Film: Stories from the Big Apple
JC Chandor is an interesting film-maker, a writer and director who's unafraid to take on challenging themes. His 2011 feature début Margin Call is perhaps the best film yet made about the global financial crash of 2008, and in All is Lost (2013), he managed to make a story about one man (Robert Redford) adrift at sea not just interesting, but riveting.
His new film, A Most Violent Year, which opens here on January 23, may just be his most accomplished and complex work yet. It's been tipped as an outsider for this year's Oscars, and though it may prove too sombre and realistically nuanced to score well with the Academy voters, A Most Violent Year is an enthralling drama set in New York City in 1981.
That distant year is generally considered the city's nadir, as violent crime rocketed to unprecedented levels and New York lurched towards bankruptcy. Organised crime held sway and everyone - even the police - was on the take in a town that middle America considered a modern Sodom. Abel Morales, however, begs to differ. A go-getting Hispanic immigrant played with gloomy elegance by Oscar Isaac, Abel has worked his way to the middle of the pile in the city's fiercely competitive oil distribution market, and now seems poised to become the king pin.
He's determined to do this on the up-and-up, but finds that corruption and violence are almost irresistible lures in 80s New York. Jessica Chastain is excellent as Abel's icy, brassy wife, and Chandor's film gives us a subtle and fascinating insight into a city that was about to transform itself and turn from blue to white-collar crime, a much more lucrative enterprise.
Most of Chandor's film actually takes place in Brooklyn, but the gleaming spires of Manhattan loom large in the background and in Abel Morales' imagination, because that's the centre of everything, the place he really wants to conquer.
New York City has exercised a similar fascination on film-makers since the early days of the silent era. In fact it was once the centre of America's rapidly expanding movie industry, until the film companies were lured west by the cheaper production costs and year-round sunshine. But even after Hollywood became the global capital of film, New York remained a favourite setting for writers and directors, many of whom hailed from there.
Perhaps that's because New York represents the quintessential American experience: it is and always has been a noisy melting pot where great wealth and crippling poverty, disaster and success, co-exist uneasily. And down the years some very great films have been set in New York.
King Vidor's 1928 silent masterpiece The Crowd captured the city at the height of its giddy 1920s boom, when the skyscrapers began to soar and life beneath them became ever more competitive and tough. James Murray and Eleanor Boardman played a young couple whose American dream is slowly choked by the pressures of life in Manhattan.
Though the city is not actually mentioned in Warner Brothers' seminal 1930s gangster films Angels with Dirty Faces and The Roaring Twenties, it's pretty clear where they're set. Both Humphrey Bogart and James Cagney flourished broad New York accents in two classic films that painted a seamy picture of the city's Prohibition-era criminal underbelly.
If you stand on the corner of 34th Street and Fifth Avenue and look up, it's hard not to think of the climax of King Kong. The Empire State Building was just two years old when RKO chose it (or rather a model of it) as the spot where the 50-foot ape would make his tragic last stand. And he'd do it again in several remakes, the most recent starring Naomi Watts and directed by Peter Jackson.
In the movies, as in life, New York is often under attack, from aliens (Independence Day); giant sea monsters (Cloverfield); or terrorists (Die Hard with a Vengeance, among many other films). But the most interesting movies set in New York have often been those about the enemy within.
In American cinema, New York has tended to by synonymous with violence, corruption, and sleaze. It was not by accident that Elia Kazan set his classic 1954 allegorical drama On the Waterfront on the city's docks, and showed what happens to an ordinary New Yorker (Marlon Brando's dim but principled ex-boxer Terry Malloy) who insists on being honest.
Brando, of course, would go on to play a very different type of New Yorker in Francis Ford Coppola's 1972 masterpiece The Godfather. Like Abel Morales in A Most Violent Year, Vito Corleone was a first generation immigrant who encountered snobbery and prejudice in the Big Apple. But he eventually realised that in this land of opportunity, all you needed to get ahead was a gun, some nerve and a family you could depend upon.
Jules Dassin's bleak and daring 1948 thriller The Naked City portrayed New York at its most venal and cruel. A shocking opening sequence showed an ex-model being chloroformed and drowned in a bathtub by two goons who then quarrel. One kills the other and dumps the body in the East River, leaving Barry Fitzgerald's veteran homicide detective with a right old mess to clean up.
Thanks to daring auteur directors such as Martin Scorsese, Sidney Lumet and William Friedkin, who knew the city and shot on location, the 1970s became a golden age for New York crime dramas. In The French Connection (1971), Friedkin used Manhattan's streets and infrastructure to tell his story of the hunt for an elusive Marseilles drug trafficker.
