I’ve always loved New York films. Growing up deep in suburban Connecticut my access to the city of all cities was limited at best; a trip or two a year strictly following the late 80’s early 90’s visitor play book of only trekking into the safest and most touristy of areas. While these trips were always an education most of what formed my views of New York City for better or worse came from cinema. The bustling streets tucked within endless labyrinths of metal and glass were always something to experience in person, mysterious and imposing, yet charged with a life far different then the one that I was used to. Once safely tucked back in suburbia films became the window back into that world, a vantage point from which I could continue my education, even if the views it sometimes offered were less then factual.
The films that I’m speaking of are no doubt from a specific time in the city’s history. “Midnight Cowboy”, “The French Connection”, “The Taking of Pelham 123”, and of course anything by Woody Allen are what come to mind first as being quintessential New York to me, and probably most others in my age range. But years go by, times change, and the New York that once was no longer exists. It’s 2016 now and even after spending the last three years living in New York City I can still say that I love New York films. Since my younger days there have been countless more movies featuring the city made, but I’ll always go back to the ones I remember most from my suburban childhood.
I’ve found that my love for these movies has become more refined as time went on. I am undoubtedly drawn to a very specific subset of New York cinema which could be loosely classified as ” urban apocalyptic”. Those films that set out to capture, even satirize the more harrowing aspects of life in what was a decaying metropolis. Along these lines one of my favorites has to be 1979’s “The Warriors”. Directed by Walter Hill and based on Sol Yurick‘s 1965 novel, the story is set in a not so distant from reality New York City which has become overrun by gangs, focusing specifically on The Warriors a gang framed for the murder of Cyrus, a well respected gang leader.
Cyrus’ murder on the night he was to address a gathering of all of the city’s gangs sends The Warriors on the run from the Bronx back to their home turf in Brooklyn. A hit is put out on them through an underground radio station and the gang’s journey into the dark night of the city’s soul begins.
Cinematography is just as much about what you are shooting as it is how you are shooting it, and the streets of 1978 New York provided the production with near limitless options for ready made sets. Facing sporadic bouts of bad weather cinematographer Andrew Laszlo opted to wet down all of the streets the crew was shooting for consistency. It was a trick that also served to imbue the surroundings with a hyper textuality. Cold steel, pavement, decay and darkness was the world of The Warriors. Even though director Walter Hill has said that the film was supposed to be a dystopian vision of New York in some near future, given the state of New York in the 70’s reality and fantasy were definitely not so far removed from one another.
Hill and Laszlo employed color in strategic ways, be it through subtle to not so subtle washes of light or interestingly inspired wardrobe choices. As a result the narrative is given that extra dimension of surreality, perhaps even a very light suggestion of sci-fi.
The filmmakers also utilize quiet framings to enhance The Warriors plight. Shots of empty city streets and rusted out subway platforms emphasize the characters’ isolation, exiled into the murky fringes of an already fringe society. In an instant they are subject to the very dangers they were once very much a part of doling out, only having themselves and each other to rely on.
I suspect that it’s shots like these that most pique my fascination with New York films such as “The Warriors”, as well as with New York City itself. Over the course of 30 years so much has changed here, and films like these are more documents of a specific time and place, rather then reflections of reality. That said, there are still plenty of pockets of past New York which still exist, even though these days I don’t often find myself in one.
Every once in a while however I catch a glimpse of an empty ally way to nowhere, or find myself on a mostly deserted subway car and tense up, my brain playing back not only real life danger scenarios, but also those iconic scenes of violence and mayhem in those New York films that I grew up with and continue watching to this day.
Thanks to http://film-grab.com/ for the stills.