban public spaces are found there. Although it must be one of the most challenging parts of the city in which to film, it is also instantly recognizable.

The “L-Tracks”

Whether it’s the Blues Brothers’ car escaping from the police, Batman’s Batmobile chasing after The Joker, or Ferris Bueller’s car driving around, the Chicago L-tracks appear in multiple occasions. The experience driving underneath the tracks literally reflects the experience of being undercover where cars are masked by noise and partially obscured from view. According to Kevin Lynch’s typology, the L-tracks simultaneously serve as a path, an edge separating one district from another, and a landmark. The area within the L tracks defines a district representing the central Chicago Loop.

Courtesy of Kathryn H. Anthony, Fernando Nebot Gómez, and Yashasvini Rao
Courtesy of Kathryn H. Anthony, Fernando Nebot Gómez, and Yashasvini Rao

Back alleys

Although the city has evolved from that Gangster City image from the past, it can’t really shake off this gangster vibe. Back alleys are used throughout The Untouchables, The Blues Brothers and many other films. Whether in a comedic or a dramatic setting, some still reek of that dark mobster ambience, a place where dangerous undercover business takes place, a hideout for those escaping from justice. Back alleys often serve as turning points for the movie plot. From Lynch’s perspective, back alleys can be best viewed as nodes and edges. As nodes they represent settings where activities converge, and as edges they serve as the symbolic limits between the lawful society and the “other society” run by mobs.

Courtesy of Kathryn H. Anthony, Fernando Nebot Gómez, and Yashasvini Rao
Courtesy of Kathryn H. Anthony, Fernando Nebot Gómez, and Yashasvini Rao

Daley Plaza

The Richard J. Daley Center and Plaza, named after Chicago’s longtime (1955-1976) Mayor Richard J. Daley, is the premier civic center of Chicago. Located on the corner of Randolph and Washington and adjacent to City Hall, the Plaza is considered one of Chicago’s architectural highlights and makes at least a cameo appearance in many films. Completed in 1965 at a height of 648 feet (nearly 200 meters), Daley Center, designed by architect Jacques Brownson of C. F. Murphy Associates; Loebl, Schlossman & Bennett; and Skidmore, Owings & Merrill is one of the city’s most iconic examples of Mid-Century Modern architecture in the International Style. The five-story tall statue designed by Pablo Picasso, which has dominated the plaza since its installation in 1967, is one of several large public art projects by world-renown artists scattered throughout the Chicago Loop.

In the vicinity of Daley Plaza, Harrison Ford tries to escape from his persecutors in The Fugitive, Matthew Broderick as Ferris Bueller interrupts a parade by jumping atop a float and leading the crowd singing The Beatles’ “Twist and Shout,” and the Blues Brothers and their Bluesmobile blaze through at record speed, leaving a trail of demolished police cars in their wake. According to Kevin Lynch’s typology, the plaza and its soaring Picasso statue act as one of the city’s most recognizable landmarks and nodes that instantly convey Chicago. 

Courtesy of Kathryn H. Anthony, Fernando Nebot Gómez, and Yashasvini Rao
Courtesy of Kathryn H. Anthony, Fernando Nebot Gómez, and Yashasvini Rao

The Chicago River and its bridges

The Chicago River and its bridges, shown from different vantage points, make cameo Hollywood appearances. Over 175 bridges span the Chicago River. Within the city limits, 52 of these bridges are moveable and 43 are still operable. Among the most well-traveled bridges and those that are most likely to appear in film are Michigan Avenue, State Street, Wells Street, and Wabash Avenue. According to Lynch, the river serves as a clear edge, separating itself from surrounding districts and forming the geographical barriers of The Loop. It also serves as a path where riverboats and water taxis travel. Wacker Drive, which borders the Chicago River on its south, forms a strong edge to the northern part of the Loop. The river and its bridges also serve as identifiable landmarks and symbols of the city.

Courtesy of Kathryn H. Anthony, Fernando Nebot Gómez, and Yashasvini Rao
Courtesy of Kathryn H. Anthony, Fernando Nebot Gómez, and Yashasvini Rao

Parades

The city of Chicago is famous for its many parades and celebrations, including the St. Patrick’s Day Parade when the Chicago River is dyed a bright green. Parades play an important role in The Fugitive, and they offer one of the most entertaining scenes in Ferris Buller’s Day Off. They show yet another face of Chicago, reflecting a strong social and community spirit pictured amidst urban architecture. When depicted in movies, parade scenes capture the street corridors of the Chicago Loop framed by high rise buildings along each side, and a perspective usually ending in an iconic building, such as the Chicago Board of Trade in The Dark Knight.

