50 Films That Capture the Dark Side of New York City


The Museum of the Moving Image’s See It Big! New York in Film series closes on Sunday, September 27. From Taxi Driver to Dog Day Afternoon, the retrospective looks at the gritty and sometimes glamorous side of New York City — “a city of contrasts, energy, diversity, and spectacle.” As the landscape of the city continues to shift, with cultural staples like Kim’s Video closing and the Disneyfication of Times Square changing the world’s view of the city, nostalgia for the gritty, sleazy, crime-ridden New York City of the 1970s and ‘80s seems to be at an all-time high. With that in mind, we’re looking back at the city as it once was in cinema — those films that portray the dark side of New York, with all its pimps, pushers, users, abusers, corrupt cops, underground worlds, and vigilante heroes.

The New York Ripper Directed by Lucio Fulci, 1982

It’s the story of a mad killer committing terrible murders in New York, but to some extent it’s a fantastic film, if only because the police have to spot this madman among twenty million New Yorkers. Much less horror than my previous films, no zombies, but a human killer working in the dark. The setting is deliberately conventional: though I aim at making a new style of thriller, I want to pay a tribute to Hitchcock. The Ripper is in a way a Hitchcock revisited, a fantastic film with a plot, violence, and sexuality. [We shot the film in New York] for four weeks, and with many difficulties, as we had to confront the unions. It’s no easy job sending an Italian crew shooting a small budget film in New York. We had thought of Boston first, because of the famous Strangler, but New York, a town both monstrous and fascinating, finally seemed a better choice. Placing the Ripper in this town would make him a more fantastic figure.

Lucio Fulci

Frankenhooker Directed by Frank Henenlotter, 1990

I can’t speak for the others, but 42nd Street introduced me to a world of films I probably otherwise wouldn’t have gotten to see, and proved that there was a venue for these kinds of films to be shown. I started going there when I was 15. I would cut high school, take a train to Manhattan, and then walk to 42nd Street and try to see as many films as possible. Let me describe the street to you in those days. Theater, next to theater next to theater, on both sides of the street from 7th to 8th Avenue. Yes, some theaters continued down past 6th Avenue and up 8th Avenue, but the concentration of theaters, the action, the excitement was between 7th and 8th. In between the theaters were hot-dog stands and pinball arcades and stores–clothing stores, army and navy stores, but mostly what were then called Back-Date-Magazine Stores. Stores that sold old issues of Life and Look and Time. And, of course, adult paperback, tit magazines, nudist magazines, and even some adult books. Very much the prototype of today’s porno shops. And the theaters were embellished with elaborate displays out front. In addition to the garish one-sheets and photos, a little plywood arch was erected along the sides of the lobby and above the entrance to it so you saw a collage of stills promising sex and violence – some with painted blood added and cleavage with black tape covering the nipples. You had to enter that archway to buy tickets and enter the theater. It was more like a carnival tent than a movie theater. And passing by, all day long, all night long, a parade of people coming and going and occasionally stopping to stare. (I don’t remember ever seeing hookers on the street. You’d see them on 8th Avenue and in Times Square itself, but I don’t ever remember seeing them on 42nd Street. But you did see men dressed as cowboys. I didn’t figure that out at the time but they were gay hustlers, all looking like the cowboys in the Marlboro cigarette commercials.) And the films shown there were… well, almost everything. Everything except the fancy smancy Hollywood A film of the moment. That was at a fancier theater around the corner. But on 42nd Street were double features of Hollywood A films and B’s, kung-fu, horror, westerns, foreign imports, sexploitation, action, you name it. So obviously, the street held many lures for my impressionable teenage mind. By the 80���s, those Back-Date-Magazine stores became full-blown porno shops and the first hardcore magazine and films were sold there on 42nd Street. And by then, porno films were playing theatrically on the big 42nd Street screens.

