Nothing good comes out of walking into a parking garage in a movie.
Ok, there’s the very rare occasion a parking garage will be used as a setting for some innocuous scene. Maybe a brief conversation between two people as one gets into their car for a brief safe exposition scene. But more often than not, if a character walks through the door and plants their feet on a concrete parking deck – trouble is headed their way.
From what I’ve read, the first multi-story parking garage was built in 1918. But it was by the 1930’s parking garages or parking decks really became a necessity with the increase of automobiles. The need for additional room to park all those four-wheeled boats in already crowded cities became a real issue. What better way to make room for these carbon dioxide-making mobile wonders than to build them their own buildings and stack them as tightly against one another as possible.
Parking garages became sort of twentieth century horse stables.
I recently watched the 1951 film noir The Racket starring Robert Mitchum and Robert Ryan. And low and behold as Mitchum is following some thug where does he end up – the police parking garage and a suspenseful shootout results.
Already films were using this sinister location for tense sequences. Parking garages were perfect settings for crime movies. They represented urban living. These dirty vacuous hardened concrete structures were sinister looking locales and became so common place they were easily identifiable.
They give off both a claustrophobic feeling and a barren one. They’re expansive, yet there’s really not many places to hide. They’re cold, unfriendly looking structures where you wouldn’t want to spend a lot of time in them. They’re just these window-less caverns that you feel compelled to escape from. Even Robocop was struggling to get out when he was ambushed in one!
It’s probably why we never see them used as a setting for a romantic scene. Or at least I can’t remember ever seeing them be used as a backdrop for that. It’s not the first locale that springs to mind where I would see Fred Astaire tapping his feet in or being used as a romantic setting where Rock Hudson kisses Doris Day.
I’m not sure what movie gets the honor of featuring a parking deck first. In 1944’s Double Indemnity the parking attendant became an obstacle for Fred MacMurray to overcome in order for him to create an alibi for murder.
Parking garages were certainly being used by the 1950’s. The nail biting climax in Where the Sidewalk Ends from 1950 starring Dana Andrews takes place in one and not surprisingly there’s a lot of running around and danger. And it might be stretching, but it was an underground garage that was the murderous setting of the St. Valentine’s Day massacre in Some Like It Hot.
From there countless thrillers, horror and action films have utilized the distinctive setting for scenes.
In action movies heroes and villains confront one another in these desolate areas with nothing around them other than rows of parked cars and fluorescent lights.
This allows for plenty of opportunity for jumping over them, breaking windows, smashing heads against them. Jackie Chan was using a New York parking garage as practically a playground in Rumble in the Bronx. There he was trying to get away from a street gang and was bouncing off every car in sight as their alarms would blare.
There’s also enough open space for fists and swords to come out to showcase some stuntwork and have adversaries go toe-toe with each other without any vehicles to get in the way, like in Highlander. You can always choreograph the action to incorporate the columns and cars into the fight. Maybe use them for cover to avoid slicing swords or bullets. The Terminator series seems to often be drawn to parking garages pretty consistently.
James Wan created a tense foot chase in Death Sentence. Kevin Bacon is to running for his life throughout a parking deck from a gang of baddies. Navigating through multiple levels, car alarms blaring and trying desperate to escape, it’s a terrific scene, made even more impressive by it being an extended unbroken shot through most of it.
Then of course a parking garage is an ideal location for a tight, compact car chase. I mean, why not? They’re paved, have lines painted on the ground, there’s a bunch of winding turns and treacherous concrete obstacles you have to avoid. It’s a natural fit!
The list of movie car chases that venture into these enclosed caverns must number in the thousands! It would be a pretty exhausting list to write. Everyone from Steve McQueen to Ryan O’Neal to Sylvester Stallone to James Bond has had fun burning rubber in one. I don’t think you can call yourself an action hero unless you hit top speeds in a parking garage.
