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Books and Culture

Michael Anton
Back to the Future Film Festival
New York’s crime-ridden past has been amply captured on the big screen.
7 November 2013

The times in New York are about to get, as they say, “interesting.” Having elected a liberal dopier than David Dinkins and John Lindsay combined, New Yorkers are in for a wild ride. It’s been pointed out that fully one-third of the city’s population is under age 24 and another third between 25 and 44. That means that at least a third has no memory of the Dinkins or Lindsay eras at all—and well over half have no memory of the financial crisis, the welfare spike, the crime wave, the crack epidemic, the Crown Heights riots, the “vibrant” old Times Square, and the whole panoply of scum and villainy that for the better part of two decades made New York so gosh-darn “colorful.” And that’s only if you assume that everyone who lives here was born here. But New York’s fantastic run over the last 20 years has attracted a lot of out-of-towners, so the actual number of ignorant rubes in for the shock of their lives is higher. Well, all these transplants are about to discover, the hard way, that they aren’t in Kansas anymore.

For anyone wishing to get acclimated ahead of time, New York’s colorful past has been amply recorded on film. What follows is a short tour through some of the most memorable, classic films of Old New York—not Edith Wharton’s but Travis Bickle’s.

Three caveats: first, please don’t consider this list exhaustive. It’s meant merely to be representative. Second, I’m including only films that were actually shot on location in New York. Hollywood back lots just can’t provide the same flavor. Third, I’m not including period pieces. Only films actually set and shot during New York’s Rust Age will be considered.

So, in chronological order, here we go.

New York’s long slide began in the mid-1960s, but it took Hollywood a few years to catch on. Films such as How To Murder Your Wife (1965), Barefoot in the Park (1967), and The Odd Couple (1968) present a fairytale Manhattan, still alive with all the possibilities of the big city and with no downside beyond high costs. Barefoot is refreshing, if only because it more or less accurately depicts the wretched accommodations that a starting-out couple could actually afford, as opposed to the preposterous trend of sitcoms over the last 20 years showing baristas renting West Village penthouses. The menacing Rosemary’s Baby (1968) mostly depicts Manhattan the same way. A young couple, only one of whom works, can afford the Dakota (!), and the streets are clean and pleasant (when not splattered with Victoria Vetri’s blood). Though most viewers miss the film’s subtle comic touches, its underlying creepiness subtly foreshadows the mayhem to come in real-life New York.

Two partial exceptions from this period are The Pawnbroker (1965) and Up the Down Staircase (1967). Both show the rising sordidness engulfing the city but cop out with feel-good endings. The Incident (1967), on the other hand, concludes anything but happily, but attempts to bludgeon the audience with an “anti-racism” message that comes off as phony. With Midnight Cowboy (1969), things start to get serious. You could argue that the picture it paints of the city is overly grim, and perhaps it is. But it was shot on location, so all the visual rot is real, and the drugs, prostitution, decay, and decadence are altogether believable. Some poetic license is to be expected when you have to cram 24 square miles of depravity into 113 minutes. And (spoiler alert!) the ending “keeps it real”: Rizzo does die.

Next is an all-but-forgotten minor classic: Where’s Poppa? (1970). The premise is a bit sick. A lawyer (George Segal) who lives with his mother wants to get rid of her because she is a pain in every way. So, he comes up with outlandish schemes to kill her. The important thing for our purposes is that he has a brother who lives across Central Park who must rush to his mother’s rescue over and over, which requires crossing the park at night. Naturally, he is mugged every time. This is played for laughs, but the grim reality is that Central Park used to be a Hobbesian dystopia that only fools and suicides entered after dark. And it may yet be again.

The Out-of-Towners (1970) is a slapstick account of New York at its nadir—exaggerated but not inaccurate. An Ohio couple suffers everything an out-of-control city can throw at them: muggings, trash piled to the eyebrows, capricious labor strikes, crumbling infrastructure. This is a film that knows where things are headed and chooses to laugh rather than cry.

For a sentimental take on gentrification, see The Landlord (1970). Brooklyn stroller-pushers living in the Slope won’t recognize their ’hood in this film. In 1970, it was a slum. Look on, ye mighty, and despair. Beau Bridges buys a brownstone, intending to kick out all the tenants and renovate, but finds that they all have hearts of gold and can’t go through with it. It’s pap, to be sure, but the street scenes are priceless. You don’t want to live in that Slope.