Frank Henenlotter

Maniac Directed by William Lustig, 1980

I remember it very clearly. When I talk to audiences, I talk about the ’70′s as being the “Golden Age” of serial killers. Because today, the serial killers tend to be these people who we find out is some white trash in a trailer park who buries a girl in the backyard, or they do something horrendous. And it’s terrible, but somehow in the ’70s you had some really colorful people. Remember, Son of Sam was writing to Jimmy Breslin at the New York Daily News, so we were hooked on getting the newspaper. There wasn’t CNN. We were grabbing the newspaper off the newsstand to read about the latest installment of the Son of Sam. You know, we take for granted today the 24-hour news cycle. But back then, it was like getting the early edition of the Daily News, and hearing the latest about this killer on the loose, and following on a day-by-day basis, and only getting those tidbits that you could read in a newspaper. And it was exciting. It was suspenseful. I can put on the news now, and I’ll hear every little update about [Christopher Dorner] on the loose. You know, there’s no suspense. There’s no interest. I’ll tell you, it was like living in a pulp novel. That’s what the ’70′s were like with all these serial killers.

William Lustig

The Driller Killer Directed by Abel Ferrara, 1979

I do remember we didn’t have very much money, but we did have a bottle of Jack Daniels on the dolly at all times. And that was conveniently located for me. There was also a tiny smidgen of drugs, which was probably how I (made it through) the last three days. I shot 50 hours straight and I don’t remember anything. Turning the lights on in Max’s Kansas City was frightening. Things went scurrying to all corners. But we promised the extras an open bar, which didn’t exist. So we had to shoot really quickly because once they realized there wasn’t an open bar, they were gone. We had (The Exorcist make-up artist) Dick Smith’s kid (doing our effects). Dick Smith was probably the biggest special effects guy (at the time). (He had) the best blood. And (his son) Dave Smith brought with him this secret blood that was so red. (One) review was, and we were so proud to get reviewed in Variety, it was ‘Abel Ferrara makes Tobe Hooper look like Federico Fellini and the lighting was so dark it gave me a headache.’

Ken Kelsch, director of photography

Pain Mania Directed by Phil Prince, 1983

Trash Directed by Paul Morrissey, 1970

“Paul knew I had a violent childhood, but also that I was very gentle and very kind. But we had fights during the making of Trash, for sure. Paul knew how to push my buttons. And I came close to losing it with Rex Reed.” —Joe Dallesandro, star of Trash

Each time I make another film, I want to change, but I don’t want to change that much. It’s mostly a question of adapting. I never optioned scripts to agents to show to actors, which is the conventional film-making system in the U. S. I’ve always made independent films in an independent way, and I know it would be nice to preserve some of that: casting them myself, writing the stories myself, having a say in as many things as possible. But I’ve come to the conclusion that by doing things that way, you become isolated from a lot of thing — certainly from the rest of the film business. Critics, especially the New York critics, treat this independence with contempt. They prefer to deal with known quantities like scripts they can evaluate, directors they can find an easy way of talking about.

Paul Morrissey

C.H.U.D. Directed by Douglas Cheek, 1984

I always thought that there was intense mystery about the world underneath a big city like New York. I also think that the idea of things grabbing you from beneath is a strong image that goes back to our childhood. We all fear the monster under the bed. Someone once told me that John Carpenter had a “C.H.U.D.” poster up in is offices during the making of “Escape From New York”. I think there’s a scene in that film that has hands reaching up from beneath. And, of course, there’s “Jaws”. I think that image is very strong.

Andrew Bonime, producer

The Warriors Directed by Walter Hill, 1979

[I]t was just getting the physicality of the movie. Shooting in New York is always a pretty good challenge, although the city was very cooperative. I have a permanent warm spot in my heart for New York for several reasons. One of them is that after the movie came out and there were a lot of problems — all the fights and that kind of thing — Mayor Koch stood up for the movie. He didn’t attack us. There were a lot of politicians who stood up and were grandstanding, but Koch was very sophisticated and generous in his attitudes, as I’ve always found New Yorkers to be. I even married one!