These thing are like giant mazes cars have to navigate through. There’s one way in and one way out. They can be tough enough to drive through if you’re just parking your car. Accelerate the speed and put some bad guys in cars after you and you instantly have a potential rousing, edge-of-your-seat exciting scene! There will be plenty of near-misses and close calls as the vehicles traverse these beasts.
Movie heroes have to possess some mighty fine driving skills to not only make it out of a parking garage in one piece, but to also take out their pursuers. With any luck they’ll get them to crash into some columns or parked cars.
Or if they’re really good and to add a spectacular ending to the chase, the good guy manages to get the bad guys to drive off the structure completely, like in The Hunter. It’s hard not to top an ending to chase with a car falling several stories in the middle of a city and going splat!
Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol had super-spy Tom Cruise finding himself in a new-age parking deck jumping from stacks of cars moving on elevated conveyer belts high above the ground. It wasn’t technically a chase, but it did update the plain old concrete immovable sturdy structure of parking garages to more of a giant merry-go-around feel to perform some action in.
If you’re one of those characters who are just using a parking garage for its intended purpose and are attempting to get to your parked car to drive home – you’re still in an awful lot of danger! It’s essentially a death walk in movies.
Thrillers and horror movies have really reinforced that a parking garage is not a good place to be for any reason. If you find yourself standing in one then you’re essentially a targeted victim that some evil character is going to kill.
The 2007 film P2 was set entirely in a parking garage. I know, you might be thinking “Oh it must of been a romantic comedy!”. Sorry to disappoint you. No, it was a nail-biting thriller where for an hour and half our heroine is locked in a dark parking garage with a psycho trying to kill her. Yeah, they decided not to use a library for the location of that story.
There have been so many characters running for their lives and/or meeting their end in parking garages – I don’t think an accurate tally will ever be made. It just keeps happening! Instead of signs of floor numbers they should just install direct phone lines to the police and city morgues for these poor parked sitting ducks!
One of my favorites of these tense parking garage scenes comes in the opening of Death Wish IV: The Crackdown. We see a lovely lady making her way to her car in the most darkened and threatening looking parking garage ever! And guess what – she encounters a bit of an obstacle trying to leave. Thugs come jumping out of the shadows and attack her. Luckily for her pistol-packing Charles Bronson is there to help her out.
The deadly parking garage had become such a tried and true movie device it naturally became ripe for ribbing. The most famous is probably the episode of Seinfeld simply titled ‘Parking Garage’. You know it. The four characters lose their car in a mammoth mall parking garage and for the duration of the episode they wander around in this concrete maze. It’s a funny one and deservedly has become one of the most famous episodes from the series.
One little joke aimed at the deadly parking garage I always liked was from the 1999 comedy Bowfinger. Not to go into detail, but Steve Martin needs footage of a scared and panicked Eddie Murphy for his secret movie he’s making. What better place is there to put someone on edge than a parking garage! He comes up with a very funny way of eliciting that reaction from the nervous Murphy as he makes his way to his car in a parking garage.
But above all the action and suspense, a parking garage will probably be forever most associated with mysterious covert meetings and the trading of threats, information and cloak-and-dagger deals.
This cliché is easily traced back to its memorable appearance in 1976’s All the President’s Men. What better place than reporter Bob Woodward (Robert Redford) to meet up with his nameless government informant Deep Throat (Hal Holbrook). In this shadowy Washington parking garage is where Woodward, who is investigating the Watergate break-in, gets the famed advice to “follow the money”.
The scenes between Woodward and Deep Throat would not have had the same dramatic impact had director Alan Pakula decided it would have been better to change their meetings at a McDonalds.
Since the depiction of those true life events in the film, parking garages gained a real cinematic identity. Ever since, a meet at a parking garage became an ideal place to convey a warning to someone, a place to meet a mysterious informant or conduct a shady deal away from prying eyes.
Parking garages would probably make more money if they market themselves for all these alternative uses rather than just being a place to park your car.
Do you have a favorite parking garage scene?
The start of Death Wish IV: The Crackdown starring Charles Bronson and a shadowy parking garage!