Urban highways facinate as they stand on tall pillars and go right through the city. Such infrastructure play a role in ‘road movies’, such as Taxi Driver, The French Connection, Fantozzi and ‘Violent Rome’.
In this article, I focus on films and such infrastructure in the United States and Italy, with special attention to Rome’s beltway. It is called the Tangenziale Est, the beltway that runs on the eastern side of the city.
RELATED: Check out my list of 24 best Italian films to watch via streaming.
But there are numerous other beltways and ‘elevated’ highways, fly-overs, bridges, but also train viaducts and so on. The image we have of the modern city is shaped precisely by roads crisscrossing spectacularly next to high-rise buildings, and so forth. There is a historical relationship between film and urban landscape.
The elevated road within the city, we’ll see in numerous films, especially from the 1970s. I’ll show you some fragments of road movies of the past fifty years starring precisely the elevated, urban highway.
In this famous film, John Travolta is being challenged at some point by the leader of the Scorpions, ‘Crater-Face’ Leo. This happens at one of America’s most famous movie locations, in other words the Sixth Street Viaduct in Los Angeles. The bridge, actually the bridges (the 4th and 7th streets also have a viaduct) were built in 1932 and served until 2016.
According to Film L.A., the municipal film commission, more than 80 movies, television shows, music videos and commercials were shot on or under the Sixth Street Viaduct each year.
The bridge was demolished in 2016. The construction of a new bridge has experienced lengthy construction delays and millions of dollar cost increases. The work is expected to be completed in 2022.
It’s always reassuring to know that infrastructure often gets out of hand, even abroad.
Gone in 60 seconds
Another famous example of the use of this LA location is ‘Gone in 60 seconds’. Here we see the still young Nicolas Cage as a car thief as he is moving under the viaducts. Even a police helicopter can’t do a thing. Well, car thief… in the movie Cage steals with a group of friends in total 50 super cars.
Taxi Driver (1976)
Let’s go back to the 1970s. This is one of the most iconic films of those years: Martin Scorcese’s Taxi Driver.
We’re in New York and we see De Niro walking towards the camera, towards us. Behind him you can observe a viaduct. That viaduct no longer exists, but it was the famous West Side Elevated Highway also called Miller Highway.
The elevated highway was replaced at the beginning of this century with over 8 kilometers of highway at ground level. Part of the highway is named after Joe Dimaggio.
The French connection (1971)
In The French Connection, we follow Gene Hackman driving his Pontiac under a kind of beltway, actually a miles-long subway viaduct. The scene was shot in Brooklyn, roughly under the West End Line. This is probably the most legendary car chase in movie history.
What you need to pay attention to in this fragment is the sound of the car, the screeching of the tires and Hackman’s honking. Also pay attention to the last scene when Hackman is driving through an obstacle.
Roma Violenta (1975)
We can see some of these same elements in this fragment. We understand that ‘Roma Violenta’ (‘Violent Rome’) is clearly inspired by Hackman and co. The driver is detective Betti or Maurizio Merli, one of the most famous actors of this genre of poliziesco or poliziottesco. He is following some dangerous criminals. We watch Betti driving his Alfa Romeo Giulia Super 1600 in the wrong way in order to get faster to the criminals.
This film is one out of three that features the Eastern Ring Road of Rome (‘Tangenziale Est’). The road is still closed to traffic at the time of filming as it was finished later in 1975. You can also see very well that the substructure is painted freshly in a red colour. You can check out the same red substructure in the next film as well:
In the same year, at the end of March 1975, the first Fantozzi movie was released. Fantozzi has become one of the most famous comic characters since the release of this film (and a couple of sequels). A very known scene takes place at, or should we say on, the Tangenziale. It’s quite funny.
Fantozzi’s apartment stands at the junction between Via Prenestina and Viale Castrense. In July 2021, the municipality of Rome announced the installation of a commemorative plaque in honour of this scene. The plaque will be placed on the section of the ring road where Fantozzi tried to catch the bus to go to the office.
Fantozzi is synonymous with clumsiness, he is submissive (except to his wife and child) and born out of bad luck. We encounter a similar character in the following film, the third film to star the ‘Tangenziale Est’.
Un borghese piccolo piccolo (1977)
The wonderful (black) story revolves around another unfortunate, Giovanni with his son Mario, later killed, and his wife (Shelley Winters), later wheelchair-bound. There is still no drama on the horizon when Giovanni aka Alberto Sordi leaves the house. He opens the front door of the apartment building in Piazzale Prenestino (Pigneto) and gets into his Fiat 600 (‘Gardiniera’).
He is in a good mood, a typical role for Alberto Sordi, and disregards all the traffic rules. A little further on he turns to the right and we see the construction of another part of the Tangenziale ring road.
After this Alberto Sordi film, the Roman beltway passes into film history, without making much noise anymore. In 2013 the successful docu-film ‘Sacro GRA’ was released, but it was about another ring road: the big full-length ring road of Rome (GRA after the acronym). Then two more small productions came out in this millennium starring Rome’s beltway.
Sacro GRA (2013)
This film won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival, no less.
5.35. tangenziale est (2008)
The nice thing about this short film is that it looks like a tribute to the Tangenziale.
Tangenziale Est (2004)
This self-produced film has escaped everyone’s attention.
Road movies follow the destiny of the roads
The Tangenziale Est, the beltway was perhaps fascinating once upon a time, in the early years. Of course, the charm applied only to those who drove through it, not to those who lived right next to it.
The ‘Tangenziale Est’ has already been demolished for 500 meters. In the United States many elevated roads and bridges have been taken out (the Sixth Street Viaduct in LA, the Miller Highway in NY).
With the new form of (green) mobility, such as autonomous vehicles, that awaits us, it is quite unlikely that there will be a need for large beltways, ring roads anymore. Also, the idea of modern cities is more green, less roads, more pedestrians, fewer cars.
The Tangenziale may be out of fashion and have lost his charm, but the word remains in the use of the Italian language:
Come un gatto in Tangenziale (2018)
In 2018, this successful movie was released. The success was such that in 2021 its sequel will come out. Yet the ‘Tangenziale’, the beltway in itself, has no role in this film. It’s only about the title of the film. The title refers to something else, as Paola Cortellesi, the main character, explained in an interview.
‘Come un gatto in tangenziale’ is a reinterpretation of a properly Roman saying ‘Come un gatto sull’Aurelia’. It refers to something that will be short-lived, just as if we were to imagine a (mis)happened feline who has to endure on a freeway.
Then to make the rest of Italy understand it, we replaced Aurelia with tangenziale, since every city has a beltway.
In the end, beltways, elevated highways and so have been just a paragraph in the book of film history, just as these roads are not more than a paragraph in the impressive history of urban planning.
Is it really?
It’s not entirely true that elevated expressways are of a bygone era after all. In Shanghai they recently got a gigantic one finished, as seen in the next James Bond movie:
The end of road movies?
This is, in a nutshell, my story about films where elevated, urban highways play a (leading) role, which I call ‘road movies’ (that is not the same as ‘on the road’). A part of the story I recently delivered to a Roman association of architects.