Walter Hill

Gordon’s War Directed by Ossie Davis, 1973

The direction by Ossie Davis is tough and gritty and the whole film is pretty downbeat and unglamorous, which I appreciated. Sure, there are some lighter moments here (most revolve around pimps with colorful names like “Big Pink” and “Spanish Harry”), but Gordon’s War is far more serious and socially conscious than most Blaxploitation action films of the day. Davis also manages to create some great imagery (like the scene where a bunch of topless women are cutting cocaine under black lights) on a shoestring budget.

The Video Vacuum

God Told Me To Directed by Larry Cohen, 1976

“I always love New York and try to work there as often as possible because it’s the greatest city to shoot in and has the most fantastic backlot. The whole city is a great backlot.” —Larry Cohen

Do the Right Thing Directed by Spike Lee, 1989

I knew I wanted the film to take place in one day, which would be the hottest day in the summer. And I wanted to reflect the racial climate of New York City at that time. The day would get longer and hotter, and things would escalate until they exploded. I’m a New Yorker, so I know that after 95 degrees, the homicide rate and domestic abuse goes up — especially when you get that week-long or so heat wave.

Spike Lee

Massage Parlor Murders! Directed by Chester Fox and Alex Stevens, 1973

A vicious serial killer is stalking the streets of New York City, murdering Times Square massage girls in a variety of brutal ways. It’s up to a rogue detective team to solve the case as the body count continues to rise! Chock full of over the top sex and violence and complete with a high speed car chase through Manhattan, MASSAGE PARLOR MURDERS is an exploitation film lover’s dream movie. Featuring performances from Sandra Peabody (Last House on the Left), Chris Jordan (Deep Throat 2), Brother Theodore (The ‘Burbs), and George Dzundza (The Deer Hunter) in one of his earliest appearances.

Vinegar Syndrome

Sex Wish Directed by Victor Milt (as Tim McCoy), 1976

Behind a pretty nondescript title, Sex Wish is a well-made, nasty, vicious hardcore roughie which would play just as well at drive-ins and grindhouses without the hardcore sex. The script is solid, with good characterization and dialogue for even supporting characters, the New York City location footage is great and every performance is a good one. . . . This film also includes one of [Deep Throat star] Harry Reems’ best performances; where he was usually over-the-top in comic roles, SEX WISH finds him as the hero who must avenge his fiancée’s murder by cruising the city tracking down the villain. Sure, it’s a little far-fetched that the night of the murder, he would get drunk and go home with hookers Deanna Darby and Tony Rome (a black girl, rare in these films), but it allows for a pretty erotic threesome scene.

DVD Drive-In

Night of the Juggler Directed by Robert Butler, 1980

The Telephone Book Directed by Nelson Lyon, 1971

Nelson Lyon is the writer-director of the brilliant film, The Telephone Book. The genesis of The Telephone Book came out the an age old cliché that if “you filmed The Telephone Book you’d have a hit movie.” Nelson Lyon was working as creative director of MGM accounts and made film trailers. Lyon had always aspired to direct a film, and had influences as diverse as Euro-art movies and American underground film. He had an ad agency with a partner named Merwin Bloch. They formed a partnership and The Telephone Book was shot in six weeks in New York. . . . The Telephone Book received mainstream publicity and press as a light sex satire. . . . Female critics who found it distasteful Judith Crist, the sourpuss critic at New York who was offended by any film with explicit overtones was just offended by it. Crist started a campaign against the film claiming that its language was offensive. . . . Cue magazine took issue regarding its “dirty animated sequence. This was in the same time period when Sweet Sweetback, Cry Uncle and Ginger were reaching middle class audiences. The classic cult films El Topo and Viva La Muerte were playing the midnight circuit with shocking content, achieving some unexpected critical approval.

