In the 1930s, Reno became world-famous thanks to celluloid images of the Silver State flashing across the silver screen.
Hollywood documented the changing face of Northern Nevada, from our vast sagebrush ocean to the Reno craps tables of yesteryear. The movies’ plots often centered on Nevada’s divorce industry, gambling, heists or adventures in the high desert. Hollywood legends and countless extras tread the paths Reno residents walk today. The films are a time machine traveling to our city’s past.
We live on location.
Robin Holabird, a Reno author who was a Nevada film commissioner for 21 years, has studied our celluloid landscape. She also hosts a video tour of Reno movie locations on the Historic Reno Preservation Society web page. In the introduction to her book Elvis, Marilyn, and the Space Aliens, Holabird explained why filmmakers and the nation’s moviegoers are drawn to the Silver State, and why that’s a good deal for Nevadans.
“(The) way that movies and television affect attitudes about Nevada hits me repeatedly,” said Holabird, whose most recent book is Around the World in 80 Movies. “Projects shooting in the state provide immediate impact when producers spend millions of dollars by hiring crew members and paying for accommodation, locations and other services. But these projects’ lingering effect comes from images they portray, the way famous people and places connect in a wild, wonderful and wacky world vastly different from Middle America. Nevada blends beautifully with extreme and intense pop culture icons.”
Beginning with the 1897 Corbett-Fitzsimmons Fight in Carson City, hundreds of feature films have been shot, at least partially, in Northern Nevada. Even culling that herd down to a Top 10 list is, of course, wholly subjective and objectively difficult—but we tried, and got it down to 11. In some cases, a movie was chosen based on the number of local scenes rather than overall quality. But a few of the flicks are recognized classics.
In addition to the films listed below, Holabird also recommends some others that have local ties, including: Top Gun: Maverick, which was partially shot at the Fallon Naval Air Station and Tahoe locations; Kill Me Again, with Val Kilmer; and Jane Austen’s Mafia!
Some ‘essential’ Reno movies
Here, in no particular order, and subject to the writer’s bias (and questionable taste), are the 11 Reno movie “essentials.” All are available, instantly, for streaming on digital platforms, some for free; others can be rented in HD for $3.99 and in SD quality for $2.99. All are connected to the northern part of the Silver State.
The Misfits, 1961: This one’s a classic, written by Arthur Miller and directed by John Huston. The stars are Clark Gable, Marilyn Monroe and Montgomery Clift; Thelma Ritter, Eli Wallach and Kevin McCarthy grace the supporting cast. The movie was filmed on locations around Northern Nevada, including Reno and Dayton, in 1960. It was both Monroe’s and Gable’s last completed picture. The cast stayed at the lost and lamented Mapes Hotel. The plot: Monroe comes to Reno to get a quickie divorce and develops a friendship with her landlady (Ritter). She winds up hanging out with an aging cowboy (Gable), his rodeo-riding pal (Clift) and his pilot buddy (Wallach). The three men chase down mustangs in the desert because it “beats (working for) wages.” From the writing to the acting to the cinematography, it still shines 60 years later. If you see just one movie on this list, make this the one. Available for streaming on Amazon Prime, $3.99 in HD.
Apartment for Peggy, 1948: Based on a novelette by Faith Baldwin, this is the tale of a depressed college professor, played by Edmund Gwenn, who is contemplating suicide until he gets involved with a young couple (William Holden and Jeanne Crain) looking for an apartment. The movie was shot in Reno just after World War II, when the University of Nevada campus quad was ringed with trailers that served as housing for the hoards of ex-servicemen who were getting an education thanks to the GI Bill. There are lots of views of the post-war campus and glimpses of downtown Reno in the 1940s. Free on YouTube.
California Split, 1974: This comedy-drama is directed by Robert Altman and stars Elliott Gould and George Segal as a pair of gamblers loose in Reno. The film is a time capsule of Virginia Street and some of its casinos in the early 1970s. A high point of the film is a high-stakes game with real-life world poker champion Amarillo Slim portraying himself. Amazon Prime, Vudu, $2.99.
