The memory of September 11 has not dimmed the spirit of New Yorkers. How do I know? I am a New Yorker, born and bred, a former ad guy at Oglivy and, now a film critic, or as I prefer to describe myself, a "film advocate" -- meaning simply, I only talk about movies I love -- a happy luxury, but undergirded by a serious goal.
I have a Quixote-like quest to have people appreciate the stories and excellence of the world's best movies, old and new, most of them now accessible on DVD, or even for downloading. After all, if our kids read literary classics to understand the tenor of a certain time and culture, why not do the same thing with great movies? While reading is vital, I'd submit that film is the most powerfully concentrated medium there is.
I loved movies virtually from day one. Every single day after school as a small kid, I'd rush home 17 blocks in time for ABC's "4:30 Movie," followed by Channel 9's "Million Dollar Movie" at 8 p.m. My familiar refrain was: "Close the curtains, boys. Cagney is on".
With these nostalgic feelings in mind, here is a list of the best movies that reflect the resilience and resourcefulness of New Yorkers, the unequaled color and energy of the city, and why our indomitable determination and appreciation for all cultures will always help us prevail.
The World Of Henry Orient (1964) -- This may be the film that transports me back most completely to my early childhood . Directed by George Roy Hill, World recounts the Manhattan adventures of two 12-year old, private school girls who fixate on, then systematically stalk, a third-rate orchestra conductor and Lothario (the peerless Peter Sellers). A skillful blending of comedy and drama, the movie is funny, intelligent, and knowing. The two young female leads, both non-actors, give the natural performances for the time. And Angela Lansbury plays one girl's cold, adulterous mother to perfection. The girls are literally dead ringers for my sister and her giggly Chapin friends. This was the New York of my earliest days.
Rosemary's Baby (1967) -- Roman Polanski's cult shocker is another quintessentially quirky New York film. Shot on location at The Dakota apartment building (where John Lennon lived and died), this portrayal of a modern day witches' coven with designs on the unborn child of a pregnant housewife, remains a subtle, literate chiller that builds to a heart-pounding finish. Mia Farrow is suitably fragile as Rosemary, while John Cassavetes and Ruth Gordon stand out in first-rate support. In all its overheated, gothic claustrophobia, Baby brings back my childhood summers, when air conditioning was far from universal, and when the Lovin' Spoonful offered our only hope when it proclaimed: "But at night it's a different world/Go out and find a girl."
The Odd Couple (1968) -- Couple was the second and best pairing of real-life buddies Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau, playing two divorced men who are polar opposites and yet attempt to be roommates. Neil Simon's story had been a play, and would also spawn both a long-running TV series and an ill-advised sequel. The inspired premise of a platonic, male love/hate relationship is best realized in this, the original film, with Lemmon's neurotic and melancholy Felix Unger counter-balanced by Matthau's Oscar Madison, a casual, carefree sportswriter who gives new meaning to the word "slovenly." This movie also feels true to my memories of Manhattan, since my buddies and I loved it so much that we did our own kids' adaptation for Browning's lower school (I played Oscar). Coincidentally, my wife and I also lived for years in the building where the movie was shot (131 Riverside Drive).
The French Connection (1971) -- Connection relates the real-life story of a dogged NYPD detective ( "Popeye" Eddie Egan, who's in the movie as well!), who busts a large heroin ring virtually single-handedly. Gene Hackman's electrifying performance as "Popeye" Doyle won him an Oscar and transformed him from solid supporting player to star. Shot verite-style by William Friedkin, this spellbinding movie evokes the slightly fraying quality of New York 30 years ago, when an unprecedented fiscal crisis loomed. This I recall vividly. Watch for the famous subway scene; you'll note our underground rail system used to be a symbol of urban decay, and dangerous to boot. Also, in those days, you took a risk riding after dark. (Thank you, Mayor Lindsay).
Serpico (1973) -- Sidney Lumet's tense, gritty feature was also based on a true story. Frank Serpico (no names changed) is an eccentric but independent young cop who decides to expose widespread corruption within the police department during the sixties. Featuring a stunning portrayal by Al Pacino in the title role (fresh off The Godfather), Serpico is the ultimate David and Goliath story, about the price of virtue in a less than virtuous world: first, isolation; then, violence. This also was my New York: the city of the Knapp Commission, whose findings of police corruption blared from every newspaper headline, the city where it seemed the guardians of law and order could be as dirty as the sidewalks. (This was before the "pooper-scooper" laws, remember.)
Taxi Driver (1976) -- Then, like a hammer blow, came this lurid, creepy gem, for my money still Scorsese's masterpiece. Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro), Vietnam vet turned Manhattan cabbie, is an angry, forgotten man, about to break. His work takes him into the city's cesspool, in contact with various lowlifes, including a pimp named Sport (Harvey Keitel). Sport protects child prostitute Iris (Jodie Foster), whom Travis befriends. He then takes one last stab at a better life, clumsily courting campaign aide Betsy (Cybill Shepherd). But it's clear he doesn't belong in her world, and Bickle finally disintegrates. DeNiro's career-making performance remains unnerving, recalling those real-life outcasts who've used violent crime to tell an oblivious world: "I was here!" Scorsese's dark vision of human alienation in an urban wasteland also captures the seaminess of pre-Giuliani Manhattan, a place I remember vividly. Far from the clean, well-lit, touristy maelstrom of today, 30 years ago Times Square was indeed a place of drug addicts, low-rung prostitutes, and peep shows. I remember sweating with fear the few times we dared go down to Times Square in the seventies. It was not often. (For more such pungent atmosphere, check out Al Pacino's first major role as a small-time drug-pusher in 1971's Panic In Needle Park, just out on DVD).
Manhattan (1979) -- No piece on New York movies of this period can exclude the films of Woody Allen, whose abiding affection for this town colors so much of his work, and finds kindred spirits in all New Yorkers who want to glory in the golden qualities that lie under the city's often thick layers of dirt and dust. Manhattan remains Woody's most overt and visually poetic paean to the city of his birth. The story of a writer and his various relationships among fellow city dwellers, what really occupies center stage here is New York itself, its various images and signposts made indelible by the combination of a Gershwin score and Gordon Willis' breathtaking black and white cinematography. See this sublime tribute to the only place Woody Allen has ever felt truly at home. The film portrays the city as truly heroic, which, with all its surface faults and bruises, it is.
So there you have it -- a fun reminiscence for me, and at the very least, some great movies for you to re-discover. Meanwhile, my own love affair with Manhattan continues, nurtured by these timeless films that both expose and romance this special town, making me recall the early days of our courtship, and just why I fell in love in the first place.
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