Michelle Clifford, author of Sleazoid Express

Alphabet City Directed by Amos Poe, 1984

“There are certain places in the world where color makes sense, like India, but in New York City it doesn’t.” —Amos Poe

Cruising Directed by William Friedkin, 1980

Cruising was a very exotic background to a murder mystery, to a series of murders that actually existed in New York and were written about. . . . I first learned about these murders from Arthur Bell’s columns in the Village Voice and then from this fellow Paul Bates, who was in The Exorcist and turned out to be the guy they got for the so-called trash bag murders. And then I had this friend Randy Jurgensen who was a detective for over 20 years under the New York Police Department, who at one time was assigned to the detail that the Pacino character is assigned to in Cruising. And then it turned out that a guy I knew rather well was the guy who owned or operated most of the clubs and many of the other businesses on the west side of Manhattan from mostly midtown to down to about the Battery, and among some of the other clubs he owned or operated was Stonewall, where the gay movement is said to have begun. I felt that I was a part of that and still am. I never set out with either of those films to make a commentary on gay life.

William Friedkin

Hôtel Monterey Directed by Chantal Akerman, 1972

As proof of her determination, Akerman financed her first two New York films by stealing money from the gay porn theater on West 55th Street where she worked as a cashier. . . . At a little over an hour, this hypnotic work, also silent, consists of a series of long shots—mostly static, a few tracking—documenting the corridors, elevators, rooms, and residents of a rundown welfare hotel on the Upper West Side, since torn down. (Akerman would sometimes sleep on the sofa in one of the two rooms rented by a friend living there.) Elderly lodgers, some perplexed, others annoyed by Mangolte’s camera, shuffle through the lobby, passing in and out of the frame. Smiling slightly and staring gently into the lens, a middle-aged man in jacket and bow tie sits in a chair in his room, newspapers at his feet; a pregnant young woman, filmed from a greater distance and in three-quarters profile, evokes one of Vermeer’s subjects. People, though, are a fleeting presence in Hotel Monterey, a film devoted to the illumination of red or white elevator buttons, the glow of fluorescent lights, the entrail-like formation of an emergency fire hose. Yet just at the moment when we begin to feel claustrophobic, the impossibly narrow hallways closing in on us, Akerman slowly takes us outside, the camera tilting up to the sky then down, unveiling the film’s greatest special effect: the Hudson River, never more majestic.

Melissa Anderson, The Village Voice

The Panic in Needle Park Directed by Jerry Schatzberg, 1971

Midnight Cowboy Directed by John Schlesinger, 1969

As a New York actor working in theater and used to working with great works, film scripts were a bit ‘thin,’ so I wasn’t getting anything interesting. But Midnight Cowboy had an amazing script (by Waldo Salt), and was based on a novel. The problem was that Schlesinger, as a serious “artist,” refused to see me, because of the success of The Graduate; he considered it, and me, too lightweight. When I finally got an audition, I got all dressed up in character, and had him meet me at around 3am around Times Square, in some laundromat, just to show how serious I was.

Dustin Hoffman, star of Midnight Cowboy

Prince of the City Directed by Sidney Lumet, 1981

“There are certain pictures that I’ve either co-written or done the entire script where I know the sound. They’re usually cop pictures. And they’re usually New York pictures. I know the people and I know the sound.” —Sidney Lumet

The Taking of Pelham One Two Three Directed by Joseph Sargent, 1974

What is this New York-ness? Few outside of the city really care — and that’s the point! New York is insular, moody, dangerous, surprising, lively, cynical, humane — with more than an occasional absence of this latter quality — and amused with itself. New York City, about which its resident cab drivers can say to a group who had just flown in from Europe: “Welcome to the Wormy Apple,” without intending to insult the hometown. True New Yorkers believe that no other city exists in the world, yet they have a knowing way about life despite never venturing far from their significant boroughs. The Pelham 123 (who outside New York would have a clue what it means?) is a subway train, in particular, a singular car of this train taken hostage for a million dollars. This 1974 movie capitalized on the national skittishness over plane hijackings to Cuba. Hijacking a subway car seems in the NYC setting not only logical, or a logical extension of the city’s grotesque crime rate, but long overdue.

Robert Castle, Bright Lights Film Journal

Across 110th Street Directed by Barry Shear, 1972

Across 110th Street is not for the squeamish. From the beginning it is a virtual blood bath. Those portions of it which aren’t bloody violent are filled in by the squalid location sites in New York’s Harlem or equally unappealing ghetto areas leaving no relief from depression and oppression. There’s not even a glamorous or romantic type character or angle for audiences to fantasy-empathize with.

