10 Great “Accidental Documentaries” of New York City’s Sketchiest Era

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Today, New York’s Film Forum begins a fabulous new retrospective series, “Ford to City: Drop Dead – New York in the 70s,” which draws its title from the notorious New York Daily News headline paraphrasing of President Gerald Ford’s response to the city’s 1975 request for federal funding assistance. The headline was a simplification of Ford’s stance, but it stuck, because it seemed such a succinct summary of how the rest of America viewed the city: a garbage-ridden hornet’s nest of crime, corruption, danger, and sin. And often, that’s how the city viewed itself – particularly in the cinema of the era, which seized on New York’s dramatic descent into urban decay, and captured it on celluloid forevermore. In that way, the films shot on location in NYC in the 1970s (a process, hilariously enough, that the city simplified at the end of the previous decade via the establishment of the Mayor’s Office of Film, Theatre, and Broadcasting — just in time to capture what a shit hole it’d become) have become relics of a very different New York: accidental documentaries of what the city once was. Here are ten films in the series that present the most striking contrasts.

Midnight Cowboy

One of the most iconic moments in all of New York cinema comes in John Schlesinger’s 1969 Best Picture winner (the only X-rated movie to ever win that honor), when Dustin Hoffman’s Bronx-bred Ratso Rizzo informs a dangerously close cabbie, “I’m walkin’ here!” It’s become a cliché of New York attitude, but nicely captures the defiance of city-dwellers in this period – and is one of many achingly accurate period touches in Cowboy, one of the first wide releases to capture the rot of the city in general and its once-glam Times Square district in particular.

Taxi Driver

Few films captured the squalor of that era more viscerally than Martin Scorsese’s 1976 Cannes Film Festival winner, in which insomniac cabbie Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro) not only goes where other drivers won’t, but hangs out there in his spare time. The portrait of Times Square as a hotbed of porno theaters, junkies, and prostitutes is a jarring contrast to the scrubbed-down, Disney-fied version of today, but keep in mind that those ghosts never go away, and the very spot where you’re enjoying that Cold Stone Creamery sundae was probably the site of at least a half-dozen daily masturbations. Enjoy your stay in New York, tourists!

Taking Off

These days, the East Village is mostly known as the home of overpriced restaurants, vacated luxury retail shops, and Sex in the City tour busses. But it was the center point of the city’s hippie subculture in the early ‘70s, a scene snapshotted with documentary-like verve in Milos Forman’s first American feature, released in 1971. It concerns a tasteful and comfortable suburban couple whose world is turned upside down by their teenage daughter’s trips “to the city” (a phrase that trembles with danger), leading poor dad (the great Buck Henry) to sniff out this haven of burnouts, weirdos, and copulating dogs.

The Panic in Needle Park

This 1971 drama from director Jerry Schatzberg (who’ll introduce its Film Forum screening Friday) and writers Joan and John Gregory Dunne is best remembered these days as the first major film role for an intense young Method actor named Al Pacino. Yet it also presents a fascinating picture of the tony Upper West Side, which was no less immune to the troubles of the city – “Needle Park” was the nickname for Sheman Square, the public space at the intersection of Broadway, 72nd Street, and Amsterdam Avenue. Now it’s surrounded by high-class restaurants, hotels, boutiques, and foot traffic from the 1 train to the Beacon Theater; in the ‘60s and ‘70s, it was where dealers hawked their wares, and junkies with nowhere to go hung out to fix, and to wait for their next one.

Born to Win

That same year, director Ivan Passer released another story of heroin addicts hustling their way from one score to the next: Born to Win, which presents a slightly lighter portrait of addiction, thanks mostly to the offhand wit of star George Segal. It also puts its action closer to midtown; Siegel’s Jay Jay prefers to cop in Times Square, which is looking just as weathered and dirty as it did in Midnight Cowboy two years earlier, if not more so.

The French Connection

1971 was a hell of a year for gritty Big Apple movies. It also gave us William Friedkin’s Academy Award winner for Best Picture, which is one of the best all-around tours of New York in that era, with scenes shot on the Brooklyn Bridge, on the Upper East Side, in midtown, and, most famously, under the Brooklyn elevated subway. And then there is the scene above, in which Detective “Popeye” Doyle (Gene Hackman) is teased and then evaded by the French kingpin he’s been tailing, thanks to expert use of the opening and closing doors of the subway train leaving Grand Central Station. This location, unlike most on this list, hasn’t changed much in the 40-plus years since Friedkin immortalized it on film.

Cruising

One of the most controversial New York movies of the era, and for good reason – this 1980 police procedural, also directed by Friedkin, was framed as “an odyssey to the edge of city life” in which a NYPD detective (Al Pacino) goes undercover to find a serial killer who’s stalking gay men in downtown S&M bars. Activists famously haunted the film’s locations, using music and noisemakers to wreck sound recordings, objecting that the film framed all gay life in the city as decadent and depraved. The resultant film is certainly #problematic, but it does preserve a fascinating glimpse of that specific subculture, with scenes shot in real downtown leather bars (which Friedkin reportedly arranged via the primary owners of those establishments at the time: the Mafia).

The Taking of Pelham 123

One of this writer’s all-time favorite New York movies spends most of its time in a hijacked subway car and in the transit authority’s control center, which the filmmakers shot on closed tracks and on a soundstage, respectively. But the glimpses of the city (and the subway system) that it gives us are choice – particularly in the film’s breathless climax, in which a black-and-white, sirens blazing, attempts to get the cash ransom to a downtown station on time. They end up crashing the damn car at the grungy intersection of Astor Place and Lafayette in the East Village, and guess what sits at that crash site now? What’s the most obvious, “New York sure has changed” answer you could give? Yep. A Starbucks.

Where’s Poppa?

These days, Central Park is an affable Manhattan destination for urban dwellers of all strips: families, bicyclists, joggers, musicians, face painters, the works. But not too long ago, it was known (thanks in no small part to the frequent punch lines of Johnny Carson) primarily as a place to go for one of two reasons: to mug, or to be mugged. That’s certainly its function in Carl Reiner’s pitch-black 1970 comedy, in which poor Sidney Hochieser (Ron Leibman) keeps having to cross the park at night to get to the apartment shared by his mother and brother, and turns over his wallet each time as though he’s paying a highway toll.

The Landlord

No film of the period is more prescient than this 1970 satire by director Hal Ashby (his film debut – he’d go on to direct Harold and Maude, Shampoo, and Being There, among others). How’s this for a way-out premise: it concerns a clueless white trust fund kid (played by a wonderfully dopey Beau Bridges) who has the fanciful notion of single-handedly gentrifying the African-American neighborhood of Park Slope, Brooklyn. I mean, seriously. Can you imagine such a thing?

“Ford to City: Drop Dead – New York in the 70s” runs today through July 27 at NYC’s Film Forum.