As parades are not a permanent part of the urban fabric, they do not meet the strict definition of Lynch’s typology. Nonetheless, when they do occur, parades serve as nodes of human activity, stretching from one urban landmark to another, on a highly visible path where crowds gather. Throughout their duration, they transform paths from vehicular to pedestrian use, changing the feel of the city in a significant, memorable way. Musicians alter the soundscape of the city from the roaring noise of cars and busses to more pleasant sounds of familiar marches and songs. 

Wrigley Field

Wrigley Field, home of the Chicago Cubs’ baseball team, has made its way into many films. Completed in 1914, it is the nation’s second-oldest ballpark. Wrigley Field has a brief cameo appearance in the The Blues Brothers. In this film, the main character lists 1060 W. Addison as his fake home address on his Illinois driver’s license, tricking the police and later the Nazis listening on police radio into heading for Wrigley Field. The ballpark was featured in a scene in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, where the outside marquee read “Save Ferris”. According to Lynch’s typology, Wrigley Field serves as a popular node and one of the city’s most notable landmarks.

Courtesy of Kathryn H. Anthony, Fernando Nebot Gómez, and Yashasvini Rao
Courtesy of Kathryn H. Anthony, Fernando Nebot Gómez, and Yashasvini Rao

Union Station and Willis Tower

On the west side of the Chicago River just outside the Loop, Union Station has been featured in Brian de Palma’s The Untouchables in what has become one of the most iconic scenes in the history of cinema, as well as in Zack Snyder’s The Man of Steel (2013) and Michael Mann’s Public Enemies (2009), amongst others. The city’s tallest high-rise building, Willis Tower, (the former Sear Tower) has appeared in numerous films, both in exterior shots (High Fidelity, The Fugitive) and also in interior shots such as the scene from atop the sky-high observation deck (Ferris Bueller’s Day Off). Both the train station and the city’s tallest building represent Lynch’s urban landmarks that symbolize the city.

Conclusions

Cinema has played a significant role in continuing to define Chicago as a mobster city. The city’s storied history as capital of the early 20th century gangster world and home of its infamous leader, Al Capone, cannot be erased. Early depictions of Chicago in film were almost always as backdrops to mobster crimes, the city becoming thus another character in the plot. In the world of cinema, this stereotype of Chicago began then and remains, to a large extent, to this day.

After the Second World War Chicago re-emerged as a more global city welcoming many different cultures, a trend reflected in its depiction in film. The number of movies filmed in Chicago rose exponentially, and new genres came with it: dramas, romantic comedies, sci-fi, fantasy, action, and even superhero movies. Even today, The Blues Brothers, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, The Untouchables, The Fugitive, and The Dark Knight remain among the most well-known blockbusters set in the Windy City. Together they gave new layers to the image of Chicago as a modern, cosmopolitan city that, even while firmly rooted in, grew beyond the gangster city of the past.

About the authors:

Kathryn H. Anthony, Ph.D., is ACSA Distinguished Professor at the School of Architecture, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign where she teaches a graduate seminar on architecture, cinema, environment and behavior.  Her two co-authors are course alumni.

Fernando Nebot Gómez studied at the Universidad Politécnica de Valencia, Spain,  where he received both a Bachelor’s and a Master’s degree in Architecture, including a one-year exchange program at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He is currently working as an architect in Vienna, Austria.

Yashasvini Rao is an Architectural Designer currently working in Chicago, Illinois. She received a Bachelor’s degree in Architecture from the University of Mumbai, India and a Master’s degree in Architecture from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

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Cite: Kathryn H. Anthony, Fernando Nebot Gómez, Yashasvini Rao. "From Gangster City to Gotham City: The Changing Image of Chicago in Hollywood Films" 08 Feb 2020. ArchDaily. Accessed . <https://www.archdaily.com/930654/from-gangster-city-to-gotham-city-the-changing-image-of-chicago-in-hollywood-films/> ISSN 0719-8884

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