Variety‘s 1972 review

The Exterminator Directed by James Glickenhaus, 1980

Filming The Exterminator was an amazing experience that I still remember vividly 30 years later. I remember the nights, the explosions and the grit. I remember the effect the film had on the Times Square Audiences. . . . We were looking for a place to shoot the Chicken House scene with The New Jersey State Senator and The NYC Police shut down a Times Square Whore House and suggested we use it to film in. It made for a very realistic scene and saved us art direction cost.

James Glickenhaus

The Education of Sonny Carson Directed by Michael Campus, 1974

When we made the film, it caused an enormous stir. We had used real gang kids. I had just made “The Mac” and I had been through that whole incredible experience in Oakland with the battle between the Black Panthers and the black underworld for control of Oakland. In the middle of all that, I came in with my little film. When “The Mac” came out, it caused an enormous stir. Those allowed me to go into Bedstuy in New York and used the 4 real gangs and make this picture. When the film came out, I thought the ripple effect would be enormous. But at that time, we were so few theaters that it never got the audience. It never caused any tension. That’s despite the fact the film receive extraordinary reviews. So it’s hard to understand why the video release took so long.

Michael Campus

Satan’s Bed Directed by Michael Findlay, Marshall Smith, Tamijian, 1965

It’s likely that many people, perhaps as a result of Imagine, associate Ono with pacifism. However, the art that initially made her name on the underground circuit, was anything but gentle. In Cut Piece, which she first performed in 1964 in Tokyo, she invited members of the audience to approach her on stage and cut away at her clothing with a pair of scissors so that, by the end of the piece, she was left covering her breasts. The following year, she appeared in Satan’s Bed (1965), a film made by the husband-and-wife team Michael and Roberta Findlay who a decade later would find notoriety following the release of Snuff (1976). Satan’s Bed is an exploitation flick, a rather nasty one at that, in which Ono played a kimono-wearing immigrant who travels to New York to marry a guy involved in the drug trade. She can’t speak English and soon finds herself in a cheap hotel room where she is raped by a gangster in the concrete business.

Sukhdev Sandhu, The Guardian

Mean Streets Directed by Martin Scorsese, 1973

The Sex Killer Directed by Barry Mahon, 1967

Gloria Directed by John Cassavetes, 1980

My first-ever job was in New York ushering in a little art theater. I was 21, maybe. I can’t remember. I saw Marlene Dietrich 38 times in Der blaue Engel (1930)—The Blue Angel—and I just sat there and held my flashlight, or stood there and held my flashlight. But she was wonderful.

Gloria star Gena Rowlands

Goodbye 42nd Street Directed by Richard Kern, 1986

Coming from where I came in the South, arriving in the big city, New York City, I saw these people I’d heard about and it was like seeing my heroes. I quickly got next to these people. It helped a lot that Beth B. had just split up with her husband and she was “on-the-move” with every guy around. She helped me with some of the first movies. I bought my first camera for five dollars from this place, Film Video Arts, in New York—an artist collective that made cameras available for cheap. You could buy film and process each roll for three dollars. I made the first film Goodbye 42nd Street, with two rolls of film, so the whole production cost about ten dollars. And that’s just kind of a travel log for me. I had heard that 42nd street was going to change. The mayor had decided he was going to clean up all the scum off 42nd street because it used to be really out of control with drugs and prostitution—it was all grindhouse movies and sex clubs. So I just made a quick movie of it, and it took maybe 30 years for them to get rid of it, but my movie happened in 1981.

