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In 2008, director Michael Mann pushed historical verisimilitude to new heights when he took over the entire Lincoln Park block that houses the Biograph Theatre, now Victory Gardens Biograph Theatre. The Biograph was the cinema that legendary bank robber John Dillinger was leaving in July 1934 when he was gunned down by police, after being set up by his date, Anna Sage, known as the 'woman in red'. Mann was fastidious in his quest for accuracy while making Public Enemies, his Johnny Depp-starring Dillinger biopic. Every shopfront on the block was transformed to look as it did in Dillinger's day; even the smallest item in the shop windows was replaced by its 1930s counterpart. No doubt much to the set designer's chagrin, Mann then proceeded to shoot the assassination scene entirely at night.

The city of the 'L'
Chicago has taken the same approach to public transport as it has to architecture - the higher, the better. The 'L' (for 'elevated') might look like a monorail from a 1950s funfair, but it remains the crucial link in Chicago's infrastructure. The roar of carriages thundering along the tracks that arch above the Loop, the city's financial district, turns a walk around town into a surround-sound experience: the trains rattling above, the growls of the cars at street level, the distant rumble of the subway beneath the sidewalk.

The 'L' trains are resolutely utilitarian, with sheet-metal skins and formica seats - an appropriately gritty means of getting about what is at heart a bluecollar city. It is no surprise that the majority of its appearances on screen have been in thrillers or as a signifier of urban alienation. In The Sting, Robert Redford leaps off the roof of the 43rd Street station to escape the police, while Harrison Ford favours the 'L' as a good place for a punch-up in The Fugitive. John Cusack's existential crisis in High Fidelity is given an edge of metropolitan misery by his journeys on the 'L', staring out of the window, contemplating his chances with Catherine Zeta-Jones.

Chicago certainly has an uneasy relationship with the 'L'. Take a ride on the Brown Line, the secondoldest 'L' route and it's easy to understand why adverts for new suburban housing estates say things like 'living close to the 'L' shouldn't mean a metre away'. The tracks pass so close to the surrounding apartments - like the one belonging to Blues Brother Elwood - that a passenger could reach through a window and switch off a buzzing alarm clock.

But the Brown Line also acts as a fast-track to the core of Chicago. The train slips between the skycrapers like a snake in the grass, before nipping across the river to the Magnificent Mile shopping district. It then rolls onto Wrigleyville, home of the terminally unlucky Chicago Cubs baseball team.

This route makes up the final section of John Candy and Steve Martin's torturous journey in John Hughes's Planes, Trains and Automobiles, a film about two Chicagoans who are desperate to get home in time for Thanksgiving.

Of all the Chicagos that have appeared on the big screen - a Gotham of tall shadows and low lives, the Blues Brothers' town of rhythm and blues, or the glamorous demi-monde of Al Capone - as the train heads towards the crisp silhouette of the Loop, it is Hughes's vision that rings true. This really is a city you'd travel halfway across the world to come home to.

 

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The article ‘Chicago’s celluloid city’ was published in partnership with Lonely Planet Magazine.

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