Sewers in Cinema

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I was prepping for an upcoming lecture on urban water systems that was sure to benefit from some lively video interventions. Cinema scenes related to sewers soon bubbled to the surface. Sewers have been a fantastic backdrop for dramatic cinema for decades. Many very memorable movie scenes take place in sewers. Sewers today rarely capture our consciousness as important components of improving daily life or as entities that provide critical services. In the previous century, sewage disposal may have been much closer on the minds of citizens daily as they faced a barrage of sights, sounds, and smells associated with waste. But in industrialized countries today, design and engineering has, quite thankfully, relegated such infrastructure underground or in walls, away from our view.

Perhaps because of this unseemliness, this relegation, sewers become a magnificent movie backdrop. They are not the place for everyday conversations (except perhaps for Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles), but great drama and action scenes are numerous. Car chases, ancient discoveries, getaways- such scenes are well-suited to the underbelly of urban infrastructure. Moreover, urban sewers offer a quickly changing backdrop with varying pipes, dark corners, flowing action (water), and the constant opportunity to “pop out” somewhere else.

A small list of memorable scenes, both contemporary and historical, includes:

1) The Third Man (1949)

Perhaps the greatest of all sewer cameos, in the final climatic scene, black market bootlegger Harry Lime (Orson Welles) is chased through the post-WWII Vienna sewers in trying to escape his close friend Holly Martins (Joseph Cottens) and police authorities. Ranked by some as one of the greatest films of all time, the final chase scene was innovative in its use of shadows and contrast, all of which were enhanced in the dingy sewers where pointed light rays burst from small and large tunnels

2) The Italian Job (1969 and 2003)

The original The Italian Job included one of the greatest car chase scenes ever, including a small cameo of a sewer. The 2003 remake with Mark Wahlberg, Charlize Theron, and Donald Sutherland featured a more prominent role for the LA drainage system, more specifically a stormwater pipe. Also highlighted was the concreted L.A. River, which has allowed Mini Coopers, motorcycles (Terminator 2), and other vehicles to drive down its impervious surfaces for decades.

3) Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989)

Who can forget the descent into descent into the sewers (or catacombs) beneath the Venice Library by Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford). Rats, dead bodies, tombs, treasures, and gasoline. That was certainly how I spent my time in Venice.

Other laudable mentions include Die Hard 3 (With a Vengence) and Ghostbusters 2. Plenty of other movies involve sewers, especially B-movies dominated by horror and gore. Now, I am not trying to compile a complete list here; I will leave that to movie buffs with more knowledge then myself. But, a few You Tube videos in a presentation always helps to spice things up, and more practically present the difference between separate and combined sewers.

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