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Monday October 26th 2020

Men In Black | 1997

Men In Black location: Flushing Meadow, Queens
Men In Black location: The alien landing site: New York State Pavilion Observation Towers, Flushing Meadows, Queens

Barry Sonnenfeld’s film adaptation of the comic strip introduced a mass audience to the highly secretive organisation dedicated to keeping the Earth safe from the scum of the universe. Its HQ at ‘504 Battery Drive’ turns out to be beneath the Holland Tunnel Ventilator Shaft on Battery Place on the northern edge of Battery Park, at the southern tip of Manhattan, and is operated as a kind of intergalactic ‘Rick’s Bar’ for displaced aliens.

Men In Black location: Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel Ventilator Building, Battery Park, New York
Men In Black location: The entrance to the Men In Black HQ: Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel Ventilator Building, Battery Park, New York

NYPD officer James Edwards (Will Smith) is chasing what is to all appearances a run-of-the mill felon along the raised section of Park Avenue crossing East 42nd Street just south of Grand Central Terminal.

He leaps down onto a convenient open-topped tour bus, catching up with his oddly speedy quarry on Fifth Avenue alongside Central Park.

Men In Black location: Guggenheim Museum, Fifth Avenue, New York
Men In Black location: chasing the alien: Guggenheim Museum, Fifth Avenue, New York

Events begin to take a weird turn when the suspect scuttles up the side of the Guggenheim Museum, 1071 Fifth Avenue at East 89th Street. The famous modern art museum was previously featured in Sydney Pollack's excellent 1975 paranoia thriller Three Days Of The Condor.

Edwards opts for the easier option, running up the interior spiral ramp of Frank Lloyd Wright’s groundbreaking circular art gallery to the roof, where he’s in for an even bigger surprise.

Just as Edwards is having a hard time convincing his superiors of the subsequent events, up pops a mysterious government agent (Tommy Lee Jones) who takes his account very seriously indeed.

Men In Black film location: Orchard Street, Lower East Side, New York
Men In Black location: the pawnbroker shop: Orchard Street, Lower East Side, New York | Photograph: Google Maps

The shabby little pawnbrokers, run by Jeebs – a man (Tony Shalhoub) capable of regenerating his own head – where Edwards is asked to identify from a clandestine cache of alien arms the weapon he briefly glimpsed, is now fashion outlet Scotch and Soda, 90 Orchard Street on the corner of Broome Street, on the Lower East Side.

This photogenic building seems to be a screen favourite – it’s the same premises that was elaborately transformed into Little Italy’s ‘Umberto’s Clam House’ for Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman.

Spotting potential in the young cop, Agent Kay offers Edwards the chance of a job as they sit on the bench in front of the low, circular wall of Castle Clinton in Battery Park.

Castle Clinton is nothing to do with ex-President Bill, of course. Previously called Castle Garden, it was built in 1811 as the first US immigration station, predating Ellis Island. Through it, more than 8 million people entered the USA between 1855 to 1890. It’s now run by the National Park Service and is open to visitors.

Edwards accepts the job, surrendering his identity to become the anonymous Agent Jay, only to be thrown straight into the deep end as Earth faces a crisis triggered by the arrival of a malign extraterrestrial bug, disguised in human form as ‘Edgar’ (Vincent D'Onofrio).

Men In Black location: 54 MacDougal Street, Greenwich Village, New York
Men In Black location: The jeweller's store: 54 MacDougal Street (since demolished), Greenwich Village, New York

Having already arrived in New York, Edgar is showing a keen interest in ‘Rosenberg Fine Jewelry’, an unassuming little shop in Greenwich Village run by a seemingly benign old man.

The store was A Question of Time, a watch and jewelry store which stood at 54 MacDougal Street. In 2018, the building was replaced with a condo.

Edgar follows Rosenberg, and his beloved cat, to a restaurant where he meets a tall, striking man who who’ve already seen in the MIB HQ as an Arquillian. Edgar, posing as a waiter, kills both of them.

Men In Black film location: Gansevoort Street, Meatpacking District, New York
Men In Black location: Rosenberg is killed in the restaurant: Gansevoort Street, Meatpacking District, New York | Photograph: Google Maps

This was the (real) R&L Restaurant, 69 Gansevoort Street in the Meatpacking District. The 1938 diner was transformed in the mid-Eighties into Florent, one of those crazy late-night low-life / high-life cafes beloved of New Yorkers. Florent closed in 2008 and the premises now houses a branch of Madewell fashion outlets, though fortunately the historic aluminium ‘R&L Restaurant’ sign has been retained.

