In Jonathan Lethem’s detective novel “,” from 1999, Lionel Essrog, a private investigator with Tourette’s syndrome, shadows some bad guys from a Zen Buddhist retreat in Manhattan to a Japanese sea-urchin-harvesting operation in Maine. A new film adaptation, written and directed by Edward Norton and set four decades earlier, scraps the unlikely Japonica and has Essrog, played (with some restraint) by Norton, digging into the villainous schemes of a powerful city official named Moses Randolph, who is based on the New York master builder and political titan Robert Moses, with elements of Darth Vader and Strom Thurmond as well.
In the film, Randolph, played (to the hilt) by Alec Baldwin, is the head of the Borough Authority, a fictional variation on the Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority (T.B.T.A.), Robert Moses’s real postwar seat of power. In one scene, a character says, “This town is run by the Borough Authority, and the Borough Authority is Moses Randolph.” He quotes Emerson: “An institution is the lengthened shadow of one man.” This remark is accompanied by a shot of Baldwin emerging from a building into the glare of headlights, his shadow rising monstrously up the façade.
“That was my idea,” Norton said one recent morning. He was standing in front of that same building, the longtime headquarters of the T.B.T.A. (now operating as M.T.A. Bridges and Tunnels), on Randall’s Island. It’s a squat but strangely regal stone stronghold, tucked under the span of the Triborough Bridge that connects Randall’s Island to Harlem. (The Triborough Bridge, now officially called the Robert F. Kennedy Bridge, is essentially three bridges—three spokes, with Randall’s and Wards Islands at the hub.)
In the thirties, Moses moved his base of operations from lower Manhattan to this out-of-the-way location, to consolidate his power and to conceal it, and perhaps to get closer to the source of it: the money from the toll plaza directly upstairs. “So they could bring it right down into the building, without anyone else getting their hands on it,” Norton said. “It was a straight line of cash. The tolling mechanism was supposed to sunset once the bridges were built, but Moses just kept it going. The genius of this was he had access to permanent capital.”
Norton and his director of photography, Dick Pope, had filmed only the T.B.T.A. building’s exterior. Now, escorted by two M.T.A. officials, Norton ducked inside to show why. Past a modest Deco lobby and up a great curving stairwell, he entered a warren of drywall and drab office space. In a conference room, he said, “When a cinematographer like Dick Pope walks into a room like this, he says, ‘Please, for the love of God, don’t make me do it.’ ” Traces of Moses were scarce: an elevator, installed in 1964, when advancing age made it harder for him to use the stairs, and, on a third-floor landing, his old desk, a giant round slab of wood. “In my research, I learned that he often flat-handed surfaces for emphasis—a heavy smack on a desk,” Norton said. He had Baldwin do this in “Motherless Brooklyn.”
体育投注平台For Moses Randolph’s office, the filmmakers chose the panelled grandeur of the library at the New York Academy of Medicine, across the bridge, on Fifth Avenue. It has big arched windows similar to those on the front of the T.B.T.A. building. Continuity! Using computer graphics, the filmmakers filled those windows, onscreen, with a vista of the suspension bridge to Queens, the most majestic of the Triborough’s three spans. Impossible! This view from the T.B.T.A. building does not exist; Moses’s office had, in fact, looked out onto the less picturesque Triborough toll plaza. “We wanted a more cinematic sense of the seat of power,” Norton said. A production designer painted some W.P.A.-like murals to cover the Academy library’s walls of medical books.
Like a lot of movies shot in the city, Norton’s film is an intriguing puzzle of locations and camouflaged anachronisms. The old Penn Station is rendered entirely with computer imagery. For the old toll booth on the Triborough, the filmmakers shot the existing one at Jones Beach, on the Meadowbrook Parkway (a Moses road, as it happens), and grafted it onto a scene staged on the bridge today. The pool where Randolph does laps (as the parks commissioner, Moses, an avid swimmer, had access to all the pools in town, though he preferred private ones or the ocean) is a remarkably unaltered pool in Harlem, but its lavish exterior is actually that of the Asser Levy Recreation Center, on East Twenty-third Street, a legacy of the settlement-house movement, which Moses’s mother had supported and whose ideals Moses himself, with his decimation of entire neighborhoods and his promotion of the automobile, eventually forsook.
Norton’s grandfather James Rouse was a progressive urban planner, whose ideas about cities were in sharp opposition with Moses’s. “My granddad met Moses in the sixties,” Norton said. “He told my uncle that he was the most dangerous man in America.” Norton said this in such a way that the notion seemed both credible and quaint. ♦