The following is a post to from Patrick Mackaronis. Patrick is the Director of Business Development for New York City-based social network Brabble. In this post, Patrick speaks about movies set in NewYork after 1969. Patrick can be best reached on Twitter at @patty__mack.
People wore layers of heavy clothing, regardless of the weather. Film characters appeared to be sweating continuously, or else had oily-looking skin. The shag carpeting spread to hairstyles — thick, bushy hair, including facial hair, from pork-chop sideburns to thick mustaches and beards on men.
The cinematic streets of New York were often full of trash and scuzzy-looking characters. The vehicles all needed a good car wash. If there was snow, it was dirty. The town looked decrepit, and its flirtation with bankruptcy in the middle of the decade indicated the decrepitude went to the Big Apple’s core.
Basking in this grit and grime, the movies had a gutsy, unique character rarely seen before or since. Cops could be dirty, either literally or figuratively, and even the most upstanding officers could have three days’ growth on their faces. Back in the day, cops, either uniformed or detectives, always wore crisp, neat clothes, were clean-shaven and never looked disheveled, even after roughing up a hood for information. As far as 1970s movie lowlifes, they were free to be raw and ruthless. In the past, there was double-crossing but still an implicit code of conduct: only kill other thugs, don’t shoot men in the back, never kill women, etc. This all went out the window in the 1970s. All was fair in love, war and street drama.
And now, the movies.
Midnight Cowboy (1969)
The first volley in this new raw era of New York films came out a year before the 1970s began. Midnight Cowboy told the tale of a stereotypical rube (Jon Voight) from the South who, like many before him, comes to New York to make it big, in his case as a cowboy gigolo for wealthy women. He finds a seedy path ahead of him and befriends a sickly, street-smart lowlife with a heart of gold (Dustin Hoffman) who becomes the cowboy’s guide and de facto pimp.
French Connection (1971)
In old-school New York movies, if drugs reared their head at all, they usually were a minor plot point or, if a major one, merely acted as a device for the lead to shine, like Frank Sinatra in Man With the Golden Arm. The French Connection takes on drugs head-on. Like Panic in Needle Park, which came out the same year, the film deals with heroin. Whereas the former dealt with New York junkies and their sad plight, French Connection, based on a true story, explores New York law enforcement efforts to choke off a heroin pipeline into New York’s streets from abroad. Detectives Gene Hackman and Roy Scheider target a French drug kingpin as they race to find one of his big shipments and track him down. Few 70s films captured New York streets so well aesthetically.
Shaft has become a magnet for pointy-headed film analysis because of its trailblazing place in black exploitation movies and because of its reimagining the Black Hero, but much of its charms lies in presenting a world in which there are black and white cops AND black and white thugs, with good, bad, but mostly shady characters in the mix. Race comes up only in passing, as when characters toss a racial slur or related insult at Det. John Shaft or another character, but it’s dealt with, often violently, and the plot moves on. Before Shaft, filmgoers rarely saw Harlem, and after the opening, driven by a sharp, funky score, as Shaft emerges from the subway, with the confidence of someone who believes he owns the town, let alone Harlem, the scene is set for a crisp, gritty urban crime drama.
The Godfather I and II (1972 and 1974)
Considered by some to be the alpha and omega of organized crime movies, the Godfather saga provides a darker side of the American Dream as achieved by a Sicilian immigrant child and carried on by his children. The European immigrant booms of the 19th and early 20th centuries established New York City as the first American site these immigrants saw as their ships dropped anchor, so a sense of new beginnings and ambitions had been hardwired into the city’s character. The Corleone crime family felt like it owned the town, and the town coursed through its veins. The rubout scene in a small Italian neighborhood restaurant in the Bronx during part one gives a homey feel to cold-blooded murder, while the claustrophobic atmosphere of the immigrant neighborhoods of the 1920s as shown in part two has a very organic feel. The films envelop the viewer in a thickly textured mix of family, crime and despair.