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On the midnight run-around in Arizona

AAP logoAAP 4/09/2016 By Michael Wayne

The biggest claim to fame for Clarkdale, a tiny retirement town in Arizona, is that Robert De Niro once stole a car there.

In a scene from 1988's Midnight Run, bounty hunter De Niro and his quarry Charles Grodin attempt to flee mobsters and the FBI by jumping off a train at Clarkdale - which in reality doesn't have a train line - before climbing into a truck and speeding away.

It's a movie I love, and a scene that's always captivated me. I love how this tiny, otherwise insignificant town could be so pivotal in the course of a major Hollywood movie. Residents of Brisbane, where the new Thor movie is being filmed, know what I mean.

During the more than two-hour drive from Phoenix, I'm imagining what the town will be like. I'll probably have to wait in line to get a photo next to the truck they used to escape. Surely it's a town treasure, perhaps with a plaque out the front. Maybe they'll have a little set-up with props signed by the actors...

But as I drive into town - which is essentially one street - all I'm thinking about is how to get out again.

Oh no, wait, there's a cement factory.

As movies become increasingly reliant on green-screen sets and CGI, actual location shooting is in decline, which makes it all the more special when you find yourself in a scene out of Terminator 2 in Los Angeles, Goodfellas in New York City's Queens, or The Matrix in Sydney.

Filming location tourism is booming as a result, with guides to locations found in popular movies rapidly increasing. Some towns rely on the tourist dollars it brings.

But at midday on a sweltering Monday, Clarkdale is deserted. No screen-used trucks. No plaques. Maybe it's a public holiday?

I'm outside the long-since-abandoned Clarkdale service station, which can be seen in the background of De Niro's carjacking. In fact, I'm looking at the scene on my phone right now.

It hasn't changed much in the nearly 30 years since Hollywood came to Clarkdale - it was closed down even then. But then I begin to examine the finer details. No one's around, why not?

When I'm done, I'm shocked to discover nearly an hour has gone by.

From a cooler vantage point from behind a tall, icy lemonade at Su Casa, a breezy cantina at the end of Main Street, I spot a few more points of interest from the film.

There's the distinct neon sign for the 10/12 Cocktail Lounge - wow, it actually exists. And has done since 1959, I learn. It's called the 10/12 because it's open from 10am to midnight. Absently, I wonder if anyone's ever spent a whole day in there.

Across the road is the Newstand store, which also sells cocktails. Well, I guess in a town this small, you have to make your own fun.

I stop a local, Pete, to ask if he was around when Midnight Run was filmed here. "Nope," he says.

I'm guessing Pete's not alone in that. Nobody here cares about that ancient movie. In my own mind, I've reduced this town to a novelty - a quick, quirky stop on my way to somewhere more important, and in doing so, I've become a novelty to Pete.

"But if you like old stuff, check out the Pepsi machine at the Classic Station."

I've already seen it. It was one of the first machines to vend cans, but it no longer works.

All the while, Pete's been looking at me strangely. I think I'm the first Australian he's ever seen.

As Pete makes his way down the street, tipping his hat to a woman outside the artistically rendered Public Works Building, I'm reminded that while this was a novelty for me, Clarkdale is where people live their lives. He's probably on his way to work.

That big cement factory on the outskirts of town is the heart of the town. For so many locals, it is life. This Main Street, of which I first caught a glimpse years ago, thousands of kilometres away, on a TV screen, is just an artery.

I've seen what I came to see, and I head to the car. There are only two roads out of Clarkdale, so I'm spoilt for choice. It's not a quick trip back to the highway, either - it'll take a few hours yet; a midnight run.

But when I'm back home, watching Robert De Niro steal that car for the 400th time, Clarkdale will still be living and breathing.

With a heart of stone.

IF YOU GO

GETTING THERE: Clarkdale is about a two-and-a-half hour drive north of Phoenix, Arizona. It's off the beaten track, but there are plenty of small towns along the way. Travellers can fly to Phoenix from Australia via Los Angeles or Dallas with American Airlines, United, or Virgin Australia.

STAYING THERE: Clarkdale is a bed and breakfast town, but there are a few inns available nearby. The Iron Horse Inn, in neighbouring Cottonwood, is a standout. Visit ironhorseoldtown.com for info.

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