It was 1976. A “buck fifty” house (second-run or beyond), we showed about a third of the tough urban NYC movies that had been filmed in the early seventies, enough street action cinema to comprise an entire post-millennium film festival nowadays. (If you happen to be in the city, check out what’s showing at Film Forum until the end of July). Taxi Driver, Dog Day Afternoon, Cops and Robbers, Law and Disorder; we didn’t show Scorcese’s Mean Streets, wish we had (a New York movie mostly shot in L.A.). We didn’t show Shaft or Superfly, but we did show J.D.’s Revenge and the admittedly Chicago-based Cooley High, both honorable members of the Blaxsploitation subgenre of urban action cinema.
Nostalgia has its benefits — I’m a fan of the genuine article. But if you wait long enough, the wrong kind of nostalgia, like Wisteria out of control in a garden, will spring up around almost any subject. Case in point, NYC in the 1970s: remember the abandoned cars? walking on the Upper West Side after dark (you could sleep on the street there now)? the blind woman on the subway with acid scars on her face, playing the accordion? “Alphabet City,” (the Lower East Side) its homeless sleeping shoulder-to-shoulder?
Ditching the cheap thrill of congratulating myself that I was never mugged, I do remember all these things. I also recall what it felt like to dive into the dark of the almost-empty movie palace I was keeping the books for, and watch Travis Biddle, De Niro’s character in Taxi Driver, cruise what I recognized as my adopted city, just across the harbor. I am nostalgic for the theater, as it was then. But I know that all I felt at the time, other than a sense of wonder at a great movie, was a feeling of relief, that I wasn’t actually walking those streets at that particular moment. There was also a sense of recognition, and sadness. Just outside our well-lit marble lobby framed in red and gold trim, Hyatt Street, under and beyond our glowing marquee, was no more safe than West End Avenue, only slightly safer than Avenue A. Just two darkened storefronts separated us from the night depository at Citibank, but I took a well-muscled male staff member with me, and at that it was always a heart-thumper.
I’m grateful to Scorcese and Lumet for reminding me via two of the best American movies ever made (Dog Day Afternoon, Taxi Driver) what a great city under siege really looks like.
And now what’s left? Movie palaces are gone — everywhere, not just in NYC — they were going anyway. We can revisit them now as the resurrected live concert halls they’ve mostly become, and I’m glad for that. As for the streets? New York has, alas, made its Faustian bargain with wealth. Hardly anybody I know can afford to live across the water these days, but everything is well lit and all the shopfronts are occupied. Meanwhile, according to The New York Times, A Most Violent Year (2014), a gritty NYC movie set in 1981, was filmed mostly in Detroit. Movies and literal truth seldom intersect.