In the second of his regular columns about great Hollywood movies, Mike Sutton has looked at ten of the best films set in the city that, allegedly, never sleeps.
No.2, June 2002
NEW YORK STORIES
Welcome to the second of my regular “Hollywood Ten” column. As usual, I’ll be making a very personal choice of ten American movies which are currently available on DVD to fit a given theme. The strictures – self-imposed – are one film per director and as little repetition between the lists as possible. This time I’ll be looking at films set in that most iconic of American cities, New York. Always one of the cities which we feel we know, whether or not we’ve been there.
To a great extent such a list writes itself, since there are certain directors who have based their careers around making films in the city and who can’t be ignored in a survey of what has become a genre in itself – Woody Allen of course, Martin Scorsese, Sidney Lumet and Spike Lee to name the most famous. But many other directors have used New York to make some of their best work. The only title I would have added is The Sweet Smell Of Success, but as I included that as part of the “Hollywood In The 50s” selection I have omitted it here
THE APARTMENT (1960, United Artists, Billy Wilder)
There are very few films which treat the city that, according to Kander and Ebb, never sleeps, with so great a mixture of caustic satire and romantic affection as Billy Wilder’s The Apartment. Jack Lemmon is at his peak as a comic actor as the nebbish insurance clerk who loans his apartment keys to his superiors in the hope of getting a promotion but finds himself in difficulties when he falls in love with a lift girl (Shirley MacLaine) who happens to be the mistress of his boss. Wilder’s view of New York life is one of virtually unrelenting sleaze, most of it involving men lusting after booze, women and whatever else they can get their hands on, but he also offers the possibility of a deeply romantic, pure redemption – Lemmon’s character, C.C.Baxter, may be a schmuck but he’s also a knight in not-so-shining armour whose essential goodness finally wins the day over the forces of power and money. MacLaine has rarely been more appealing than as the poor, manipulated mistress of the surprisingly nasty Fred McMurray and the scenes where she attempts suicide only to be found and revived by Baxter have a sour taste that even the wish-fulfilling ending can’t quite wash away. Wilder and his writing partner I.A.L.Diamond understand that romantic comedy is much more satisfying if the romance is as intense and painful as the comedy is funny and that’s why their films are still fresh and vital when last year’s efforts in the same genre have already been forgotten (Bounce anyone ?). As for it being a definitive New York film, the opening narration alone makes it a favourite – has city life ever been summed up with quite so much satiric accuracy ?
This film is available on a bare-bones MGM disc on R1 and R2. Although the disc lacks any features over than a trailer, the anamorphic 2.35:1 transfer is pretty good and you will be able to buy it online for a reasonable price.
DOG DAY AFTERNOON (1975, Warner Bros, Sidney Lumet)
Sidney Lumet has become known as the consummate New York filmmaker despite the fact that he’s made lots of films set elsewhere – including suburban England in The Offence, LA in The Morning After and on a train traversing continental Europe in Murder On The Orient Express. But it’s for his New York films that he is justly celebrated and choosing one is not an easy task. But, despite the excellence of Serpico and Prince Of The City I have to go with Dog Day Afternoon because, apart from anything else, it’s a textbook example of stylish, economical location filmmaking serving a great actor and a fine screenplay. In charting the unusual events of August 22nd 1972, Lumet builds up a convincing and finely detailed portrait of a city in the grip of a heatwave where an incompetent robbery by nobodies Sonny (Al Pacino) and Sal (John Cazale) turns into a major media event. True, it’s somewhat sentimental once the plot takes a turn into an investigation of Sonny’s sexual life and there is a certain sense in which Lumet’s interest in character threatens to overwhelm the plot but these are minor niggles and without them we wouldn’t get the marvellous scene in which Sonny talks to his lover on the phone, still the finest single piece of acting which Pacino has ever given us. What the film offers most of all, however, is an acute sense of New York life at a particular moment – the move from frenzied afternoon crowds to a claustrophobic evening car ride with the police is brilliantly handled, as are the set-pieces in which Sonny winds up the crowd like a master showman. What the film offers is a sense of how exciting city life can be while acknowledging how ephemeral the excitements can be – Sonny’s fifteen minutes of fame are ended as abruptly as they begin.
I’ve reviewed the R2 release of this for DVD Times here. The Region 1 disc would appear to be virtually identical.