Richard Kern

Den of Dominance Directed by Phil Prince, 1980

“In Den of Dominance, an unsuspecting man visits a sleazy Times Square watering hole only to discover to his horror (and delight) that the bar is actually a front for a grungy S&M club.” —Vinegar Syndrome

Police State Directed by Nick Zedd, 1987

I could have stayed in New York, but after awhile it became a self-imposed purgatory, going to court, fighting frivolous evictions and continually winning against a psychotic landlord, accepting the ugliness of gentrification and becoming more isolated as the city became a party to which I wasn’t invited. New people to collaborate with kept me there for decades; but they got fewer and farther between. Every scene disintegrated into petty backstabbing or was short-circuited by landlord harassment. A new crop of faux Bohemians arrived as part of a sad, fucked-up Simulation. There were so many normal people around I became agoraphobic. They took over my building, paying exorbitant rents, complaining about the sound of my feet. Living in NY, your mind gets clouded by the struggle to survive with pointless tension; then you convince yourself you’ve accomplished something special by having one hour of peace a week that anywhere else would be a daily occurrence. We put up with it for so long because we know that everywhere else in the country is even more boring. A false sense of self- righteousness infects New Yorkers after years of accepting miserable conditions, bad service and aesthetic ugliness in order to be part of a myth. The City is a good place for roaches and bedbugs but for humans it’s living death. What kind of a city would let the Mars Bar close?

Nick Zedd

Heavy Traffic Directed by Ralph Bakshi

Yeah, that’s all about trying to find the believability of what the film is about. Movies basically bore me. I don’t see very many movies. But I loved being able to try things, like making photographic backgrounds. I roamed New York and Brooklyn at night, taking thousands of photographs. A lot of the montage comes from Sergei Eisenstein; he really caught my eye when I was very young with Alexander Nevsky and Battleship Potemkin. Also his use of music to express mood. Eisenstein is the only mentor I ever really had. He’s a little stiff by today’s standards, but his compositions, the way he cut films, and the way he emotionally sets them up was incredible.

Ralph Bakshi

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn Directed by Elia Kazan, 1945

By far the most authentic thing about the film is Peggy Ann Garner’s face. Nothing compares with it except maybe Jimmy Dunn’s face. He was terrific. I did a smart thing or a good thing with Dunn, something I learned from Lighton. In the theater if you needed a guy to play a drunk, you got an actor who probably had some experience with drink, but more importantly someone who you knew was good at playing those kinds of scenes. In film you try and get the real thing itself. Jimmy had been run out of movies for drinking. He was largely unemployable and felt ill at ease at the studio. But he was an awfully sweet, nice man, a hell of a guy. When I met him I said, this is it, this is Johnny Nolan, himself. He’s full of watery-eyed Irish affection. He’s ebullient. He feels guilty. He slinks. He and the girl are authentic, so I stayed off the background as much as possible and got onto their faces.

Elia Kazan

Vigilante Directed by William Lustig, 1983

I’ve always had a passion for the European spaghetti westerns and crime thrillers. I always thought they had an edge to the American crime thrillers post- French Connection/Dirty Harry/ Death Wish period. The films in Europe were rougher and more violent, more aggressive and very stylized; versus the American films that in many instances were almost TV-movie like. So, I decided to make an urban retribution film in that style and kind of thought of it as a cowboy and indian movie, with blue-collared people trying to survive in their neighborhood fighting against gang members.

William Lustig

The Incident Directed by Larry Peerce, 1967

The photography is fuzzy, the characters are gold-plated stereotypes, the plot is obvious and advances automatically. But the movie works; it delivers the goods. It creates the suspense and fear it tries for. Maybe that’s because the subject matter — violence on the subway –touches a responsive nerve right now. Society has always been pretty much divided up between those who are capable of sudden, senseless violence, and those who are not. This is a movie about what happens when the two types are pushed together and the outlaws terrorize the citizens. Sort of an urban Western.

Roger Ebert

The French Connection Directed by William Friedkin, 1971

Smithereens Directed by Susan Seidelman, 1982

Smithereens is all about that, in even a more gritty way than Desperately Seeking Susan. That definitely was something that I was a part of and that excited me. The whole punk/new wave scene. Starting in the later part of the ’70s and the early ’80s. Punk kind of merged into new wave around ’83 or ’84, so Smithereens is more on the punk side of the equation and Desperately Seeking Susan is more new wave. To me there was something really exciting, culturally about that time. Living downtown and having friends downtown, I rarely went above 10th Street.