Jay and Kay have meanwhile been sidetracked by an alien known as Redgick who’s strayed beyond the limits of Manhattan imposed by the agency. The ‘New Jersey Turnpike’, where Kay questions Redgick as Jay assists with the birth of a cuddly baby squid, is Freedom Way, running through Liberty State Park in Jersey City, New Jersey, across the Hudson River from Manhattan’s southern tip.

Redgick has got word of impending calamity and, like many of his fellow aliens, is preparing to flee.

For “the best investigative journalism on the planet”, Kay consults the supermarket tabloids from the newspaper kiosk (still there, though modernised) which stands on the south side of Wall Street opposite the Wall Street Subway Station entrance at the corner of William Street.

This smart move alerts them to Edgar, while news of the mysterious restaurant deaths sends them to the ’Office of the Chief Medical Examiner’ to inspect the bodies in the morgue. The office exterior is the Veterans Corps 69th Regiment Armory, 68 Lexington Avenue, though not the imposing frontage on Lexington but an anonymous side entrance around the corner on East 26th Street. The Armory has featured on screen before – it was where Max (Joe Anderson) was drafted into the army during the I Want You number of Julie Taymor’s 2007 Beatles-themed fantasia, Across The Universe.

It's here the agents meet pathologist Laurel (Linda Fiorentino), whose professional expertise is being challenged by some very unusual anatomy.

Men In Black film location: Franklin Place, Tribeca, New York
Men In Black location: Edgar goes crazy in the van: Franklin Place, Tribeca, New York | Photograph: Google Maps

Edgar is parked up in his truck in Tribeca, on the narrow passageway of Franklin Place at Franklin Street, frustrated that the little package he took from Rosenberg contains not the precious artifact for which he’s searching, but merely diamonds.

Returning to, and ransacking, the jewelry shop, Edgar is almost caught by the MIB agents but manages to make his escape in a tow truck, but at the cost of leaving behind the bug exterminator van in which his compact space craft is stored.

It’s on MacDougal Street at Prince Street that Jay discharges his tiny but effective weapon during the mayhem, and another crowd of onlookers need to be neuralyzed.

Men In Black film location: Orchard Street, Lower East Side, New York
Men In Black location: Frank the Pug at the locksmith: Orchard Street, Lower East Side, New York | Photograph: Google Maps

Kay gets crucial information about the object of mission from Frank the pug at a tiny locksmith kiosk. Although the frontages have since been redeveloped, you can still make out the narrow gap between 94 and 92 Orchard Street on the Lower East Side, which happens to be only a couple of doors away from Jeebs’ ‘pawnbroker’ location.

Raiding the morgue, Edgar finally gets his hands on the prize, which is a whole galaxy (albeit a very small one) but, having lost his escape craft, needs to find an alternative way to take leave of the planet.

This is where the film pulls its imaginative masterstroke as Jay realises that the 1964 New York World’s Fair in Queens was a cover for the building of an alien landing site and what for decades have been dismissed merely as Observation Towers are supports for alien craft hidden in plain sight.

An urgent drive through the Queens-Midtown Tunnel turns into a white-knuckle ride as the ‘little red button’ flips over K’s Ford to avoid traffic by roaring along the tunnel’s roof.

And so it’s to Flushing Meadows-Corona Park in Queens for the final act (though the site was recreated in the studio in Hollywood for some sequences).

Once a city dumping site, Flushing Meadows was developed for the 1939 World’s Fair and remained a park until being revisited for the big bash of 1964.

The remnants of what was the New York State Pavilion are pretty much all that remain to be seen today – the circular skeleton of the Tent of Tomorrow alongside those two saucer-topped Observation Towers.

Men In Black location: Unisphere, Flushing Meadows, Queens
Men In Black location: destroyed by Edgar's downed craft: Unisphere, Flushing Meadows, Queens

Next to them stands the still spectacular Unisphere, claimed to be, at 120-feet in diameter, the world’s largest globe. Encircled by three satellite orbits, it hovers over a reflecting pool and a ring of fountains.

After a brief flight over the nearby Shea Stadium, Edgar’s craft is shot down, crashing into and destroying the Unisphere.

In an odd twist of fate, Shea Stadium was demolished in 2009 but the Unisphere has survived and been given a $3 million makeover – including the restoration of those wonderful fountains. It remains a a striking attraction and rewards the visit out to Mets-Willet Point station on the IRT Flushing Line.