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50 Years in Times Square: Kurosawa and his Western Remakes

8 Apr

On April 8, 1971, 50 years ago today, I made my first trip to see a Japanese movie on the big screen. It was Akira Kurosawa’s SEVEN SAMURAI (1954) and it may have been the first time the full three-and-a-half-hour cut of the film was shown on the big screen in New York. It was also the first fully foreign-language film with English subtitles that I would see in a theater. The theater was the tiny Bijou Cinema on West 45th Street, between Broadway and 8th Avenue in Times Square in Manhattan.  Interestingly, just over two months earlier, on January 28, 1971, I’d seen John Sturges’ THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN (1960), a western remake of SEVEN SAMURAI, for the first time at a theater around the corner from the Bijou, the Victoria on Broadway and 46th Street. On May 20 of that year, I would see Sergio Leone’s A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS (1964), the first in the Italian director’s “Man with No Name” western trilogy starring Clint Eastwood, at the Astor Theater, adjacent to the Victoria on Broadway between 45th and 46th Streets. A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS was an Italian western remake of Kurosawa’s YOJIMBO (1961), which I would then see on July 17, 1971, at the Bijou Cinema around the corner. So I saw Kurosawa’s two greatest samurai films and their western remakes in a six-month time period on one strip of real estate in Times Square, all while I was still in high school. Where else and at what time period could that have happened? I was so lucky to be coming of age as a film buff at just that time.31337908446_1655225bc8 Continue reading

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.

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The Cinematic Landscape of 1969: A Film Buff’s Coming of Age

28 Aug

I’d been planning a piece about the films of 1969, but I decided to wait until I’d seen Quentin Tarantino’s ONCE UPON A TIME…IN HOLLYWOOD before finalizing my approach to it. I was curious to see what films from that period would be referenced and how that contrasted with my own experience at the movies that year. I was glad to see posters and marquees in the film highlighting films I’d seen back then, but his film takes place mostly on two weekends in 1969, one in February and one in August, so there was a limit to the references he could make. Besides, most of the film’s recreated production scenes focused on TV shows of the time, most of which I didn’t see because my household didn’t have a TV set for that entire year. More on OUATIH later.

For me, 1969 was the year I got an after-school job and was able to go to many more movies than I previously could on my meager allowance. It was also the year I started seeing movies in Manhattan by myself, usually in Times Square near my high school, the High School of Performing Arts (the “Fame” school).

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Filming Across Cultures: Cowboys, Samurai and Kung Fu Champs in the 1970s

17 May

In the 1960s and 70s, the neighborhood theater functioned as a Cinematheque of global genre films, offering Italian westerns, French crime thrillers, English horror, Soviet fantasy, Japanese samurai films and Hong Kong kung fu films, among other genres. I still marvel at the recollection of seeing such international movie icons as John Wayne, Jean Gabin and Toshiro Mifune in new movies at local theaters when I was still a teenager. I once wrote about this particular movie culture in a chapter for a proposed book on 42nd Street theaters. I’d like to share an excerpt from the chapter, after a few paragraphs of introduction.

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Kung Fu on 42nd Street

28 Sep

I recently came across files of ads for kung fu movies that played New York theaters back in the 1970s, material I’d accumulated while researching a proposed book in the early 2000s on Manhattan’s 42nd Street and its movie culture. I had planned to include a chapter on kung fu movies and even questioned several friends who’d regularly attended these movies on 42nd street. Add these files to a couple of original newspaper ads I’d saved myself from 1973 and I see that 42nd Street theaters are listed in 95% of them. In fact, all eleven theaters on both sides of the legendary Deuce (between Seventh and Eighth Avenues) are represented in the ads. What struck me as I researched the titles listed was how many I was unfamiliar with. No matter how much I think I know about kung fu movies of the 1970s and ’80s, there are always more to discover. And I never fail to be impressed by the sheer number of these movies that played in Deuce theaters in those years.

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Stanley Kubrick: Early Photos and New York Noir

24 Jul

Filmmaker Stanley Kubrick (1928-1999) would have turned 90 this coming Thursday, July 26, 2018. Known for such works as PATHS OF GLORY, DR. STRANGELOVE, 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY, A CLOCKWORK ORANGE, THE SHINING, FULL METAL JACKET and EYES WIDE SHUT, he began directing features in 1953, but started working as a photographer doing human interest stories for Look Magazine eight years earlier while still a student at Taft High School in the Bronx. He eventually directed three documentary shorts, the first of them, “Day of the Fight” (1951), based on a photo story about a boxer he’d done a couple of years earlier.

