New York Gritty: A Cinematic Trawl Through the Big Apple’s Turbulent ‘70s
In Escape From New York, nihilistic Special Forces man turned bank robber Snake Plissken is sent to rescue the President from Manhattan Island, which has been turned into a maximum security penal colony ruled by feral tribes. It may seem like an outlandish concept nowadays, but when the film was released in 1981, it was only a logical extension of the crime-ridden, cash-strapped, blackout-plagued, serial-killer haunted metropolis the Big Apple had become.
When it comes to cinematic cities New York is the undisputed superstar, taking a lead role in just about every conceivable genre across the decades. King Kong scaled the Empire State Building while Dr. Venkman and the gang saved the city from a 100-foot marshmallow man in Ghostbusters; Gene Kelly and Frank Sinatra’s sailor boys hit the town in On the Town while the Bed-Stuy neighbourhood of Brooklyn sweltered in Do The Right Thing; Marlon Brando coulda been a contender in On the Waterfront while Gordo Gecko cut ruthless deals on Wall Street; Holly Golightly found romance in Breakfast at Tiffany’s while a French hitman formed a very risqué relationship with a pubescent girl in Leon: The Professional; the list goes on and on.
If I could go back in a time machine to any city in any decade, it would be New York in the ‘70s. I have movies to thank for that, because for me that era is the quintessential New York decade on film. Despite its troubles, the Big Apple never looked as tough, tender, exciting, sexy, and electric as it did in dozens of classic, and not-so-classic, movies of the time. Let’s take a look…
Like a certain disco classic that we’ll mention later, Shaft made an instant impact with an iconic opening sequence showing our protagonist strutting through the streets of New York to the perfect tune. In this case, our man is John Shaft (Richard Roundtree), a badass private eye rocking an awesome leather coat and roll-neck sweater combo, striding along to the mean and moody theme from Isaac Hayes while flipping off traffic and ruefully shaking his head at all the human detritus on Times Square.
The following adventure involving Harlem mobsters and a kidnapping plot is pretty standard crime thriller stuff, but director Gordon Parks made one big decision that changed the way African-American people were portrayed on screen. While John Shaft was white in the source novel, he cast a black actor instead.
As a result, Shaft was the breakout Blaxploitation hit that really kickstarted the genre’s incredibly vivid golden period in the ‘70s.
The French Connection (1971)
By the end of the ‘60s, up to 80 percent of heroin entering the American market annually was coming from the Marseilles region of France (Source: New York Times). The city’s prime location on the Mediterranean coast was the perfect layover for ships transporting raw materials from the poppy fields of Turkey, and there were plenty of secluded villas with spacious grounds to hide labs for processing before the drug continued its journey across the Atlantic to New York.
One of the most high-profile busts of the era was detailed in Robin Moore’s account The French Connection in 1969, detailing the exhaustive work of two NYPD detectives and their efforts to crack a major drug ring. The book provided ideal source material for William Friedkin, whose taut thriller of the same name was the first of his hattrick of masterpieces in the ‘70s (followed The Exorcist and Sorcerer).
It also provided a choice role for Gene Hackman as Jimmy “Popeye” Doyle, a rough-house detective who likes to get his hands dirty. Roy Scheider provided an excellent counterbalance to Doyle as his taciturn partner. Hackman would go on to win his first Oscar for the performance.
The film fictionalised the fairly routine arrests of the real case, throwing in a thrilling car vs train chase sequence as Doyle speeds through the streets under the elevated railway in Brooklyn in pursuit of a hit man. Fifty years on, it is still one of the most exciting car chases ever put on film, even making the celebrated pursuit in Bullitt look like a quiet Sunday drive.
Death Wish (1974) & The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (1974)
As the crime rate spiralled and the underfunded NYPD struggled to cope, taking a ride on the graffiti-festooned New York subway was taking your life in your own hands. The transit authority resorted to shutting some lines down overnight, and the situation peaked in 1979 when 250 felonies were reported and six murders committed in the first two months alone. Some well-trained citizens took the matter into their own hands, forming the Guardian Angels (Source: The Vintage News).