DO THE RIGHT THING (1989, Universal, Spike Lee)
One of the great things about Spike Lee as a filmmaker is that he manages to upset such a broad cross-section of people. Liberal directors like Stanley Kramer and Norman Jewison who have dealt with the issue of race relations are so tactful that no-one could possibly take offence at their work but Lee goes straight for the jugular with an energetic assault on the topic that is passionate, funny and hugely powerful. Set during a suffocatingly hot 24 hours in Brooklyn, Lee’s film examines how a series of seemingly unimportant actions gradually escalate into tragedy and violence. What marks this out as a polemic is that Lee is careful not to fall into the trap of simplification. As you would expect, the Afro-American characters are entirely believable and played with enormous comic energy by a great cast, but they are not idealised, and the Italians are drawn with equal affection and humour. Indeed, Danny Aiello’s performance as Sal, owner of the pizza parlour which is at the centre of the story, is his best ever work. The escalation of the heat-induced irritation into a race riot is beautifully handled and Lee is careful not to show his hand too soon – the first hour is an appealing and touching examination of life for a multi-racial community during the summer and his own character, Mookie, is played with just the right edge of likeable selfishness. The care taken with providing a realistic context for the explosion pays off in spades during the second half when a shockingly casual killing leads to mob violence. It’s a great film full stop, but it’s a great New York film because it is electric with an energy and invention that comes straight from a life lived in the locale. It’s got a lot more in common with Scorsese’s Mean Streets than other films of the Afro-American filmmaking boom of the early nineties, and that’s meant as a major compliment. Time and again in his best work, Spike Lee shows that he is a master of human observation with a particular talent for spotting and capitalising upon the slightest of details. I should also mention the brilliance of the dialogue, handled beautifully by the likes of Aiello, Ossie Davis and the excellent – and deliberately irritating – Giancarlo Esposito. The climax is followed by a fantastic personal touch from the witty Lee – contradictory quotations from Malcolm X and Martin Luther King which are guaranteed to get anyone with the slightest political commitment into a very lengthy and inconclusive argument.
You can purchase a marvellous Criterion release of this film with superb technical credits and excellent special features
THE FRENCH CONNECTION (1971, Fox, William Friedkin)
In retrospect, it’s surprising that The French Connection was so widely acclaimed, let alone such a success at the Academy Awards. It’s an edgy, difficult and unusual cop thriller which set new standards for the use of location filming and raised the bar for anyone thinking of including a car chase in their movies. Gene Hackman’s excellent performance as the maverick cop Popeye Doyle – racist, misanthropic, misogynist, paranoid obsessive – brings the rather too familiar plotline into sharp relief, adding a layer of potent self-disgust that it’s hard to shake off when the film is over. But what you remember, along with the car chase and the exceptional performances, is New York, looming over the film like a bad debt. It looks very unappealing and this seems entirely intentional. Owen Roizman made a name for himself largely from this film and he captures the seamier side of the city with immense skill. The grainy, harsh look of the film gives it the feeling of documentary, notably in the interior scenes which are often so dingy that the viewer has to strain to see the details. But Friedkin layers the grim reality with a constant humour and visual invention that crackles with authenticity – the scene where Popeye shakes down the bar being my favourite example – and Fernando Rey’s suave drug smuggler adds an important edge of elegance to a film which is otherwise as brash and vulgar as you could desire. The aforementioned car chase remains, for me, the greatest in film history because it looks so damned real – possibly because much of it was filmed with Hackman himself driving hell for leather down a busy road. Screen action doesn’t get much better than this. The film itself is great too; compelling, ironic and fascinatingly ambivalent about its central character.
You can find this film in an excellent Five Star Special Edition from Fox on R1, which I have reviewed here, and the same disc is also available in a box set with John Frankenheimer’s rather good sequel. The R2 is only available in a three disc set with the sequel but it otherwise identical in terms of features.
MANHATTAN (1979, United Artists, Woody Allen)
Manhattan is often described as a love letter to New York. But if that’s so, it’s a love letter written in poison, professing an adoration of New York while showing its inhabitants as being self-centred, snobbish intellectual parasites who feed off each others’ neuroses while casually betraying the people whom they love most. Woody Allen’s script is as witty as anything he’s ever written, making you laugh about things which, frankly, aren’t very funny at all. HIs character, Isaac Davis, is a TV comedy writer searching for something pure and uncorrupted and only finding it, paradoxically, in an illegal relationship with a beautiful 17 year old, Tracey (Mariel Hemingway). He then throws it all away as he decides to romance his best friend’s ex-mistress, played by Allen’s real-life ex Diane Keaton. This is not an ego-trip for Allen, it’s a rather unattractive portrait of a man who can’t appreciate happiness until it’s in the past and whose lack of faith in other people, as Tracey points out at the end, is his fundamental flaw. But two things make this more than just another self-obsessed comedy about a self-pitying failure. Firstly, the constant stream of great jokes which culminate in an ending which allows a guarded hint of optimism. Secondly, the stunning cinematography from Gordon Willis which is, in itself, a valentine to the city. New York has never looked more romantic or full of possibilities than it does in this monochrome vision accompanied by the glorious sounds of the lovingly assembled Gershwin soundtrack. The opening is particularly noteworthy, a sequence of images of life in the city accompanied by a hilarious monologue from Allen. I don’t think he will ever top this film; it’s hung over everything he’s made ever since and it’s unlikely that anything new from him will ever quite match up to it.
