The Scene of the Crime: Parking Garages in the Movies

Categories: Articles

by deborah sorensen

Int. parking garage—George, Kramer, and Elaine

ELAINE: Jerry!
GEORGE: Unbelievable, I’m never gonna get out of here. The guy goes to pee, he never comes back. It’s like a science fiction story.
ELAINE: Maybe he went to one of the other levels. I’ll go look for him.
GEORGE: Oh now you’re gonna go?
ELAINE: I’ll be back in five minutes.
GEORGE: If you go now, I know what’s gonna happen. We’ll find the car, Jerry will show up, and then we’ll never find you.

What made “The Parking Garage” episode of Seinfeld so funny was the complete familiarity of the situation. In most movies or television programs, however, parking garage scenes are rarely so mundane, nor so harmless. Instead, the proliferation of self-park garages at mid-century provided Hollywood with not only a new location to exploit but also a new architectural form in which to explore narrative possibilities.

Downtown Auto Park, Minneapolis, Minnesota,1952.
Photo by Don Berg, courtesy Minnesota Historical Society

As shown in House of Cars: Innovation and the Parking Garage, the parking garage emerged in the 20th century as a unique building type, built for maximum efficiency and only temporary human occupancy. As the number of drivers grew, so did the need to house their vehicles. And as more garages were built, their form was refined according to public tastes and municipal needs. The resulting shift from long-term, attendant-parked automobile storage to hourly self-parking transformed the public garage both physically and socially—and led to a mid-century landscape of open-deck garages within which an anonymous caravan parked each day.
But while new garages may have signaled urban development success to city planners, their visually compelling but geographically generic qualities inspired filmmakers to relocate scenes that might otherwise have taken place in back alleys, shadowy nightclubs, or among the faceless crowds of train stations and hotel lobbies.

By mid-century, the onscreen garage was already proving itself useful as a scenic environment for protection and peril. An early example is Joseph Losey’s 1951, LA-based, remake of Fritz Lang’s M. The film’s grim finale finds a suspected child-killer captured in the heights of the Bradbury Building and carried down into a crowded underground garage—presumably an LAPD motor pool. What follows is a disturbing display of mob justice, in which the garage transforms into a staging ground for the killer’s defense, his attempted escape, and the downfall of more than one—throughout which its impossibly steep ramp alternates between being a stairway to heaven or a slippery slope into hell.
The following year saw the rapid construction and opening of Los Angeles’ underground Pershing Square garage—which had been lobbied for by a mob of a different sort.

“Dig-In,” Los Angeles, California, 1949.
Courtesy Los Angeles Public Library, Herald Examiner Collection.

We’ve since grown accustomed to “gotcha” scenes in parking structures. There is the first utterance of “Book ’em, Danno” on Hawaii Five-O, the Terminator’s use of a cop car to track down Kyle Reese, and Batman’s “Tumbler” being surrounded and stopped (albeit temporarily) on a garage roof. But more often, garages set the stage for criminals’ business, not their capture. In the film series Guys, Guns and Garages, we’ve chosen to highlight what was probably the golden age of garages onscreen—the 1970s—an era ripe with secret meetings, set-ups, and garage showdowns between the bad and the worse-than-bad. After the heyday of open deck garages in the 1950s, deemed essential for “dynamic downtowns,” urban America and its aging infrastructure was struggling by the 1970s. Garages that had once gleamed with promise had become dangerously empty and oftentimes decayed.


Frame image, Hawaii Five-O, “Twenty-Four Karat Kill”
Copyright 1968, CBS Television

For every gritty garage scene in a Death Wish or Dirty Harry movie (Magnum Force having some of the grittiest, “Either you’re for us, or you’re against us”), there are plenty of forgettable scenes to be found in similar films of the era. But there are also plenty of highs—Lee Marvin’s smooth entrance and exit from an apartment’s colorful underground garage in Point Blank (1967), the swank Pablo Ferro title sequence in Bullitt (1968), Ryan O’Neal showing what a real getaway man can do in The Driver (1978), the Marina City plunge in The Hunter (1980), and the stunning chase through the machinery of an automated parking structure in Atlantic City (1980).One of the best uses of a late modern parking structure in this vein can be seen in the original Get Carter (directed by Mike Hodges, 1971), a bleak thriller in which Michael Caine relentlessly hunts down those responsible for his brother’s murder. The fittingly Brutalist, Owen Luder-designed Trinity Square Car Park figured as a setting of misguided aspiration in the form of a rooftop restaurant, as well as a crime scene in which one character is unceremoniously thrown from a stairwell to the ramp below (the architect sighs, “I don’t think I’ll get my fees on this one”).

Frame image, “Bullitt.”
Copyright 1968, Warner Bros

Though fictional, this was a prescient statement, considering that the actual restaurant and much of the garage itself was found to be structurally unsound soon after its completion in 1969. Recently, fans of the film and its infamous location tried to call attention to the threatened status of the “Get Carter Garage.” For the most part, they were unsuccessful; demolition began in January 2009 but continues to face challenges. Perhaps the vengeful Carter’s ghost can’t bear the thought of another supermarket development taking up residence in Gateshead.

Frame image, “Get Carter.”
Copyright 1971, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Not long after Get Carter, Robert Redford, playing Washington Post journalist Bob Woodward, met with anonymous source “Deep Throat” in All the President’s Men (1976). Only two secret meetings take place in the dim garage, but it is remembered first by the most people when asked to name a “parking garage scene” from film or television. Six years later, these iconic scenes were hilariously lampooned on the comedy program SCTV. Eugene Levy and Fred Willard attempt to have a secret meeting in an underground garage (“I’ve seen this in movies, but I never thought that I’d be involved in something this…heavy”). They are increasingly interrupted by people retrieving their cars, and eventually have to yell over the revving engines and squealing tires—a far more likely scenario than the moody garage scenes found in President’s and other 70s-era thrillers.

Frame image, SCTV Network 90, “Indecent Exposure,” 1982

Why parking garages? Films like Get Carter and Atlantic City show the parking garage as a perilous cliff—where incredible views are marred by the threat of great heights. Other films like M, All the President’s Men, and Point Blank, rely on its cave-like qualities—based largely on an illusory sense of privacy and protection. While both cave and cliff are apt psychological comparisons, perhaps the best physical parallel is a forest. Repetitive vertical and horizontal elements provide cover—columns replace trees, low ceilings echo a canopy of leaves, cars take the place of brush and boulders, and shadows trick the eye. The addition of cars and motion to this urban jungle makes for a near perfect film location for secret meetings and illicit activity—all of which lies buried or stacked in the heart of the city, without visual reference points, seemingly outside of time and human activity. You don’t stay in a garage, unless you really want or need to do so. A public space minus the public. So, if a bad guy gets bumped off in a parking garage, and no one is there to see it, did it really ever happen?

Some more recent cop and crime films to add to your parking-garage list would include:
Manhunter (1986)
Robocop (1987)
Gone in 60 Seconds (2000)
The Bourne Identity (2002)
Bad Boys II (2003)
Collateral (2004)
Transporter 2 (2005)
Death Sentence (2007) – see a similar garage chase in Jackie Chan’s Rumble in the Bronx (1955)
State of Play (2009)


This post was created due to the House of Cars: Innovationn and the Parking Garage exhibition