I have a lot of relatives and cousins that grew up in some tough parts of New York City - the Bronx, Washington Heights, Red Hook Brooklyn. Our family would drive down from bucolic Connecticut in our lime green Dodge Monaco - three in the front, three in the back. Not a seat belt buckled for miles. As soon as we got on the Cross Bronx Expressway, I would notice the change - a lot less greenery, a lot more burned out, cinder blocked cars in the burm. You know - this is not how it is now, but back in the mid-70s, New York retained all that grit. The grit you see in Dog Day Afternoon, Midnight Cowboy, etc. - I saw it upclose and personal. And my cousins - wow, they were intimidating. Their father was a beat cop in Harlem, and they lived on the cusp in Washington Heights, the northern part of Manhattan. It was intense, but also very very cool. I kept close to my mom (and I was almost 15). Okay, not really, but I was really working on keeping my “no fight” streak alive. Of course, nothing ever happened and I had a great time with my family. But the feeling I get from watching movies that were filmed in the 70s in NYC, is the same feeling I had when I visited the city back then.
Two movies we discuss this week deal with gangs in NYC; but they really couldn’t be more different. The Warriors (1979, Walter Hill) is a fantasy of gang life in the Big Apple. It was a big deal back when it came out - there were supposed fights in the theaters, etc. But watching it now, it is downright laughable, but in a very good way. You can’t take it seriously - it’s a freakin’ comic book. The gangs are goofy and the movie doesn’t make a lick of sense. But it moves fast and is undeniably entertaining. I watched it for the first time for the podcast, and it was not at all what I had expected it to be. I really thought it was going to be intense and cool. It’s not, but it is fun.
The Wanderers (Philip Kaufman), came out in the same summer, and barely got a release. I think it opened in a few theaters and some drive-ins before it went to HBO. That’s when I watched it. And I was really blown away by it. Set in the early 1960s in Kaufman’s neighborhood, it’s another romanticized version of the street gangs of that time. But there is real emotional depth here with the characters, some abrupt tone changes that enhance the film and give it the cult status it so richly deserves and has gotten, and great acting. It launched Ken Wahl’s career as well as a pre-Indiana Jones Karen Allen. Special mention to John Friedrich who, as Joey, is really a heartbreaking character. It’s a performance that you might see in a Sidney Lumet film from that time period. This is an almost great film that has been overlooked forever. I believe there is a film festival out there that shows The Wanderers every year, so it has it’s fans. Count me one of them. My cousins would be proud.