Rooftop Spectacular!

The Conflicted Film Snob is getting a new roof today.


That’s the good news. The bad new (in addition to the financial outlay) is that the noise is unbelievably distracting, as if a half-dozen man-sized woodpeckers were trying to breach the worn shingles in order to pluck me from my chair and eat me as a snack.

Anyway, to honor the roof that has kept me, the missus and, later, our kids, dry for these last 18 years (and is now raining past the windows, unceremoniously shoveled to the ground from 30 feet) and to celebrate its sturdy, guaranteed-for-50-years replacement, let’s look at some movies that feature scenes in which rooftops play an integral part.

The Seventh Cross (1944, dir. Fred Zinnemann)

A shout-out to The Conflicted Film Snob’s father who, back in the day (i.e., the days of VHS) basically made me watch this flick, which was a personal favorite of his. As with all things in life, he was right; it’s a 582604965fine movie, a very early effort from director Fred Zinnemann who went on to helm High Noon, From Here to Eternity, Oklahoma!, A Man for All Seasons, The Day of the Jackel and Julia. Based on the 1942 novel of the same name by Anna Seghers, the film, which came out as WWII still raged, tells the story of seven escapees–a writer, a circus performer, a schoolmaster, a farmer, a Jewish grocery clerk, and two political activists–from a concentration camp in 1936 Germany. (All are German nationals, victims of the Nazi purge of undesirables, activists and general troublemakers.) The irate camp commandant, vowing to re-capture them all, has seven crosses erected in the camp yard and vows to put an escapee on each, a promise he delivers on except for our hero, George Heisler (Spencer Tracy) who continues to evade the goose-stepping authorities. Specific to this post, at one point in the proceedings Heisler witnesses the pursuit of the aforementioned circus performer, who, being an acrobat, has ascended to the rooftops to evade capture. 


Sadly, it’s not to be. After an exhausting chase above the city, he finds himself cornered. In a last act of defiance, he moves to the edge of a building and, as if performing at the circus, executes a graceful leap to his death. Here’s the trailer, which, as with most old-time trailers, are hilariously entertaining in all the wrong ways:

Vertigo (1958, dir. Alfred Hitchcock)

What can one say that hasn’t already been said? The film’s a classic right from it’s very first shot: a hand reaching up to grip the rung of a ladder. And so we’re off, in medias res, as detective John “Scottie” Ferguson (Jimmy Stewart) and a beat cop give chase to the owner of the aforementioned hand across the rooftops of San Francisco. But when Scottie lands a bit short in his leap from one roof to another? Trouble:

Where Eagles Dare (1968, dir. Brian G. Hutton)

For some reason my local PBS affiliate (WTTW11-Chicago) used to show this action classic annually around Christmas. Exactly why remains a mystery. Maybe the programmer felt that nothing said Christmas more than Richard Burton and Clint Eastwood kicking Nazi ass. Or maybe he/she felt the film’s snowy alpine setting evoked the holidays. Or maybe he/she had a thing for Bavarian Christkindlmarkets. Whatever the reason, I can’t believe this film hasn’t been remade. Utilizing today’s digital technology, the film’s vertiginous mountain settings and set pieces could really be something to behold. (See 2015’s Everest for proof.) Watching this 1968 film today, however, one has to suspend a certain amount of disbelief when faced with actors performing in front of rear-projection, like this scene taking place on the roof of a cable car. That said, despite certain technical shortcomings, the movie’s still a corker.

The Parallax View (1974, dir. Alan J. Pakula)

In this fine political thriller starring Warren Beatty, the paranoid conspiracy theory floodgates open wide right from the get-go when, in the very first scene, a senator running for president is assassination in the restaurant atop Seattle’s Space Needle. Of the two assassins, one slips out unnoticed while the other climbs to the roof, pursued by Secret Service agents.  Dumb idea. One can only imagine what happens next:

The Godfather, Part II (1974, dir. Francis Ford Coppola)

I don’t think it’s going out on a limb to say that the scenes in this film taking place in early 20th century New York City and revolving around young Vito Corleone’s (Robert DeNiro) ascension to power, are among the finest ever recorded on celluloid. For those not familiar with the story (and you call yourself a film lover?), Vito, now a young man with a wife and baby son, suddenly finds himself without a job at the local grocery. It seems the local mafioso extortionist, Don Fanucci, has pressured the owner into giving the job away to Fanucci’s ne’er-do-well nephew. Later, as Vito becomes something of a successful businessman himself (read: criminal), the nefarious Fanucci pressures him for protection payments. Vito’s partners Clemenza and Tessio don’t want trouble and agree to pay in full. Vito has other ideas, telling his partners he thinks he can get Fanucci to accept less by making him “an offer he don’t refuse.” Vito then tails Fanucci from atop the neighborhood’s rooftops during the Feast of Saint Rocco, finally descending to Fanucci’s apartment to shoot him dead, an eight-minute sequence filled with near-unbearable tension and some of film’s most indelible imagery:

In the Line of Fire (1993, dir. Wolfgang Petersen)

While it’s unlikely that Wolfgang Petersen will ever top Das Boot, his 1981 magnum opus about a German sub in WWII, he fared pretty well in this solid thriller involving an unhinged CIA operative Mitch Leary (John Malkovich) attempting to assassinate the President. The only person standing in his way? Clint Eastwood, of course, as Secret Service agent Frank Horrigan. Tense phone exchanges jumpstart their adversarial relationship, one of which results in the best line Eastwood has ever delivered: “You have a rendezvous with my ass, motherfucker!” Tense action scenes also break out, one of which takes place atop the rooftops of Washington DC. It’s a fine scene and obviously plays homage to Hitchcock’s Vertigo. Alas, the clip below only shows the tail end. Despite this, the scene really gives you a feel for the deadly rational nuttiness of Leary as played by Malkovich, who received a Best Supporting Actor nomination. (In the end, Tommy Lee Jones, as Sam Gerard in The Fugitive, took home the award, but Malkovich was just as good.)

For the true film nerd, here’s an interesting short on how the scene was storyboarded:

The Bourne Ultimatum (2007, dir. Paul Greengrass)

We owe director Paul Greengrass our cinematic loyalty for innumerable reasons, some of which I’ll dare enumerate right now:

  • Taking the reins of the Bourne franchise from Doug Liman, he ably proceeded to make the series his own in terms of moral complexity and, on a more technical level, unique visual and editing styles that, despite being chaotic, leave the viewer fully aware of what’s happening to whom at any moment. In other words, what looks like a mess still makes total sense.
  • With his successful oversight of the Bourne franchise, he assured Matt Damon’s continued and rightful ascendency as one of our more reliable and versatile leading men.
  • With his successful oversight of the Bourne franchise, he proved to the producers of the James Bond reboot (Casino Royale, 2006) that Bond desperately needed to enter the 21st century. Audiences no longer cared for lame, innuendo-filled bon mots delivered by middle aged actors who looked like they’d get their asses whooped by a teenager. Rather, they wanted–and the Broccolis delivered with Daniel Craig–a Bond who’s physical, gritty, a bit sociopathic and downright dangerous.
  • He brought us this final scene from Captain Phillips (2013), easily one of Tom Hank’s finest moments:

  • He brought us Bloody Sunday (2002), his chaotic look at the January 30, 1972, shootings of 26 unarmed Irish civilians by British soldiers during a protest march in Derry, Northern Ireland.
  • He brought us this hilarious line from Green Zone (2010), delivered to perfection by his go-to guy, Mr. Damon:

  • And, finally, he impeccably directed the mother of all rooftop chases, this in The Bourne Ultimatum, one in which Bourne, attempting to prevent the murder of handler Nicky Parsons, evades police and all manner of obstacles on the rooftops (and later apartments) of Tangier before leaping over a chasm and through a window to kick all sorts of righteous ass with, among other things, hands, feet, fists, head, elbows, a hand towel and, best of all, a hardcover book. Unfortunately, the following clip doesn’t show much of the rooftop portion of the chase. But you definitely get all the apartment parkour and hardcover beatings you can handle!

Bonus! For those who dig Jimmy Kimmel and know about his ongoing gag with Damon (Kimmel keeps bumping Damon from his scheduled appearances on the show), you’ll no doubt enjoy this clip starring Guillermo as “Jason Bourne Identity”:

Quantum of Solace (2008, dir. Marc Foster)

Easily the weakest of the Daniel Craig Bonds but never less than watchable. One should look at this film as the second half of Casino Royale rather than a stand-alone and then maybe you’ll like it more. Anyway, early in the film Bond engages in a very kinetic rooftop chase with M’s (Judi Dench) bodyguard, who, judging by they fact that he’s just shot her in the arm and has tried to kill Bond, appears to be bent. Siena makes a very picturesque setting for the scene, although I cringe at the thought of the production’s clay roofing tile replacement budget. I also cringe at that poor old woman getting her groceries knocked to the ground, although I suppose it’s better than her getting shot or punched or thrown down the stairs after her basket. All in all a very solid action scene:

The Other Guys (2010, dir. Adam McKay)

Is it just me or is this movie frigging hilarious? I swear, Will Farrell could make me laugh reading minutes from a Federal Reserve meeting. And then we’ve got those cameos by The Rock and Sam Jackson, the pair playing legendary NYC cops who will go to extremes to apprehend bad guys, even if it means millions in collateral damage to take down someone carrying a single joint. Until they “aim for the bushes,” of course:

Skyfall (2012, dir. Sam Mendes)

The Bond series since Craig took over the role has something of a fetish for action scene taking place at vertiginous heights. Think the terrific parkour chase atop the crane in Casino Royale. Or the aforementioned Quantum of Solace chase in Siena. And don’t forget his walk across the rooftops of Mexico City in Spectre.

So let’s finish with one more in the overhead tradition, the motorcycle chase across the rooftops of Istanbul:

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