I have reviewed the R1 release of this film for DVD Times here. It’s a pretty good package despite the lack of extra features – explained by Allen’s distaste for bonus materials. The R2 would appear to be very similar.
ON THE TOWN (1948, MGM, Gene Kelly/Stanley Donen)
The first time I ever saw New York was on a Sunday afternoon movie matinee. The film was the joyous musical On The Town and it looks as good now as it did all those years ago. Basically, it’s a film inspired by Jules Dassin’s ground-breaking New York location work for The Naked City. Donen and Kelly persuaded Louis B.Mayer to let them loose in New York for the adaptation of a minor Broadway hit and the result was one of the great film musicals. It has an energy and spirit which are rare even for the golden period of MGM musicals and the decision to shoot on location results in some wonderful scenes, with the opening “New York” remaining a classic example of how to set up your story and characters in five minutes flat. The plot of three sailors on a weekend pass is a bit creaky and, admittedly, Gene Kelly is an acquired taste and Sinatra has a smug look which he only lost three years later in From Here To Eternity, but the script is funny, Jules Munshin and Vera Ellen are so good it makes you wonder why they didn’t make more films, and the choreography is as good as you would expect from Stanley Donen. It’s a worthy successor to the first great Arthur Freed musical, Meet Me In St Louis, and it obviously points forward to the knockout fifties double of Singin’ In The Rain and The Band Wagon. New York in bright, pristine technicolour has an immediacy and yet a post-war quaintness which is both appealingly nostalgic and slightly jarring – possibly because most New York movies of the forties were made on Hollywood soundstages. Ground-breaking and full of optimistic happiness, this is one of the great feel-good New York movies.
On The Town has been released on an adequate bare-bones Warner disc in Region 1 but is not currently available in the UK.
ROSEMARY’S BABY (1968, Paramount, Roman Polanski)
Polanski’s first American film is an elegant, subtle study in indefinable menace which only sporadically erupts into full-scale horror. As Rosemary (Mia Farrow) becomes pregnant after a disturbing dream and begins to believe that her baby is to be the pawn of a horrific Satanic conspiracy, Polanski is very careful to ensure that her behaviour could be easily explained as the emotional side-effects of a difficult pregnancy. Central to this is his use of New York as an urban hell of paranoid isolation where the metaphorical dislocation of people allows awful things to happen unnoticed by anyone. The brilliant cinematography of William Fraker contrasts the spacious busy streets with the singular perspective of Rosemary, notably in the scenes where the cheerful bustle or the beautiful early evening sunlight belies what is really happening. Richard Sylbert’s production design is extraordinary too, using the Gothic splendour of the Dakota building as the location for the allegedly cursed Bramston Apartments – incidentally, if sinisterly appropriate, this was the hotel outside which John Lennon was shot. A sinuous, witty and genuinely unnerving film where what you don’t see is considerably more unsettling than what you do – note the use Polanski makes of half-seen characters and open doors where you can see a little but not quite enough. If this isn’t the best horror film ever made, it’s certainly in there pitching.
You can buy this movie on DVD in Region 1 and 2 from Paramount. The picture quality is generally good, with the PAL R2 having the edge, and the brief special features are interesting enough. You can read my DVD Times review of the R1 release here
THE TAKING OF PELHAM 123 (1974, United Artists, Joseph Sargent)
Walter Matthau, jowls sagging like a particularly disgruntled bulldog, eyelids growing heavier with each fresh disaster, is the perfect New York hero and The Taking Of Pelham 123 is one of the great New York thrillers. It uses the tumult of the streets and the finely balanced organised chaos of the Public Transit system to further the suspense of an already exciting ransom drama and pokes cynical fun at the politics of the city at the same time. Matthau’s world-weary acceptance of any event, no matter how absurd, makes him ideal for this city because he never pretends to be heroic – indeed, his heroism is precisely located in his normality. Joseph Sargent and the writer Peter Stone have plenty of fun with the caricature ethnic New Yorkers, while ensuring there is always a nice little sting in the tail of the cliche – I particularly like the visit of the Japanese Subway representatives – and inamongst the hustling and the foul language is a high degree of wit and some wonderfully cynical comedy – “Screw the passengers ! What do they expect for their 35 cents, to live forever ?”. Owen Roizman, DP on 3 of the films on this list, contrasts the open spaces of above the city with the tightly packed subway and provides his usual gritty authenticity – you can almost smell the place. Sargent does some finely poised handling of the crowds of people assembled to watch the drama. Robert Shaw and Martin Balsam produce some of their finest work as the colour coded men who hijack a train, but the real stars are Matthau and the city.