The beleaguered metro network provided the backdrop for two thrillers in 1974. First, Michael Winner’s hit Death Wish irresponsibly came down on the side of “vigilantism is good.” After hoodlums invade the home of architect Paul Kersey (Charles Bronson) and kill his wife and sexually assault his daughter, he prowls the streets of the Big Apple using himself as bait to the city’s thugs before dispensing swift vigilante justice.
Tawdry and mean-spirited as it is, Death Wish struck a real chord with Americans at a time when violent crime was on the rise. The role also pigeon-holed Bronson for the rest of his career as he ended up doddering around in four increasingly poor sequels. The first one is at least watchable.
Far better is The Taking of Pelham One Two Three, the crunchy, satisfying, and still overlooked heist thriller that inspired Quentin Tarantino’s colour-coded nicknames in Reservoir Dogs.
After four armed men wearing the same outfits board a subway train, take the passengers hostage, and demand a $1 million ransom, the focus is on the game of cat-and-mouse over the radio between the gang’s mastermind Mr. Blue (Robert Shaw) and laconic Lieutenant Zach Garber of the Transit Police (Walter Matthau).
The film is packed with gritty gallows humour as the various microcosms of the city’s administration mesh and clash as they try to deal with the situation. There is a very NYC duality at play throughout the movie; on one hand, you have cynical New Yorkers snarling at each other as an extra layer of bullshit is added to their that; on the other, you get the sense of the city working together as a collective in the face of a crisis.
Taxi Driver (1976)
Times Square has come a long way since the ‘70s, now spruced up to become one of the city’s major tourist attractions. Back in the day, however, it had a sordid reputation for drugs, crime, prostitution, peep shows and porno theatres.
This seedy milieu cropped up a lot in movies during the decade, but no film captured it as vividly as Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver.
Viewed through the eyes of disturbed loner Travis Bickle (Robert DeNiro), it becomes a tawdry Bacchanalian hellhole; a parade of gaudy marquees advertising sex flick double-bills and seedy red-lit entryways, thronging with drunks, hookers, curious onlookers, and the dirty mac brigade.
King Kong (1976)
Producer Dino de Laurentiis pulled together a whopping budget to remake the classic monster movie, although his version was a turgid affair which contrived to feature special effects that look far more dated than the stop-motion wonders of the original 40 years earlier.
Nothing much to see here, but the film has gained some poignancy since 9/11 as Kong switched his final destination from the Empire State Building to the World Trade Center, which opened three years earlier.
Serpico (1973) & Dog Day Afternoon (1975)
Sidney Lumet had a great career after his eye-opening directorial debut with 12 Angry Men in 1957, but he hit his peak with a trio of New York-based classics in the mid-’70s. For the first two, he was lucky enough to catch Al Pacino at the peak of his career; the actor was on a real hot streak back then, receiving his first Oscar nomination for Supporting Actor in The Godfather before receiving a Best Actor nod three years running for Serpico, The Godfather Part II, and Dog Day Afternoon.
During this time, Pacino and New York went together like hotdogs and the Yankees, and he was at his brooding, magnetic best in Serpico, is the gripping true story of Frank Serpico, a NYPD officer who risked his life blowing the whistle on corruption within the department.
Deadly serious, Serpico makes an interesting counterpoint to Dog Day Afternoon, a stranger-than-fiction real-life case that plays almost as a black comedy. For this one, Pacino displayed another side of his screen persona as the jittery and wired Sonny Wortzik, who holds up a bank to pay for his lover’s sex change operation.
Both films convey a vivid sense of what New York was like in the ‘70s. In the latter, Pacino’s character also invokes the horrors of Attica to get the crowd on his side when the cops surround his bungled heist. A year before the real Sonny and his cohorts tried robbing the bank, over a thousand prisoners at the Attica correctional facility in upstate New York staged an uprising demanding better treatment. In response, the Governor ordered the police to storm the place. When the shooting stopped, 39 people lay dead, including 10 hostages.