The film's car chase along an elevated subway line is one of the most celebrated in film history, but my favourite scene in The French Connection is the one where undercover cops Popeye Doyle (Gene Hackman) and Buddy Russo (Roy Scheider) wait in the freezing cold across the street from a fancy First Avenue restaurant, watching the drug lord Charnier enjoy lobster and fine wine while they make do with burgers and bad coffee.
Sidney Lumet's Serpico (1973) tackled corruption in the New York Police Department and was based on the true story of Italian American cop Frank Serpico (Al Pacino), who went undercover to expose the endemic incidence of bribery and graft and was shot in the face for his trouble.
But no one captured the exhilarating menace of 1970s New York quite like Martin Scorsese. He used the Little Italy of his childhood as the backdrop for Mean Streets (1973), an extraordinarily vivid and poetic account of two minor hoodlums who get out of their depth as they try to make their name in the New York mafia.
Only Scorsese could marry the themes of Catholicism and crime so seamlessly, and his young actors, Harvey Keitel and Robert De Niro, teamed up with him again three years later to make possibly the greatest New York movie of them all.
Taxi Driver starred De Niro as Travis Bickle, a Manhattan taxi driver and former US Marine who becomes ever more disgusted by the venality of the city he cruises around at night. When he makes the acquaintance of a 12-year-old prostitute called Iris (Jodie Foster), Travis decides to become her knight in shining armour, with shocking and murderous consequences.
Scorsese's film was as accomplished and thematically and visually rich as anything achieved by the French nouvelle vague, and puts its finger on the pulse of a city spiralling rapidly out of control.
In the 1980s, however, thanks to Ronald Reagan's hawkish relaxation of financial and trading regulations, Manhattan turned from basket case to boom town, and stylish new bars and restaurants sprang up to cater to the demands of yuppie bankers and stockbrokers.
Two films memorably reflected the greed and madness of late 1980s New York. Oliver Stone's father had been a Wall Street stockbroker, which meant that the writer/director was uniquely placed to mount a spirited attack on the skewed values of Reaganomics. And though Wall Street seems a little hammy at times with the benefit of hindsight, it definitely caught the giddy hedonism of New York at that time.
Charlie Sheen starred as Bud Fox, a junior stockbroker at a respectable company whose desire to get rich quick lands him in a lot of trouble. When he tries to impress a ruthless venture capitalist called Gordon Gekko (Michael Douglas) by feeding him insider information, Bud lives the high life for a time before slowly realising he's made a deal with the devil.
Michael Douglas did a great job of turning Gordon Gekko into a classic corporate villain, a coke-sniffing, champagne-quaffing, company-destroying fiend. But he was a pussycat next to Patrick Bateman, Brett Easton Ellis's psychotic investment banker portrayed by a young Christian Bale in Mary Harron's brutal but compelling comic thriller American Psycho (1999).
Charming, handsome and wealthy, Patrick dines at all Manhattan's best restaurants and is obsessed with fine clothes, his hair and his vast collection of bland pop music. But this seemingly harmless idiot is actually a serial killer who murders without compunction anyone who displeases or inconveniences him. Bateman was a memorable criticism of all that's shallowest and most self-regarding about New York.
Oddly, the most shocking event in New York's history has proved very difficult to successfully dramatise on film. It's almost as if 9/11 is too big, or too recent, to portray, and the few films (Remember Me, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, or Oliver Stone's World Trade Center) that have taken the event on directly have seemed cheap and exploitative. And in fact the film that has most poignantly memorialised the Twin Towers disaster is a documentary.
James Marsh's Man on Wire told the extraordinary story of Philippe Petit, a French street performer and funambulist who staged a tightrope walk between the South and North Towers of the World Trade Centre on August 7, 1974.
After skipping and dancing his way across the void eight times, Petit was arrested by bemused NYPD officers and became in instant celebrity. And James Marsh's film compellingly recreates a magical Manhattan moment that's all the more poignant and poetic because repeating it would not now be possible.
Woody Allen's New York
If there's one film-maker whose work is inextricably linked with New York, it's Woody Allen. Time and again he has sung the praises of his home town in words and images, and he started doing it at a time when the city was not exactly flavour of the month.
Annie Hall for instance, was released just months before the disastrous blackouts of 1977, when thousands of stores were looted and Brooklyn was set ablaze. New York seemed a lost cause, but in Annie Hall Allen insisted on celebrating the beauty and romanticism of his city
In Manhattan (1979) he went even further, hiring Gordon Willis to photograph the city in sumptuous black and white. In the opening sequence of the film, glowing views of the city were set to the strains of George Gershwin in a loving tribute.
Later in the film, Woody's character Issac Davis watches dawn break over the 59th Street Bridge and declares: "This is really a great city - I don't care what anybody says".
Hannah and her Sisters (1986) offers a cooler assessment of the city's charms, but gloriously displays some of Allen's favourite New York buildings, from the St Regis Hotel to the Waldorf-Astoria and the Chrysler Building.