NYC. The Big Apple. From Harlem to Wall Street. Brooklyn to The Bronx. Coney Island to The Statue of Liberty. Is there any city more cinematic? It can be your romantic playground or a grimy labyrinth where dreams go to die. You can be surrounded and alone. Set out like a grid but teeming with life. All the worlds art, culture, food and people piled on top of each other. I love movies set in New York. Here are some recent ones I’ve watched.
Conspiracy Theory (1997)
Richard Donner directs Mel Gibson, Julia Roberts and Patrick Stewart in this thriller where a paranoid taxi driver realises some of his outlandish conspiracy theories are bringing him to the very real attentions of a shadowy security agency.
After Princess Diana died, the U.K. seemed to collectively lean into the rather artless comforts of the just released The Full Monty. Yet the same weekend that tragedy struck, my group of mates were more palpably excited about going to see Conspiracy Theory. Mel! Julia! Donner! Action! A healthy slice of The X-Files paranoia spun into a late summer blockbuster from the makers of Lethal Weapon. The first half is a lot of gritty larks. Mel plays Jerry as a batshit but loveable creep and watching him realise his worst delusions are coming true, evading the authorities like a Looney Tunes The Fugitive, makes for Saturday night slam bang of the highest order. Highlights are a truly ridiculous escape in a wheelchair and an equally slapstick hospital runaround. His dark, stalkery obsession with Julia Roberts’ angelic lawyer is kept on the right side of acceptable, puppy dog sweet, and this is possibly one of the cleanest uses of her wholesome star power. The threat escalates with some nasty lurches, Carter Burwell’s cheeky score makes even the worst tortures and tightest spots seem like jaunty japes. The narrative does get lost in a series of repetitive looping near escapes and fake deaths by the last act. It doesn’t satisfyingly conclude so much as give up. Donner adds his usual gloss to the puddle soaked streets of Manhattan… clearly enjoying making an action romantic comedy in the borrowed settings of Scorsese and Lumet’s crunchier dramas.
Light Sleeper (1992)
Paul Schrader directs Willem Dafoe, Susan Sarandon and Dana Delaney in this crime drama where a high class drug dealer weighs up his options when his boss decides to retire and one of his clients turns murderous.
A respin of Taxi Driver and American Gigolo, though existing in the more rarefied world of grand hotel lobbies, neon night clubs, video rental shops and Fifth Avenue crematoriums. That garbage strike won’t last forever… in fact the real sanitation workers of New York often started cleaning up Schrader’s unsightly set dressings while filming, thinking it was actual refuse and not visual metaphor. There’s a definite sense of a city shifting… we are watching crime being gentrified. First time I visited New York I expected it to be like this, not Friends. A world where the rich are above interacting with the poor or the authorities for even their most illegal vices. Dafoe’s existential worrier, a good soul in a demon’s profession, is their conduit. Looking respectable enough to make it past security but street smart enough that he can buy a revolver in a leather bar. Had the strangest sense of déjà vu watching this. As I often do delving into films from the very early 1990s. I was just getting into film as a teenager, did I watch this late night and not log what it was? How could I forget Susan Sarandon’s enigmatic but glamorous turn as a boutique drug retailer who runs Dafoe? There’s a lot of DNA between this and Brett Easton Ellis’ American Psycho too. It could almost be a spin-off movie or companion novella where we follow the main cast’s pusher. Schrader really really influenced the novelist, this feels like the answer song. Other movies do all this better, many from the same maker, but in its most apt moments Light Sleeper is a very watchable character study.
King of New York (1990)
Abel Ferrara directs Christopher Walken, Laurence Fishburne and Wesley Snipes in this gangster actioner where a crime boss is released from prison and starts a war with everyone while trying to fund a neighbourhood hospital.
Again, I don’t specifically remember watching this but I must have as a kid… it is all too familiar. It is very comic booky, especially in its violence. Ferrara sets up twenty or so recognisable faces just so he can gun them down bloodily, and those faces nearly all are played by future stars… CARUSO / BUSCEMI / RANDLE / GUS FRING… even that cool guy from Frankenhooker and Street Trash plays a doomed cop. It is pretty rote and gaudy… Ferrara doesn’t have anything more to say about violence and corruption than Scarface did. But this has a brevity to it I appreciate. And Walken and Fishburne are doing fascinating work. Overacting? For sure. But really pumping it out. “He’s a fucking glitter-boy! He’s looking to get sprayed, laid, played and slayed. You know what I’m sayin’?”
Keith Haring: Street Art Boy (2020)
Ben Anthony directs Keith Haring, Kenny Scharf and Fab 5 Freddy in this documentary looking at the life and work of the iconic 1980s pop artist.