Lumet went on to receive an Oscar nomination for Network, a scathing media satire from the pen of Paddy Chayefsky, which was also set in New York.
God Told Me To (1976)
B-movie maestro Larry Cohen has a real eye for New York City, even though most of his films only cost about as much as a big studio picture spends on wardrobe. There is a real rough edge to his low-budget classics, which is actually a benefit for New York film spotters.
Cohen often blends goofy genre concepts with blunt yet effective satire (see also: Q The Winged Serpent, The Stuff, and Maniac Cop) and that is definitely the case in God Told Me To. It’s a peculiar sci-fi religious cop horror about a devout Catholic detective trying to get to the bottom of a spate of homicides where each murderer claims that the Almighty guided their hand.
The roving footage of New York he captures for this film is raw but evocative, not least in the scene where the cameraman is visibly hoofing it among the crowds and marchers of the St. Patrick’s Day parade. Ultimately, the God Told Me To fizzles out because Cohen can’t quite find the right solution to his own puzzle, but it’s a terrifically ambitious idea that puts us street level in the city.
Saturday Night Fever (1977)
John Travolta strutting along a mean Brooklyn street to the Bee Gees and throwing some shapes on a neon-lit dance floor are two of the defining images of disco culture in the ‘70s, although for some it marked the beginning of the end for the craze.
The over-familiarity of the tunes and countless spoofs of the film’s most famous dance number has diluted the impact of John Badham’s gritty musical drama, but this was peak Travolta. Along with Grease the following year, this was the film that made him a superstar and he fully deserved his Oscar nomination for his portrayal of Tony Manero, a frustrated young man who finds some release from the harsh realities of life on the dance floor.
Disco started out as an joyous representation of black, queer, and latinx club culture before Saturday Night Fever really took it mainstream. Soon, the ubiquity of the music - not helped by wall-to-wall Bee Gees - soured people against it. This antipathy culminated in the Disco Demolition Night, when a disgruntled DJ named Steven Dahl organised a special event at the Cominsky stadium in Chicago for the double-header between the White Sox and the Detroit Tigers. Anyone bringing a disco album for him to blow up between games would receive reduced admission.
The stunt boosted the lagging attendance figures to a record high with thousands more unable to gain access. It ended up with thousands of people invading the field, the second game called off, and riot police moving in to disperse the crowd.
The Disco Demolition became known as the night disco died, and the party was already over by the time disco icons the Village People started shooting their pseudo-biopic on location in New York. But more on that later.
Annie Hall (1977) & Manhattan (1979)
Few directors are as closely associated with a city as Woody Allen and New York, and I guess it wasn’t all that rough in the ‘70s if you were part of the affluent middle-class intelligentsia like he was. Certainly, there is little indication of the Big Apple’s troubles in his two great films of the decade, Annie Hall and Manhattan.
In the first, the more well-heeled neighbourhoods provide the backdrop as Alvy Singer (Allen) and Annie Hall (Diane Keaton) meet, flirt, get together, and break up again in his innovative Oscar-winning comedy. Manhattan, shot in sparkling black and white, is a tough film to defend given its subject matter of a 40-something guy (Allen again) sleeping with an underage girl. Putting that aside, there is no denying that the opening montage, dreamily set to Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue,” is one of cinema’s most beautiful celebrations of the city.
There is another reason for so little grit in Allen’s movies. He freely admits that his love letters to Manhattan are an idealised version of the city. In an interview with Vulture magazine, he said:
All That Jazz (1979) & Fame (1980)
It’s hard to overstate just how influential Bob Fosse was in the ‘70s. In 1973, he won two Tony Awards for directing and choreography in Pippin, an Oscar for Cabaret, and an Emmy for Liza with a Z. Two years later, his most well-known stage show Chicago (which would receive a Best Picture-winning adaptation in 2003) made its debut on Broadway. Then, to round out the decade, he directed All That Jazz, a musical comedy about death starring Roy Scheider as Joe Gideon, a thinly-disguised version of himself.
