Ask a film buff to name some quintessential New York movies, and chances are that Midnight Cowboy, Mean Streets, Shaft, The French Connection, Serpico, Dog Day Afternoon, and any number of other classics will be in the mix.
All of those movies, as it happens, were made in an era when Gotham was seen—especially, perhaps, by those who lived outside of New York—as a hellscape defined by blackouts, blight, sanitation strikes, and headlines that, day by day, mirrored the 1975 granddaddy of tabloid headlines: "Ford to City: Drop Dead."
For three weeks this summer, from July 5th through July 27th, movie fans can relive those hardcore days of yore courtesy of Film Forum's "Ford to City: Drop Dead — New York in the '70s" series. Featuring dozens of the decade's signature actors and directors (De Niro, Pacino, Redford, Hoffman, De Palma, Scorsese, Cassavettes, Jane Fonda, Gena Rowlands, Jon Voight, George C. Scott, Gene Hackman, Diane Keaton—Jesus, do we have to go on?) in more than 40 films, the series was put together by Bruce Goldstein, who has run Film Forum's repertory program for three decades and counting.
As it turns out, for Goldstein—the man The New Yorker once called "something close to our ideal of a revival theater programmer"—it wasn't the stereotypical (and often, in retrospect, overblown) sleaze and danger of the decade that inspired his selections. "I was living in New York in the '70s," Goldstein told Gothamist, "and I didn't really have a perception of the city as a frightening place, or a place of terror, which is what a lot of these films convey. I just thought this was an amazing group of movies. I also tried to include a little bit of everything of the city—every borough, every walk of life, not only crime and decay but middle-class New York lives, too."
Thus, the inclusion of Woody Allen's Manhattan and his first "serious" film, Interiors; Sidney Lumet's Network; and Paul Mazursky's An Unmarried Woman alongside such reliably down-and-dirty fare as Taxi Driver; Alan J. Pakula's criminally underappreciated noir thriller, Klute (with Jane Fonda in an Oscar-winning performance as a high-priced call girl); and, of course, Midnight Cowboy. Released in 1969, John Schlesinger's unforgettable lowlife rhapsody served as a kind of feature-length trailer for the intense, independent-minded New York films on the horizon from directors like Lumet, William Friedkin, Hal Ashby, and others.
Asked if he believes that, all these years later, the '70s still serve as a kind of totemic decade for New Yorkers and visitors alike, Goldstein concedes that maybe they do. In the next breath, citing the tens of millions of people who visit New York every year, he suggests that "tourism is people in search of something that no longer exists."
After all, a huge percentage of people who come to New York for the first time likely know the city primarily, if not entirely, through movies and TV shows—imaginative depictions that resemble the real, lived-in 2017 New York as closely as, say, Bleak House resembles today's London.
And yet, like London, Paris and some other global cities, New York is blessed with very good bones. As much as developers, politicians and others might muck around with the surface—raising an eyesore fit only for out-of-town billionaires here, or knocking down a landmark there—something essential in New York endures. Call it energy. Call it attitude. Call it whatever you want. As Goldstein puts it: "There's a security about being in New York, or just walking in New York. I don't know what it is, really, but we have such deep roots here. If I leave the city for just a few hours, I'm usually climbing the walls until I can get back. All the movies in this series, one way or another, have that same immediately recognizable New York feel."
Like any film aficionado, Goldstein needs no prompting to offer his opinions on the movies in the series, including his undimmed admiration for The French Connection ("Still a masterpiece. I think it's the greatest film of the 1970s."), The Taking of Pelham One Two Three ("I've been accused of playing it too much at Film Forum. But it's the greatest thriller I can think of. I love it."), and the movie that, along with Escape From New York, closes out the series on July 27th: the beloved, enormously entertaining Bronx-to-Coney gang odyssey, The Warriors.
"The thing that amazed me watching The Warriors again is how unthreatening it seems in the post-Tarantino world. I mean, it caused such a furor at the time, and now it all feels so mild! But that's why I put it at the end with Escape from New York, because in the Seventies the perception was that New York was dying. It was going to be over soon. Except that it wasn't. I like ending the series with that."
Consider it Goldstein's personal message to all those who, today and always, are ready to count New York down and out: Drop dead. You can find the entire series lineup on Film Forum's website.