Pauline Kael on New York in the Movies, 1971

21 Apr

Pauline Kael was the chief film critic for The New Yorker for several decades and most of her reviews were collected every few years in published volumes. I pulled the fourth collection, Deeper Into Movies, off the shelf recently and re-read “Urban Gothic,” dated October 30, 1971, Kael’s review of THE FRENCH CONNECTION, the New York City police thriller directed by William Friedkin and starring Gene Hackman and Roy Scheider that went on to win the Best Picture Oscar for that year. Kael’s first two paragraphs of the review, pasted below, offer a spot-on assessment of how New York movies of that time created “a permanent record of the city in breakdown.” As someone who lived through that era and had good times and bad times associated with it, I am always awe-struck at how accurate these films were in capturing the look, feel, mood and sound of New York, or “Horror City,” as she calls it, in those years. However, she goes a little overboard in her paragraph describing the audiences at these films, particularly in Times Square and Greenwich Village, and may be exaggerating the depth and intensity of audience reaction and participation, but at least she was there to observe it. I was, too, and I do remember an occasional fight breaking out, but the audience was generally way more focused on the screen than on each other, although I may not have gone to the same theaters or late-night screenings that Kael did. Still, her vivid portrait of New York moviegoing offers a fitting counterpart to the nervous, jangling energy of the New York movies onscreen.

The New York films she lists in the second quoted paragraph below all predate 1972, but her description holds true for a host of New York movies throughout the early-to-mid 1970s, including SUPER FLY, THE HOT ROCK, SERPICO, MEAN STREETS, THE SEVEN-UPS, ACROSS 110TH STREET, THE TAKING OF PELHAM ONE TWO THREE, DEATH WISH, DOG DAY AFTERNOON, REPORT TO THE COMMISSIONER, and TAXI DRIVER, to name a few. And, of course, there were earlier New York movies that hinted at the grit, realism and violence to come, including THE INCIDENT (1967), THE DETECTIVE (1968) and COOGAN’S BLUFF (1968).

I’ve broken up Kael’s original, lengthy paragraphs with illustrations from relevant films. Here is a link to the full review:

The French Connection: Urban Gothic – Review by Pauline Kael

When New York’s Mayor Lindsay began his efforts to attract the movie-production business, it probably didn’t occur to him or his associates that they were ushering in a new movie age of nightmare realism. The Los Angeles area was selected originally for the sunshine and so that the movie-business hustlers—patent-violators who were pirating inventions as well as anything else they could get hold of—could slip over the border fast. As it turned out, however, California had such varied vegetation that it could be used to stand in for most of the world, and there was space to build whatever couldn’t be found. But New York City is always New York City; it can’t be anything else, and, with practically no studios for fakery, the movie companies use what’s really here, so the New York-made movies have been set in Horror City. Although recent conflicts between the producers and the New York unions seem to have ended this Urban Gothic period, the New York-made movies have provided a permanent record of the city in breakdown.

I doubt if at any other time in American movie history there has been such a close relationship between the life on the screen and the life of a portion of the audience. Los Angeles-made movies were not about Los Angeles; often they were not about any recognizable world. But these recent movies are about New York, and the old sentimentalities are almost impossible here—physically impossible, because the city gives them the lie. (I’m thinking of such movies as Klute, Little Murders, The Anderson Tapes, Greetings, The Landlord, Where’s Poppa?, Midnight Cowboy, Harry Kellerman, Diary of a Mad Housewife, No Way to Treat a Lady, Shaft, Cotton Comes to Harlem, The Steagle, Cry Uncle, The Owl and the Pussycat, The Panic in Needle Park, Bananas, and the forthcoming Born to Win.) The city of New York has helped American movies grow up; it has also given movies a new spirit of nervous, anxious hopelessness, which is the true spirit of New York. It is literally true that when you live in New York you no longer believe that the garbage will ever be gone from the streets or that life will ever be sane and orderly.

The movies have captured the soul of this city in a way that goes beyond simple notions of realism. The panhandler in the movie who jostles the hero looks just like the one who jostles you as you leave the movie theatre; the police sirens in the movie are screaming outside; the hookers and junkies in the freak show on the screen are indistinguishable from the ones in the freak show on the streets. Famous New York put-on artists and well-known street people are incorporated in the movies; sometimes they are in the movie the­atre, dressed as they are in the movie, and sometimes you leave the theatre and see them a few blocks away, just where they were photographed.