Susan Seidelman

The Seven-Ups Directed by Philip D’Antoni, 1973

Combat Shock Directed by Buddy Giovinazzo, 1984

42nd Street for me and my friends, and other people like Bill Lustig, who is also a friend of mine, was a place to go and see films that we never would have seen otherwise `cause they never played anywhere else. And it always was a bit dangerous to go there… it was even dangerous to go into the theaters, cause you were surrounded by thugs and prostitutes and everything. You know, 42nd Street was really exotic, there was nothing like it. So unless you lived on 42nd Street, your day-to-day life wasn’t like that. Back then, New York was a very violent place to live, there was street crime and street violence and the city was really poor. If you think of films like FINGERS with Harvey Keitel or TAXI DRIVER or Friedkin’s CRUISING, that’s how New York was back then… and 42nd Street really smelled like pee. I was filled with bums, drug addicts, alcoholics and muggers and they just peed all over the place, so I remember in the summer, 42nd Street was just really nasty! One other thing about the Strip, by the way, is that we used to go to there and buy weapons. 42nd Street had those army stores where you could buy handgrenades that didn’t work or switchblades, which were a big deal when I was a kid. Or fireworks. You know, when I was a kid, I didn’t do drugs or anything, so instead I went up there and bought knives or handgrenades. And, of course, me and my friends went there to buy pornography, too. The porno stores on 42nd Street were like supermarkets, they had different sections like “dominance & submission” or “animals” and for young guys like us it was the most amazing thing to go there. And they didn’t just have tapes and magazines, but also peep shows and stuff like that. Which reminds me of another great film called HARDCORE with George C. Scott, which is about the porno industry and I’m not sure if it takes place in New York, but it’s very, very realistic.

Buddy Giovinazzo

Death Wish Directed by Michael Winner, 1974

I saw Bronson again several months later in New York, where he was working once more with Winner (who also directed him in “Chato’s Land,” “The Stone Killer,” and “The Mechanic”). The new movie was “Death Wish,” about a middle-aged New York architect who is repelled by violence until his own daughter is raped and his wife murdered. Then the architect becomes an instrument of vengeance. He goes out into the streets posing as an easy mark, and when muggers attack, he kills them. “Death Wish” was being shot in New York in late, cold February, and for openers I observed that the character seemed to have the same philosophy that’s been present in all of Bronson’s work with Winner: He is a killer (licensed or not) with great sense of self, pride in his work, and few words. Bronson had nothing to say about that “I never talk about the philosophy of a picture,” he said. “Winner is an intelligent man, and I like him. But I don’t ever talk to him about the philosophy of a picture. It has never come up. And I wouldn’t talk about it to you. I don’t expound. I don’t like to overtalk a thing.” We are in the dining room of a Riverside Drive apartment that is supposed to be the architect’s home in the movie. Bronson is drinking one of the two or three dozen cups of coffee he will have during the day and, having rejected philosophy, seems content to remain quiet. Could it be, I say, that it’s harder to play a role if you talk it out beforehand? “I’m not talking in terms of playing a role,” Bronson said. “I’m talking in terms of conversation. It has nothing to do with a role at all. It’s just that I don’t like to talk very much.” He lit a cigarette, kept it in his mouth, exhaled through his nose, and squinted his eyes against the smoke. Another silence fell. All conversation with Bronson has a tendency to stop. His natural state of conversation is silence.

Roger Ebert’s New York City report during the making of Death Wish

Fear City Directed by Abel Ferrara, 1984

There’s a film I made that I actually almost forgot called Fear City (1984) [set largely in seedy Manhattan strip clubs]. There’s an up-and-down wave of these go-go clubs. Sometimes they’re so in fashion—you go and there’s limousines parked down the block and Hollywood actresses are jumping up onstage. But sometimes you go and they’ve closed down. I remember going to this one and Leonardo DiCaprio was there and I remember going with Matt Dillon and, you know, it was a classy club. I’ve got to be careful what I say because this is such a litigious society. If you mention somebody’s name then they’ll sue you for saying they really directed and wrote it, send you storyboards. But yeah, it was on 20th Street between 5th and 6th Avenues and the Limelight was around the corner, and that club was in the middle of the block. It was when we were making Bad Lieutenant (1992)—I know exactly when it was. I know the day, I know the minute, I know the hour. The Limelight was rocking, and that street, everywhere we went we got drinks for free, New York was beautiful, but it was bad too. You had the crack epidemic and people getting murdered, Drugs were a nightmare. But when 9/11 came down, that put a stop to it.

