[This often happens: Pieces I like get shortened for space in the print mag and go online in their cut form. So here's my Best New York Movie Ever piece as originally written. (Apologies for omitting the perennial holiday capitalist heartwarmer Miracle on 34th Street from the discussion.)]
Close your eyes and the images leap out at you like those too-effusive sailors off the gangplank in On the Town: New York, New York, a hell of a film set. But in the city with the most subcultures, what could possibly be christened the New York movie, the one that inspires millions to cry, “That’s my town!”?
The city would have to be a character as well as a canvas: a wellspring, a goad, a source of liberation or its opposite, a snare. It would hinge on ambition or the hopelessness signaled by its lack. It would look like a melting pot in which nothing entirely melts, in which ethnicity and class are never fully transcended. Its story would play out in public with a shot of showbiz razzmatazz. It would be crowded.
It would also be here. The classics, the ones that gave us so many archetypes—42nd Street, Mr. Deeds Goes to Town—were Hollywood affairs with sound stages or rear-screen projections of avenues and monuments, barely touching down on pavement.
The New York with texture came later, in the back alleys of urban noirs or the gin mills of lost-weekend melodramas. In the Fifties, live television drew a segment of the industry back from the West Coast and the big screen teemed with Group Theater vets and ethnic Method types, with Brando on the waterfront (shot in Jersey, alas) and Borgnine’s Marty the bachelor butcher—a prole poet—asking his pal, “What do you wanna do tonight?” In the high-rises, meanwhile, The Apartment turned on (bad) social mores and all-controlling real estate.
Then came the late Sixties and early Seventies, when New York was malignant, when Jon Voight’s hustling Midnight Cowboy drifted through a world of grotesques, Gene Hackman’s Popeye Doyle careened under the train tracks and leaned on his horn, and blaxploitation heroes like Richard Roundtree’s Shaft gave some of us our first view (and earful) of Harlem’s violent new mythology. Later in the decade, a writer for this very magazine fabricated a Bay Ridge Saturday night disco scene—and the world fell so hard for John Travolta that it became real.
But what, again, is the New York film? So many candidates. The best of them all, The Godfather and its sequel, were a national epic—it diminishes them to say they’re New York. Other great movies were stunning evocations of their subcultures: the seminal comedies of Woody Allen with their hiply self-aware Jews; Martin Scorsese’s Italian fever-dreams (although Scorsese did redefine the “neighborhood” picture and put NYU Film School on the map); and Spike Lee’s clay-oven Bed Stuy in Do the Right Thing, which changed the course of city politics. Wall Street and Working Girl evoked the greedhead Eighties’ ethos but didn’t cut very deep.
When I close my eyes, two films swim into my mind: Sweet Smell of Success and Dog Day Afternoon. The first, directed by a Brit but with a script by Clifford Odets and Ernest Lehman, captures the lurid, neon-lit metropolis of our pipe dreams and nightmares, of jazz joints and 21 and tabloid chicanery set to Elmer Bernstein’s screaming brass, of too-pretty, too-grasping publicists like Tony Curtis’s Sidney Falco and Burt Lancaster’s steely Walter Winchell stand-in, J.J. Hunsecker, who purrs through his big choppers, “I love this dirty town.”
In the end, I’m going to settle on Sidney Lumet’s Dog Day Afternoon, based on a real disastrous Brooklyn bank robbery, which mingles bad vibes from too much closeness with a deep human longing for community. Amid crowd scenes cut with incomparable edginess by editor Dede Allen, there is a middle section of such quiet intimacy that the whole crazy paradox of acting, of being private in public, becomes a metaphor for life in the big city. Al Pacino has played more great New York characters than anyone: Michael Corleone, Serpico, Carlito, the mayor, Satan as a corporate lawyer. Yet he has never been more soulful than as Sonny, depressive and manic, turned on by performing for cheering crowds and crushed by their abandonment, trying to reconcile what cannot be reconciled. He is New York’s most haunted mascot in its most haunting film.