There’s a sense of carnival about this urban-crisis city; everyone seems to be dressed for a mad ball. Screams in the theatre at Halloween movies used to be a joke, signals for laughter and applause, because nobody believed in the terror on the screen. The midnight showings of horror films now go on all year round, and the screams are no longer pranks. Horror stories and brutal melodramas concocted for profit are apparently felt on a deeper level than might have been supposed. People don’t laugh or applaud when there’s a scream; they try to ignore the sound. It is assumed that the person yelling is stoned and out of control, or crazy and not to be trifled with—he may want an excuse to blow off steam, he may have a knife or a gun. It is not uncommon now for fights and semi-psychotic episodes to take place in the theatres, especially when the movies being played are shockers. Audiences for these movies in the Times Square area and in the Village are highly volatile. Probably the unstable, often dazed members of the audience are particularly susceptible to the violence and tension on the screen; maybe crowds now include a certain number of people who simply can’t stay calm for two hours. But whether the movies bring it out in the audience or whether the particular audiences that are attracted bring it into the theatre, it’s there in the theatre, particularly at late shows, and you feel that the violence on the screen may at any moment touch off violence in the theatre. The audience is explosively live. It’s like being at a prizefight or a miniature Altamont.

Finally, here’s her key paragraph on THE FRENCH CONNECTION itself, presented unbroken, with appropriate images at the end, since it really has to be read in one fell swoop as it issues from her id. Again, her reaction strikes me as pretty extreme as she complains about all the movie’s “jolts,” its “PSYCHO-derived blast-in-the-face” effects, and how it raises the “noise level.” I saw the same movie at the same time and I don’t recall me or my friends having that reaction. Sure, the car-and-subway chase offered quite a few “zaps,” to use her term, and boasted an intensity and speed that few urban thriller action scenes had achieved up to that time, surpassing even BULLITT’s car chase from three years earlier. It was the most memorable scene in the movie, but the rest of the story focused on the step-by-step details of on-the-ground policing, including surveillance, wiretapping, searching of vehicles, and constant legwork amidst New York City streets and locations as they really looked and felt, much of it captured by camera crews operating without permits, and that’s what made the movie great.

It’s no wonder that The French Connection is a hit, but what in hell is it? It uses eighty-six separate locations in New York City—so many that it has no time for carnival atmosphere: it crashes right through. I suppose the answer we’re meant to give is that it’s an image of the modern big city as Inferno, and that Popeye is an Existential hero, but the movie keeps zapping us. Though The French Connection achieves one effect through timing and humor (when the French Mr. Big, played by Fernando Rey, outwits Popeye in the subway station by using his silver-handled umbrella to open the train doors) most of its effects are of the Psycho-derived blast-in-the-face variety. Even the expert pacing is achieved by somewhat questionable means; the ominous music keeps tightening the screws and heating things up. The noise of New York already has us tense. The movie is like an aggravated case of New York: it raises this noise level to produce the kind of painful tension that is usually described as almost unbearable suspense. But it’s the same kind of suspense you feel when someone outside your window keeps pushing down on the car horn and you think the blaring sound is going to drive you out of your skull. This horn routine is, in fact, what the cop does throughout the longest chase sequence. The movie’s suspense is magnified by the sheer pounding abrasiveness of its means; you don’t have to be an artist or be original or ingenious to work on the raw nerves of an audience this way—you just have to be smart and brutal. The high-pressure methods that one could possibly accept in Z because they were tools used to try to show the audience how a Fascist conspiracy works are used as ends in themselves. Despite the dubious methods, the purpose of the brutality in Z was moral—it was to make you hate brutality. Here you love it, you wait for it—that’s all there is. I know that there are many people—and very intelligent people, too—who love this kind of fast-action movie, who say that this is what movies do best and that this is what they really want when they go to a movie. Probably many of them would agree with everything I’ve said but will still love the movie. Well, it’s not what I want, and the fact that Friedkin has done a sensational job of direction just makes that clearer. It’s not what I want not because it fails (it doesn’t fail) but because of what it is. It is, I think, what we once feared mass entertainment might become: jolts for jocks. There’s nothing in the movie that you enjoy thinking over afterward—nothing especially clever except the timing of the subway-door-and-umbrella sequence. Every other effect in the movie—even the climactic car-versus-runaway-elevated-train chase—is achieved by noise, speed, and brutality.

And here’s the umbrella handle bit she loved so much:

I did my own reevaluation of  THE FRENCH CONNECTION here four years ago.

One Response to “Pauline Kael on New York in the Movies, 1971”

  1. Judith Trojan April 21, 2020 at 3:18 PM #

    Thanks for this look back at Kael’s POV! I wonder how she would react to NYC’s new normal and the spate of comic book action films that drew crowds pre-pandemic. Funny, but the film that instantly and pleasurably comes to mind when I think of NYC-based films of that period is “Rosemary’s Baby.”

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