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Pittsburgh Plays Brooklyn in ‘A New York Heartbeat’

The throwback gangster flick, set in 1950s New York City, debuts exclusively at Regent Square Theater.


In 2010, an independent film crew somewhat frantically gathered around Pittsburgh to shoot A New York Heartbeat, a throwback gangster flick set in late-’50s Brooklyn. Through the vagaries of film sales and distribution, the finished product is only now seeing the light of day — and the film’s producers were kind enough to tap Pittsburgh as the site for Heartbeat’s world premiere via an exclusive two-week engagement beginning tomorrow at Regent Square Theater.

A gang of wannabe wise guys led by cocky Spider (Escher Holloway) thinks they have a lead on a small-time heist. Upon arrival, they discover a much bigger prize than expected: an impressive mountain of cash. As they shove the bills into a suitcase, they realize they’re in a safe house run by notorious thug Casket Mike (Oscar-nominated character actor Eric Roberts); most of the crew escapes, but Spider and the cash tumble to the street below.

After he finds himself on the losing end of an unrelated scuffle, Spider wakes up in a penthouse apartment under the care of Tamara (Rachel Brosnahan, best known for the Netflix series “House of Cards”). They’re not alone in the apartment, though, and the old man in the next room has a pretty big secret — and an unlikely connection to that pile of money.

Despite the violent world New York Heartbeat inhabits, it’s a bit of a fairy tale. Spider’s crew of hoodlums has more in common with the kids in Stand by Me than big-screen mafiosos; secluded Tamara is closer to Rapunzel than Meadow Soprano. There’s a sweetness and a nostalgia to this story, gritty though it may be. That contrast gives Heartbeat a great deal of its charm.

The rest of the charm comes from the setting — odd, since it’s a New York story filmed in Pittsburgh. During filming, director Tjardus Greidanus told me that Pittsburgh looks more like 1950s Brooklyn than modern Brooklyn does because Pittsburgh’s architecture and character lend an authenticity that newly gentrified Brooklyn doesn’t. I hope audiences around the country buy the substitution. Pittsburghers will undoubtedly recognize locations instantly, including a few Strip District landmarks. Whatever the location, the streets and aging buildings are a character unto themselves.

Alongside Roberts, an underrated legend, and fellow Hollywood vet Jack Donner (instantly recognizable to old-school Star Trek fans) the film’s mostly young cast does fine work. Brosnahan’s stock has risen considerably since filming Heartbeat. Along with “House of Cards,” she had a supporting role in this year’s Beautiful Creatures and tackled a tough role in “Grey’s Anatomy.” Here, she carries the film, giving a world of outsized characters a relatable center of gravity.

There’s a pleasantly breezy flow to Heartbeat’s story that gives it an adventurous feel. The speed with which the gang is swept up into trouble is a remedy to 100 bloated Hollywood setups. The caveat, though: Occasionally, key events are under way before you’re led to expect them. It sort of sneaks up on you. Heartbeat can feel a bit thin as a result, but that may be more due to its somewhat traditional story structure, which stands in sharp contrast to more modern, plot-packed dramas.

While it may not resonate with some audiences, Heartbeat is an enjoyable film full of small delights and fine performances. Locally, it’s also a great reminder that not all the films made in Pittsburgh are Hollywood products. Independent film is alive and well around here, even as the future of Pennsylvania as a filming site is kept in limbo by Harrisburg.

That’s a larger issue than I have space for here, but if you’d like to support local moviemaking this month, buying a ticket for A New York Heartbeat is a great way to do it.

(1035 S. Braddock Ave., Regent Square; July 12-25; click here for showtimes and ticket info)


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