And what an alter-ego Gideon is: uncompromising, workaholic, chain-smoking, womanising, manipulative, at once repellent and chillingly charismatic. He also has a pretty sweet apartment overlooking Central Park. As Vincent Canby of the New York Times put it:
There are very few musicals like All That Jazz, revolving around Scheider’s hard-edged performance as a driven yet jaded man who just doesn’t know how to stop, and culminating in a musical number while he undergoes open heart surgery.
Alan Parker’s Fame, a musical about the lives of students attending Manhattan’s High School of Performing Arts, is largely forgotten these days. If people do remember it, it’s usually because of the scene when the kids spill out of the school into the street for a big dance number. In one of the most New York touches ever, they’re dancing to the hit theme tune blasting out from a yellow cab.
The Warriors (1979)
With its colourful gangs and rubble-strewn, rain-slicked streets, I always assumed The Warriors was supposed to be set in some near-future dystopian version of New York. What Walter Hill actually gave us was just a slightly heightened version of reality; in the early ‘70s, there was an estimated 10,000 gang members in just the Bronx alone, and the crews ran with evocative names like the Savage Skulls, Majestic Warlocks, and Spanish Daggers.
Shot on location in some of the city’s toughest boroughs, Hill and his cast and crew worked through the night to give the film its distinctive nocturnal look. Fiction bled over into reality as the shoot was routinely harassed by real gangs, some of whom took offence to the actors wearing gang colours, or “cuts,” and challenged them to a fight to prove themselves worthy. Aside from paying the usual costs associated with a production, Hill also had to pay bribes to certain gangs to ensure their safety on hostile turf (source: Village Voice).
The trouble didn’t stop once the film wrapped. Violence kicked off at some screenings when rival gangs found themselves sharing a theatre with each other, and fights reportedly broke out in several New York venues. On the other side of the country, one teenager was shot dead at a Palm Springs drive-in and another was fatally stabbed at a cinema in Oxnard, California.
Protestors picketed the film and Paramount were forced to pull radio and TV promotions. However, as is usually the case, controversy only drove more people to see the movie and The Warriors was a hit, before going on to become a cult classic.
Cruising (1980) & Can’t Stop the Music (1980)
It’s hard to think of two movies more different in tone than Cruising and Can’t Stop the Music, but they share an unlikely connection. While William Friedkin was shooting his murky serial killer thriller about a murderer haunting the city’s gay community in Greenwich Village, the Village People were filming their campy musical biopic just a few blocks away.
The proximity of the two shoots caused confusion for protesters objecting to Friedkin’s portrayal of the heavy leather scene, who sometimes picketed the wrong set instead. The Can’t Stop the Music crew helpfully pointed them in the right direction.
Both Friedkin and his star Al Pacino spent time hanging out in leather bars and sex dungeons like Anvil and Ramrod for research, the scene that some of the Village People were discovered. Leather Man (Glenn Hughes) was a regular at BDSM club Mineshaft, while the Indian (Felipe Rose) was also spotted dancing in Anvil wearing his trademark warbonnet.
That devotion to research didn’t didn’t help much come the final film. Pacino looks spooked and Friedkin’s approach is akin to a ‘30s explorer venturing out to a remote island and plonking a camera down to film the natives. To his credit, he shot the bar and club scenes on location with real clientele getting it on in the background, capturing an era of consequence-free, very public hook-ups a few years before the city’s gay community became Ground Zero for the AIDS epidemic.
The connection continued as both movies were nominated for Worst Picture at the inaugural Golden Raspberry Awards, with the Village People clinching the prize.
So there you have it, a brief tour through the tough yet exciting cinematic landscape of New York in the ‘70s. What are your favourite films from that era? Let us know!