Those dancing jellybean men are a landmark touchstone to my childhood but I never really knew much about the artist who created them. This is a solid biography giving you a good firm brushstroke overview of Haring’s life, development as an artist and popularity. The view of New York’s street art movement and gay clubbing scenes of Eighties ring true with other works contemporary and current. While it doesn’t do all that much different with the standard documentary form the subject is groundbreaking enough, and the artwork prolific and stimulating, that you never grow bored. Nice that his straight laced parents had so much love for their son, when so many other gay children from his background were treated like outsiders in that era. Possibly would have preferred a tad more interrogation about a middle class white boy adopting a black urban form but maybe there really isn’t anything further to say there?
The Apartment (1960)
Billy Wilder directs Jack Lemmon, Shirley MacLaine and Fred MacMurray in this romantic comedy where a low level office drone loans his city centre apartment out to the philandering executives.
A very bitter drama told with sitcom quirk and zippy energy of something fluffier and safer. It looks flawless and has the barbed preciseness to land blows against gender and financial inequalities without feeling didactic. MacLaine’s Fran Kubelik is one of the first “modern” female screen characters. Putting a voice to women who want love and independence, need honesty and affection. Don’t want to be defined by their uniform or sexual history or looks. I’m not entirely sure Wilder and Diamond knew the words they put in her mouth would still ring true and quite so feminist. As brilliant writers as they are I’m sure they were just reaching to put a beatnik spin on Sugar Kane. But MacLaine finds more pathos and yearning and despondency and chagrin in the script than I’m sure ever was intended. Lemmon’s Baxter doesn’t hold up quite so well under contemporary gaze… but one point most reviewers overlook are his motivations. He isn’t doing all this for a promotion even if that’s the upshot. He is just as trapped as Fran, the bosses threaten if he doesn’t play ball and let them have his home he’ll be out on his ear. That’s why it is so unnerving to watch The Apartment as a romcom. It is about two fearful souls caught in the grift of corporate America, the patriarchy, the urban hive. Suicide attempts, workplace misconduct, alcoholism. In Soviet Russia it was viewed as a self lacerating indictment of the American system. Wilder put them straight when he was at an East Berlin Film Festival. “The Apartment could happen anywhere, in Hong Kong, Tokyo, Rome, Paris, London. The reason this picture could not have taken place in Moscow is that in Moscow nobody has his own apartment.” Humanity is corrupt whatever the system, Wilder holds up a broken mirror to us, not politics. One of Natalie’s favourites.
Maniac Cop (1988)
William Lustig directs Tom Atkins, Bruce Campbell and Richard Roundtree in this horror exploitation flick where a New York City cop is rampaging through the streets killing criminals and citizens with vigilante brutality.
A Larry Cohen script. The whodunnit aspect works best. Even after the mystery is solved and we have some idea of which cop the killer is, all the other detectives, officers and captains remain corrupt and unheroic. It is a pretty cheapo slasher despite its anti-establishment leanings. Campbell doesn’t really give his full effort as the de facto lead but it ends with an on location bang. The last set piece looks like it puts its stuntman in some pretty lethal peril. Hope he made it out ok!?!
The King of Comedy (1982)
It isn’t gold standard Scorsese but it is still better made than most other directors’ output. Playing with video and keeping his camera fixed and mid shot for the first time ever, this is is still virtuoso in its production design and editing. We have the glorious Thelma Schoonmaker to thank for that. She cuts it so the shifts between reality and fantasy become imperceptible. How many Scorsese films end with us not sure what is dream? Too many? I love how Rupert and Jerry start off in the same place – same suit, stuck in the throng, wanting to be in that limo backseat for different reasons. They are both lonely, alienated characters. When Jerry stops to look at Pickup On South Street on one of his three tellys he isn’t admiring a Sam Fuller classic. He’s envious of the man who can travel on public transport, so faceless in a crowd he can steal from a purse and have a loaded flirtatious exchange with a stranger. Jerry (Langford / Lewis) can’t walk the streets without being catcalled and pestered. Interactions cannot happen naturally so he shuns them. He is just as sad a character as the sociopathic Rupert Pupkin. What is real in The Pup King’s world? The man who mimics him behind his back on the date. The mammoth, elaborately decorated and expensively kitted out basement under his mother’s house. The positive audience reaction to his bleak stand-up monologue. We can’t trust anything in this movie. Sandra Bernhard’s improvised performance is pretty amazing for a newcomer. The King of Comedy is a bit too tightly wound and desolate to love. But you can always zone out from the foreground action and look at that heaving Time Square crowd work. The rubbernecking onlookers ruining shots. The movie billboards advertising releases no longer showing. A harried Chinese man cutting through the action, half running to get to his own story, oblivious to the fact he is being immortalised on celluloid.
Check out my wife Natalie’s Point Horror blog https://cornsyrup.co.uk
We also do a podcast together called The Worst Movies We Own. It is available on Spotify or here https://letterboxd.com/bobbycarroll/list/the-worst-movies-we-own-podcast-ranking-and/