Brooklyn Jollies, Manhattan Follies, part 1: Vigilantes on parade

21 Jul

We’re back from New York City. It’s 100 degrees outside, and I’m huddled in my Chicago apartment while fighting off a cold. I’m working on the entries of the New York trip—which was an unmitigated disaster—but first, some context.

I was 22 when I first visited New York City. I was convinced that, as soon as I crossed the city’s border, a bi-racial gang of muggers would beat me with tire irons, steal all of my belongings, and then sodomize my (almost) senseless body.

I carried a creeping fear, even in the fancy neighborhoods. I thought everyone was armed. Vicious street gangs ran rampant. Everyone was either a coke addict or a crack fiend. Every male had filed teeth. Every female wore stiletto heels. People carried night sticks under their clothes, straight razors in their pockets, and reused dirty hypodermic needles just for fun.

It was a switchblade, brass knuckle, snub-nosed pistol kind of place, and I would never be safe there. I was a small-town boy. I did not belong.

Movies did this to me.

No city has been as dissected, affirmed, attacked, assaulted, or celebrated as much as New York City. This city is refracted through a thousand movies. Walking its streets is an exercise in déjà vu.

(If I had to rank the best New York filmmakers, I would say Sidney Lumet, Woody Allen, Martin Scorsese, and Spike Lee.)

Making a best of New York movie list is pointless; hundreds of great films have been set here. Instead, here are some films that roam around the city, giving you a feel for its fetid, shadowy places.

Look, punk. I paid for this mustache. Now get ready for some hot lead.

Death wish—A vicious, unentertaining lie. Charles Bronson plays a meek New York architect who stalks street-level criminals after his wife and daughter are assaulted. (They made five of these.) He arms himself, lures street thugs into attacking him and them guns them down. It’s joyless business; think Taxi Driver without the art. There’s an example of a scene here.

The movie that first made me realize New York was the devil's vacation home.

Taxi Driver—The snarling movie of New York racism and rage. Travis Bickle, a semi-autistic square, attempts to build a life for himself driving a cab through the dark. Back from Vietnam, unstable, unable to express himself, Bickle is transformed by the atrocious decay he witnesses. I saw parts of this film when I was 10 (including Scorsese’s speech, here). The scaffolding of the film, and the source of its eerie, hypnotic power, is its potent, unspoken racism. To this day, I can’t get a clean and clear look at New York. I keep seeing the red taillights of the cab, as they slide through the mist with that haunting Bernard Hermann score.

A forgotten movie with a great cast and tons of New York.

The Anderson Tapes—I could list fifty movies of vigilante justice and gang bangers, but where would be the fun in that? Here, Sean Connery plays a rascally thief out for a big score. The target is a building of wealthy tenants on the Upper East Side. The story carries the characters back and forth across the city while various governmental agencies record their conversations. The movie is excellent, for the uninitiated, and has two great speeches from Alan King, unrelated to the main plotline but essential to the film’s meaning.

An antidote to a year's worth of feel-good movies.

The Pawnbrowker—Sidney Lumet’s bleak exploration of the consequences of the Holocaust on a survivor’s life is a scathing American response to the French New Wave. Harlem comes alive as a seething ghetto, a collision of languages and cultures. Rod Steiger is astonishing as the morose, defeated pawnbroker of the title, who spends his bitter remaining days sitting in judgment at the New York freakshow that passes through his shop every day. At the film’s center is a vicious black hole: there is no hope for people, not in a world as horrid as this. Not all art is made to inspire, or uplift; some films just bear witness to the awful unraveling of a man’s frozen heart.

Almost beautiful enough to make you forget the horrible things.

Manhattan—It’s one of the richest cities in the world, but the movies seem to forget the absurd concentration of wealth. Woody Allen doesn’t traffic with the uber-rich, just upper middle class people locked in untidy love games. Manhattan is Woody Allen’s love letter to the city and his one movie he hates the most. It’s hard to see why. The script is sharp, the cinematography is stunning and it’s all set to a Gershwin score. Perhaps Woody Allen’s finest hour, and this is saying a lot.

The bitter taste of no food, cold wind, and a city full of indifference.

Midnight Cowboy—Go now and wiggle in revulsion and disgust. John Schlesinger moves through the ragged edges of the city, its barrios and tenements, a revel amongst hustlers and pimps and gigolos and perverts. The city is a giant dump, infested with human vermin scuttling along in total squalor.

Pop culture perfection.

The Warriors—A slash and burn cartoon of a movie, with great New York locations, including scenes in all five boroughs. The storyline is ripped from ancient history: the Warriors, a Coney Island gang, are blamed for the murder of the visionary king, and have to fight their way back across the city, with every local gang gunning for them. (Xenophon would have approved.) It’s an oddball little film, operating with its own logic. I saw this when I was a child, and was bewitched by its kooky charm. I still love it.


Marathon Man—A problematic film that covers huge chunks of the city, including lots of Central Park.

The Wanderers—Not a very good movie, although pungent and powerful to the eight-year-old me. Lots of New York, including Greenwich Village.

Nighthawks—A very silly movie—a major plot point is Sylvester Stallone’s willingness to dress up in drag—but with some great New York shots, especially in Harlem.

Across 110th Street—A great first half, misfired second, this gritty little cop drama wanders up and down Harlem.

He Got Game—An uneven, perhaps even terrible film, but it’s got Brooklyn bald and beautiful all over.

The Taking of Pelham One, Two, Three—Perhaps New York can only be understood underground, in the subways; this lazy little gem follows a terrorist plot on a subway car.

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