MGM have released this film in Region 1 and 2 on a bare-bones disc which is adequate but not much more. I’ve reviewed the R2 version for DVD Times here
TAXI DRIVER (1976, Columbia, Martin Scorsese)
Martin Scorsese is another of the New York signature directors. His ventures away from the city have sometimes been successful but often uncomfortable. In films as varied as Mean Streets and The Age Of Innocence he presents a view of New York which is a mixture of sentiment, anger and awe and as confused and messy as you’d expect from someone who has lived their for the majority of his life. For me, his definitive statement on the city is Taxi Driver, but it’s also his most powerfully ambivalent. Every loving frame demonstrates how much he loves the place but the film turns it into some kind of neon hell full of corruption and loneliness. Robert De Niro, giving one of his best performances, is awesomely scary as Travis Bickle, a Vietnam veteran turned cab driver who tries to find redemption; first in romance and then in violence, as his view of the city becomes ever more twisted and paranoid. Michael Chapman’s extraordinary cinematography makes wonderful use of steam as the yellow cab comes out of the mist like a mythological creature and proceeds to present the city as variously as Travis perceives it – when he’s in love it’s all sun and space, when in the mood for vengeance it becomes increasingly claustrophic until everything is dark and sleazy in the climactic hotel sequence. Scorsese’s direction is full of imaginative little twists on familiar scenes – Travis’s rejection on the phone for example, where the humiliation is such that the camera shies away from meeting it head on. Yet , for all the pain and violence, it’s not an unrelieved nightmare. Humour and goodness shine out every so often like shafts of light at the end of a very dark tunnel, with Travis’s doomed attempt to save an adolescent prostitute Iris (Jodie Foster) motivated by something noble deep in the vaults of his soul, even if it ends as bloody nightmare. Bernard Herrman’s ominous score is the final touch and it might best be described as the result of Wagner meeting Miles Davis. The film ends on a note of illusory salvation with the true nature of the beast evident in the dead space behind Travis’ eyes. Try watching this in a double bill with The Age Of Innocence, another film about how the city can be as destructive as it is packed with possibilities for transcendent love. Then watch The Searchers, another inspiration behind this film and another story of how paranoid isolation can never quite be redeemed.
Scorsese’s great movie is available on an excellent disc from Columbia in Region 1 and 2. You can read my review of the r1 disc on DVD Times here
TOOTSIE (1982, Columbia, Sydney Pollack)
It’s very rare that a film which was hell to shoot turns out to be an enduring classic, but Sydney Pollack’s joyous New York drag comedy is an exception. Stories of endless rows between Dustin Hoffman and Pollack, at least five writers working on the screenplay, location problems, clashes between cast members, arguments between Pollack and DP Owen Roizman; you name it, there was probably a problem. Yet, viewing the finished product, you would be hard pressed to guess that it wasn’t as much fun to make as it is to watch. Tootsie captures an important side of New York – the hundreds of unemployed actors willing to do anything to keep afloat until their turn for fame finally arrives. The vibrancy of the New York theatre life, the desperation of the actors facing endless auditions and the smug vanity of those actors who have made it are all captured with unerring accuracy in this movie, which is also that rare beast – a romantic comedy which is both romantic and genuinely funny. Hoffman, in what is for my money his best performance, plays a hopelessly difficult actor whose only chance of a job turns out to be as the new female character on a dreadful but popular TV Soap. As in all drag comedies, the problems begin when he falls in love with a woman who only knows him as his female alter-ego. The poignancy of Hoffman’s dilemma is played straight but saccharine sentimentality is kept well at bay through the well structured farcical set-pieces and the biting humour at the expense of the acting profession. Roizman’s trademark gritty photography adds a vital layer of realism and New York looks wonderful without the seamier side being glossed over – at one point, Teri Garr playing Hoffman’s on/off girlfriend says “The cab fares are insane now anyway, it’s cheaper to get mugged”. It should go without saying that the supporting cast are uniformally brilliant, with stand-out moments from Charles Durning, an uncredited Bill Murray and Pollack himself, as Hoffman’s exasperated agent.
A much-trailed special edition of this film is apparently still in the works at Columbia. For now you can buy a basic movie+trailer disc on R1 and R2. Both versions are anamorphic and the image quality is very pleasing.
Please feel free to post below or mail me with comments, criticisms or your own views.
The next column, which will hopefully appear rather sooner than this one did, will be my selection of ten great Hollywood movies of the sixties.
It’s the end, but the moment has been prepared for…
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