Oscar-winner The French Connection (1971) is based on true events from a decade before. Rather than make a period piece, director William Friedkin decided to shoot contemporaneously without extras. The people you see on the street are real. And the famous car chase under the B/D elevated line in Brooklyn? It was shot without permits or permission. Manhattan looks more or less OK in this film, but Brooklyn is dismal. Popeye’s apartment has all the charm of a Soviet cinder block, and the bars and other low-life hangouts are positively scary.

Panic in Needle Park (1971) is scarier still. The eponymous park is Verdi Square at 72nd and Broadway, the beating heart of what would become the “Yupper” West Side. How many people alive today in the land of the $1 million one-bedroom can believe the reality this film displays? Depressing from beginning to end, it has the virtue of being the least glamorous depiction of drug use in the history of pop culture.

Remember when Little Italy was still Italian? No? Just as well. It was mobbed up and crime-ridden. If you want to reminisce, rent Mean Streets (1973), Martin Scorsese’s homage to his childhood home. The morality tale Serpico (1973) is preachy, thanks to Sidney Lumet’s heavy-handed direction. That doesn’t mean that the real Frank Serpico was wrong about the demoralized, corrupt NYPD of the sixties and seventies. The real story was as much about padding arrest stats, avoiding risk, and doing the minimum as it was about taking bribes. This is where institutional drift leads when officers feel that their political cover to fight crime has been taken away. The Seven Ups (1973) is a rather forgettable film in most respects, but the epic car chase in upper Manhattan is worth a look. The whole sequence was mapped out and driven by legendary stunt driver Bill Hickman, also responsible for the chases in French Connection and Bullit.

The reviled classic Death Wish (1974) still makes lefties froth with rage. Dippy liberal Paul Kersey’s family is subjected to a horrible crime perfectly scripted to make the audience want to jump into the screen and kill the attackers themselves. The film is not without flaws (leaving aside those flaws ascribed to it by the Left). The trope of the multiracial street gang appears here at its most absurd. A young Jeff Goldblum actually wears a felt crown like Jughead from the Archie comics. Worst of all, the film is manipulative from beginning to end. Just because the bad guys have it coming doesn’t mean the plot doesn’t stack the deck. But the movie touched a raw nerve in a city and country that had been experiencing rising crime for over a decade.

Dog Day Afternoon (1975): Al Pacino robs a bank to pay for a sex change operation for his gay lover. Preposterous, I know. Why rob a bank? That’s covered by Obamacare. The Prisoner of Second Avenue (1975) gives us all the expected vignettes of New York misery: muggings, a garbage strike, etc. But the movie’s real point is to show the roots of middle-class despair in a city where quality of life, even when you aren’t getting robbed, continues to crash through the floor. Why does anyone stay here? The film asks. We may be asking that again soon.

Marathon Man (1976) is a far-fetched, convoluted, yet highly entertaining thriller. It’s not really about the city per se, but Dustin Hoffman’s wretched abode and menacing neighbors near Columbia Univeristy serve as reminders of how far certain areas have come.

This is the big one, the granddaddy of them all: Taxi Driver (1976). Nothing I can say can possibly do it justice, so I will say only this. Nearly everything—and everyone—on screen is real. These were the days before routine four-hour street closures to get 30 seconds of film. That’s a real cab, with the sound and camera men crouched down in the back seat capturing the street life of the city at its worst. Someday a real rain will come . . .

Honorable mentions:

The Goodbye Girl (1977): A mugging played for laughs, a crummy apartment no one can afford.

Saturday Night Fever (1977): Ethnic conflict in the boroughs and vintage subway graffiti.

The Warriors (1979): A stylized account of a street gang trying to get back to their home turf; loosely based on Xenophon’s Anabasis.

Fort Apache, The Bronx (1981): The worst neighborhood in the city at its absolute worst.

Big (1988): Nostalgic for the old Times Square? Check out the way it looked at recently as 25 years ago. Tom Hanks beds down for a while in a terrifying flea trap.

Do the Right Thing (1989): Peace, for a short while.

Kids (1995): No doubt grossly exaggerated (we hope) yet a window into the last days of pre-Giuliani youth depravity.

Special award of distinction: Blaxploitation!

These films—including Shaft (1971), Superfly (1972), Across 110th Street (1972), and many others less notable—tend to blend together in terms of theme and plot. If you’ve seen one you may not have seen them all, but it feels like it. The best of the genre feature fantastic, real-life footage of Uptown Manhattan as formerly bourgeois and orderly Harlem descended into a hell from which it only recently emerged.

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