Abel Ferrara

On the Bowery Directed by Lionel Rogosin, 1956

I personally feel that ON THE BOWERY is a film about the unseen casualties of war. Returning home after the war, many of the men must have been traumatized and damaged by what they experienced. The itinerant life-style adopted by them, the uncontrolled drinking, are a symptom of their experience. Rogosin was very influenced by Flaherty, and his mixture of documentary observation and staged drama follows on from Flaherty’s work. Although the events in the film are staged, the protagonists are very much speaking as themselves. The work still feels very fresh and has an edge which is missing in much contemporary docudrama. The tendency now is to overdress the reality. With Rogosin, the narrative staging never eclipses the observation.

James Mackay, curator for the Lionel Rogosin series at The Cambridge Film Festival in 2014

1990: The Bronx Warriors Directed by Enzo G. Castellari, 1982

“We did not need the permission because the local people of the Bronx help us out during the filming. The Police was present and fully armed. They stayed all day in police cars. They came out only to get the lunch boxes.” —Enzo G. Castellari

Shaft Directed by Gordon Parks, 1971

People come up and ask me if we really need this image of Shaft the black superman. Hell, yes, there’s a place for John Shaft. I was overwhelmed by our world premiere on Broadway. Suddenly, I was the perpetrator of a hero. Ghetto kids were coming downtown to see their hero, Shaft, and here was a black man on the screen they didn’t have to be ashamed of. Here they had a chance to spend their $3 on something they wanted to see. We need movies about the history of our people, yes, but we need heroic fantasies about our people, too. We all need a little James Bond now and then.

Gordon Parks

Super Fly Directed by Gordon Parks Jr., 1972

It would be possible to fault “Super Fly” almost scene by scene for its minor blunders. As a director, Gordon Parks Jr. shares with his celebrated father a difficulty in managing simple exchanges between actors, a tendency sometimes to misjudge camera placement, an occasional weak reliance on handsome cinematography. But he has gotten so many more important things right and, in his first feature, he has made such a brilliantly idiomatic films, that it would be ridiculous to do less than praise him.

The New York Times‘ 1972 review

Bad Girls Go to Hell Directed by Doris Wishman, 1965

There is a common world view in a lot her work, Tom Smith has articulated it better than I ever could. Still, in my favorite Wishman films I enjoy seeing realism bumping against fantasy -down-to-earth locations and characters working in a dream logic. Also, since her films are set in a very real time and place, as they age, their documentary value of life and New York in the early to mid 1960s only grows.

Rodney Ascher, director of Room 237 who shot footage for Wishman’s film Dildo Heaven

Black Caesar Directed by Larry Cohen, 1973

Fort Apache the Bronx Directed by Daniel Petrie, 1981

Be thankful for Fort Apache, the Bronx, a picture that manages to be both existential (good and bad are relative) and sentimental (there are good guys and there are bad guys, even in an existential world). In his absorbing new film, director Daniel Petrie reflects the yearning for order and humanity even in the midst of unrelenting cynicism and despair. The setting is New York’s 41st precinct. It’s located in the South Bronx, a 40-block area containing 70,000 people with the lowest income per capita, the highest unemployment rate, the fewest number of English-speaking citizens and the highest crime rate in the city.

Michael Walsh, Reeling Back

Downtown 81 Directed by Edo Bertoglio, 1981

“My first movie Downtown 81 was conceived to show what was happening in New York in the late ’70s and early ’80s. And, speaking frankly, the idea was based mostly on the music which was around us, asking Jean-Michel Basquiat to participate as an actor, we were not aware that he would become a big name in the art world.” —Edo Bertoglio