The Museum of the City of New York is currently offering an exhibit of Kubrick’s early photographs under the title, “Through a Different Lens: Stanley Kubrick Photographs,” which runs until October 28, 2018. The exhibit gives us a chance to see what interested Kubrick in his formative creative years and how he chose to frame it. It also looks forward to his first “real” movie, KILLER’S KISS (1955), which he made on a shoestring on New York locations, drawing on his experience as a street photographer. He then went to California to make THE KILLING, a full-fledged Hollywood crime thriller with a cast of name actors (topped by Sterling Hayden) and the rest, as they say, is history.

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The Blaxploitation Era: A Scrapbook from the ’70s

20 Feb

In going through old file boxes from the 1970s, I found a number of clippings that effectively illustrate the Blaxploitation era of Hollywood filmmaking, a period from roughly 1971-75, when action and other genre films showcased black heroes and heroines, usually in reworkings of standard genre formulas. They were made quickly and cheaply to capitalize on a trend that could fade out at any time as it eventually did after its peak in 1972-73. These films played grindhouses and neighborhood theaters but also, for a time, premiered at the biggest Broadway movie palaces and commanded ads and constant press coverage. I usually saw them at Bronx neighborhood theaters where they were often paired with Italian westerns and, later, kung fu films, a trend which gradually displaced Blaxploitation. I’d like to share some of what I clipped 45 or so years ago, supplemented by movie stills from my collection and posters copied from IMDB and other sites.

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THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE UGLY: 50 Years Later

29 Dec

Today, December 29th, 2017, is the 50th anniversary of the New York City premiere of THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE UGLY, the third film in Sergio Leone’s “Man with No Name” trilogy of Italian westerns starring Clint Eastwood (whose character actually has names in the first two films but is only called “Blondie” in the third). In honor of the occasion, I pulled out my old 1998 MGM DVD edition, mercifully unrestored and just like it was when it played in New York theaters back then, and watched it. (I paid several visits to see it on the big screen in 1969-72 and again, years later, when it played the Film Forum.) I even recently found the original Elgin Theater schedule that announced the triple bill of this film with two films by Sam Peckinpah, THE WILD BUNCH and THE BALLAD OF CABLE HOGUE, a seven-and-a-half-hour program which I attended on Saturday, January 29, 1972 with two friends from the Bronx. Continue reading

“Decoy” (1957): A Policewoman in New York

16 Oct

“Decoy” is a TV cop show that aired from 1957-58. There were 39 half-hour episodes and they were all filmed on location in New York City. There is only one recurring character in every episode and that’s Policewoman Patricia “Casey” Jones, played by Beverly Garland. Yes, this is the first of only a handful of cop shows with a central female protagonist. I knew very little about this series until I read J. Hoberman’s review of it in his Video column in the Sunday New York Times of Sept. 3, 2017. I had no idea it was filmed in New York, a full year before the much more celebrated and much longer-running “Naked City” TV series. I learned that the series was available on Amazon Prime, so I watched the first two episodes. I was so intrigued by them that I immediately ordered the complete series box set (for $11.99!) from Amazon.com. One of the things that excited me in the first episode was the use of Times Square and 42nd Street and the generous views of some of the theater marquees in 1957.

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VHS Discoveries: Classic Kung Fu

4 Jun

 

Back in 1998 to 2003, my revived interest in “Old School” kung fu films from Hong Kong and Taiwan happened to coincide with a phenomenal outpouring of these films in low-cost VHS editions, usually bootleg or “gray market,” with many available in mainstream video stores (e.g. Suncoast, Virgin, Tower and FYE), but more often found at discount dealers like Record Explosion and Entertainment Outlet. A company called Xenon (with various subsidiaries) released quite a number of these films as part of the “Wu Tang Collection,” often given new titles designed to appeal to hiphop fans and fans of the rap group, the Wu-Tang Clan, which took its name and a significant amount of its content from kung fu films its members had seen on 42nd Street back in the day. One of its members, Ghostface Killah, even took his name from the villain of a 42nd Street hit called THE MYSTERY OF CHESS BOXING (aka NINJA CHECKMATE). Ol’ Dirty Bastard was the name applied to another member of the Clan.

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