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Whether portraying a criminal underworld or a high–school utopia, Chicago always looks right at home on the silver screen.

The city of the Dark Knight
The man in black is stood way up, on the ledge of the 90th floor of America's tallest building. His cape swirls in the wind that screams around the tower and he looks grimly down upon the city. The lights of the skyscrapers below glow like burning cigarette ends through the murk of twilight. The man knows that the darkness brings to the surface the detritus of this city - the criminal, the psychotic. And only he can stop them. He takes a breath and hurls himself off the building, swooping deep into the gloaming until he disappears from view. The man is Batman, and the city is Gotham - home of the American nightmare.

Of course, the people who actually live here don't see it quite like that. The Gotham of Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight is actually Chicago, and for the residents of the Windy City, having their city chosen to depict urban dystopia is just another thing to be proud of. Up at the viewing platform of the Willis (formerly Sears) Tower, the staff are used to movie stars wandering around. This was where Nolan decided Christian Bale's Batman should survey the city before making his stomach-churning leap. And the 442-metre-high tower has continued to be put to good cinematic use.

'A few months ago, some scenes for the new Transformers movie were filmed here,' says Dave Lacki, a Willis Tower guide. 'They had guys jumping off the roof and gliding down to that car park there.' He points at what from this distance looks like a tiny square on a piece of graph paper. 'They dropped down outside this window. It was pretty special.'

Chicago's skyline certainly makes for a terrific establishing shot. This city is the home of the skyscraper. The first in the world, the Home Insurance Building, was built in 1885 on South LaSalle Street. Ever since, Chicago has been a laboratory for architectural experimentation, a celebration of engineering ingenuity and the joys of building something really, really tall. In 1974, Chicago sealed its reputation with the completion of the Sears Tower, then the world's biggest building.

The cityscape today is a sheet of steel stalagmites, scored with the trails of highway lights curving around the rim of Lake Michigan. Like New York, this is a classic American metropolitan landscape, testifying to the relentless march of money and modernism that built this nation. But unlike the instantly recognisable New York, there's something intangible about Chicago. It looks familiar and yet hard to place - a city that's on the tip of your tongue, remaining just out of reach.

That's why it's such a popular choice as a movie location, according to Maria Roxas, a location manager on Batman Begins. 'Zoom out, and people know it's Chicago,' she says. 'Zoom in, and it could be any big city. Chicago is a city of different levels - the tallest building in the US, street level, and underground roads.' She's referring to Lower Wacker Drive, the subterranean haulage network which staged car chases in both of Nolan's Batman films.

The city of rhythm and blues
The prominence of Chicago as a film set is a relatively recent development. Mayor Richard J Daley, who was in office from 1955 to 1976, was adamant that Hollywood should not be allowed to invade the city. He feared that film makers would focus solely on the grubbier aspects of Chicago's history - guns, gangs and gangsters. So it was not until Jane M Byrne took over the mayoralty in 1979 that Chicago began to offer up its streets to the big screen - starting with The Blues Brothers.

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