by Jim Dwyer
At the drizzling dot of 5 on Monday evening, security guards dropped the barriers to the Bryant Park lawn. Hundreds of people began a slow-motion dash across the lawn for the park’s final night of free outdoor movies this summer. By the time “Psycho” started four hours later, about 2,000 people had grabbed a few square feet of grass and the unlimited romance of a city night outdoors.
The summer of 2007 was getting its last licks. In a few days, colleges will open and the freshmen will peel off; there are sales everywhere on three-hole loose-leaf paper.
On the park lawn, people spread picnics and pizza boxes, then popped open contraband bottles of wine and beer. The rules say alcohol is not permitted in city parks, but those rules are not all that vigorously enforced. Waiters from sandwich kiosks moved through the crowd, taking orders and using helium-filled balloons to mark the spots for deliveries.
By fair-weather standards, the audience was small — it can run to as high as 10,000 with the right movie and clear skies — but given the light rain and the cool dreary night, it was a big crowd. Before long, even the stairs on the east side of the park were packed.
“A horrible night for weather, but it was the last movie of the summer,” said Ethan Lercher, who is director of events for Bryant Park and has gone to just about every Monday night movie for years. “And it was ‘Psycho.’ ”
Alfred Hitchcock, who made his last film in 1976 and was dead long before many of the spectators were born, could probably draw a crowd in a blizzard. He made “Psycho” in 1960, and it remains a classic of suspense about an insane man who operates a run-down motel and the young woman who makes the mistake of stopping there to hide out.
This is the 15th summer that free movies have been shown in Bryant Park. When the program began, it seemed like a defiantly countercultural statement, even though it was sponsored by HBO. In 1993, the city after dark and Bryant Park were generally seen as unfit for decent people, or the indecent, for that matter. (Even three years later, Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani rejected a proposal to put giant television screens in city parks for the 1996 baseball World Series; the security issues, his aides said, would be too difficult.)
By then, however, outdoor movies were thriving, and not only in Bryant Park. Now, in places across Lower Manhattan, Queens and Brooklyn, independent films are shown in the Rooftop Films festival, which continues into September.
The Bryant Park films are sturdy classics — “Annie Hall,” “Wait Until Dark,” and “Casablanca” were on this year’s calendar — but the movies are practically beside the point. Couples kiss. Friends meet. Strangers connect.
“Quite a few people have said that they met their husband or wife at the films,” Mr. Lercher noted. “I mean, it’s the perfect opportunity. You’re sitting on a lawn. You have four hours to hang out from the time the lawn opens until the movie starts. I think there are people who just come to eat on the lawn in a crowd and then leave.”
As darkness fell over the park, a short cartoon was shown. Then an HBO preview trailer ran, with an old theme song for the network.
With that, as happens every Monday night when that commercial plays, people climbed to their feet and danced.
“Why?” asked Mr. Lercher. “I can’t explain it. A few people just started dancing one year, and more people joined, and now you have it every Monday night. All the better that no one stood up and made an announcement that people should dance.”
The movie began, a crisp black and white print. The crowd cheered the appearance of Norman Bates, played by Anthony Perkins. Along 42nd Street, about two dozen police cars rolled by with lights flashing, in one of the city’s daily counterterrorism drills.
The spectators appeared to stick with the scary scenes on screen. They screamed when Marion Crane, played by Janet Leigh, stood under the running water of a shower and a shadowy figure holding a knife appeared.
The rain fell harder. Umbrellas popped up, and lines of kids leaned against each other to share the shelter, as if they were in little fortresses, unafraid of the dark.