The Godfather Part II, 1974: The second part of Francis Ford Coppola’s Godfather trilogy is a prequel-sequel to the original film. Robert De Niro is young Vito Corleone; decades later, Al Pacino is his son, Michael, who becomes the heir to the family business. Michael has moved the family’s headquarters to Lake Tahoe, where his brother, Fredo, relies on the Blessed Virgin Mary to assist him during a fishing trip. A California estate serves as the location for Tahoe scenes, including the First Communion celebration which opens the film. Amazon Prime, $3.99.
Charley Varrick, 1973: Charley Varrick and his pals rob a small-town bank—only to discover that they absconded with mob money, and they are now the prey of hit men. OK, so the plot’s been done before. But what makes this neo noir of interest to Northern Nevadans is a cameo by the late Joe Conforte in scenes shot inside the old Mustang Ranch brothel in Storey County. A hulking Joe Don Baker is a relentless hit man. Prime Video, Google Play, $3.99.
Love Ranch, 2010: Speaking of Joe Conforte, Love Ranch is based on the fatal shooting of Argentinean boxer Oscar Bonavena just outside the Mustang Ranch in 1976. In real life, Joe’s wife, Sally (played in the movie as “Grace Bontempo” by Helen Mirren), managed the by-then low-ranked heavyweight contender. Conforte, on the lam in Brazil, told me in a phone interview in 2010 that he enjoyed the film. Google Play, $2.99.
Pink Cadillac, 1989: The plot involves white supremacists who can’t shoot straight. The film stars Clint Eastwood as a bounty hunter who is chasing Lou Ann, played by Bernadette Peters. Lou Ann steals her husband’s car when she flees the marriage, but the pink auto is crammed with counterfeit money that belongs to the husband’s neo-Nazi buddies. Peters, the Caddy, the cash and Clint race off to—where else?—Reno. Action, romance and hilarity ensue. In one scene, the pink whale of a car cruises under the Reno Arch, then crashes into the entrance of the Eldorado. Google Play, iTunes, $3.99.
Sister Act, 1992: The movie begins and ends in Reno, but most of the film supposedly takes place in San Francisco (yet several of those scenes also were shot in Reno). It’s funny and has some great singing. Seeing Whoopi Goldberg, dressed in a nun’s habit and yelling the f-word at a gaming table, is alone worth the price of streaming. Amazon Prime, SD, $2.99.
The Ox-Bow Incident, 1943: Based on the 1940 novel by Nevada’s own Walter Van Tilburg Clark and directed by William A. Wellman, the movie stars Henry Fonda, Dana Andrews and Mary Beth Hughes. A great supporting cast includes Anthony Quinn, Harry Morgan and Jane Darwell. It’s the tale of two saddle tramps caught up in a posse that turns into a lynch mob. It was filmed in California, but it’s a Nevada tale. The flick probably would have won a Best Picture Oscar, but it was up against Casablanca. Free on YouTube.
The Shootist, 1976: The film is set in Carson City in 1901, and some scenes were filmed there. John Wayne, in his last screen appearance, plays aging gunfighter J.B. Books. Books is dying of cancer and is marked for death by rivals who want to take credit for his demise before the disease can claim him. Wayne actually had terminal cancer at the time of filming, a detail that makes the Duke’s excellent performance even more poignant. The supporting cast includes Lauren Bacall, Ron Howard, James Stewart, Richard Boone, Hugh O’Brian, Harry Morgan, John Carradine, Sheree North and Scatman Crothers. This also is one of the gems. iTunes, $3.99.
Nomadland, 2020: This Best Picture Oscar winner was partially shot at the Desert Rose RV Park in Fernley and in the now-deserted town of Empire. The movie also won Academy Awards for Best Actress (Frances McDormand) and for Best Director (Chloe Zhao).
Many other flicks feature Reno-area locations, including Andy Hardy’s Blonde Trouble, partially shot at UNR; the original Top Gun; Waking Up in Reno; Kingpin, with scenes at the National Bowling Stadium; and The Cooler.