From Swing Time to The Apartment to Taxi Driver, there’s a long, rich history of directors using Manhattan’s busy, awe-inspiring streets as the lively backdrop for their films. In the earlier half of the 20th century, filmmakers often depicted the visually compelling New York City as an emblem for new opportunities and refreshing start-overs. The idealism of onscreen New York began to deconstruct around the late 1960s and into the ’70s, when counterculture, cultural upheaval, crime, a lackluster economy, and decay began to unprecedentedly permeate the city.
40 years later, ’70s New York continues to fascinate us. David Simon and George Pelecano’s The Deuce — which premieres its 2nd season September 9th — explores prostitution and the rise of the porn industry in 1971 Times Square. Back then, Times Square wasn’t the commercial hell it is now; it was a different kind of hell and an epicenter for sex, depravity, underaged prostitution, porno theaters, and rampant drug abuse. Unlike other recent HBO ‘70s offering Vinyl, the period-accurate Deuce doesn’t glamorize the lifestyles of ‘70s NYC — nearly every character is exploited, marginalized, or screwed over.
Unsurprisingly, The Deuce takes notes from some of the most uncompromising NYC dramas in the ’70s. Filmmakers like Martin Scorsese, Sidney Lumet, Alan J. Pakula, and other auteurs centered their films on the uglier sides of New York with a relentless realism and penchant for antiheroes. The following list compiles some of the most gritty, provocative New York films from the ’70s. Like The Deuce, these films chronicle the strange, bruised allure of its setting. The films’ forefronting of depravity is often revolting, but their energy, costumes, and brazen lights never fail to entice us. Many of the entries rank among the most beloved films ever made; they continue to be celebrated for their anthropological documentation of a turbulent, disgusting, and weirdly awesome moment in American history.
Dog Day Afternoon (1975)
Director: Sidney Lumet
The Scoop: Sonny (Al Pacino) robs a Brooklyn bank to pay for his lover’s gender-affirming surgery. When the cops discover him mid-robbery, Sonny and his accomplice Sal (John Cazale) hold the bank’s employees hostage. Outside the bank, tensions between the amateur criminals and the police begin to escalate, a media frenzy develops, and a manic crowd gathers in the hot summer streets.
With Dog Day Afternoon, Lumet wholly committed himself to showcasing a naturalistic New York. Sticking true to his intentions, Lumet features mundane everyday scenes of New York in the film’s opening montage. Here, we see a ferry, a dog poking around piles of garbage, construction workers, Sonny’s wife holding her children’s hands as they cross the street, egregious traffic, a massive graveyard — all set to Elton John’s “Amoreena.” The sequence demonstrates a certain reverence for all of the everyday activities and constant stimulation of New York. Rather than portray the metropolis as an anonymous or antagonistic setting, Lumet humanizes the city in one of his most compassionate films.
As appropriate for a story that blurs the line between entertainment and reality and heroes and villains, Lumet adopted a somewhat improvisational approach to the Dog Day Afternoon’s production. Much of the film’s dialogue was improvised during rehearsal, including two of most famous moments: “Attica! Attica! Attica!” and “…Wyoming.” Even though principal photography took place during a chilly autumn, Lumet wanted to render the brutality of summer heat (a la the appropriately sweaty looks of most of the actors). To prevent breath showing (from the cold) in the film, the production team put ice in the actors’ mouths. Lumet’s adaptable, improvisational style evokes the intrinsic randomness of New York — when he employed three hundred extras for the outdoor scenes, more than a thousand civilians showed up to the shoot.
Aside from its meticulous devotion to realism and heavy reliance on improvisation, Dog Day Afternoon’s overarching mood captures the downbeat disposition of early ’70s New York. In a post-Stonewall society, New Yorkers — especially those belonging to the LGBT community — were forced to combat bigoted law enforcement and exploitative press. Sonny, a queer man and dissident, speaks for all anti-authoritative New Yorkers in his contempt for the police and FBI, his defiance in compromising his values, and his frustration toward his powerlessness. In this way, Dog Day Afternoon is a powerful document of a thunderous cultural moment in history, one that continues to feel fresh, unflinching, and gripping today.
Mean Streets (1973)
Director: Martin Scorsese
The Scoop: In Little Italy, Charlie (Harvey Keitel), a dissatisfied small-time gangster, struggles to reconcile his religion with his indulgence in petty crime and responsibility over his self-destructive loose canon of friend, Johnny Boy (Robert De Niro).
Ironically, most of Mean Streets was filmed in Los Angeles. Even so, Scorsese, who grew up in Little Italy, aptly conveys the coexisting allure and disgust of New York with his signature personal streak. Like Dog Day Afternoon, Mean Streets opens with a montage of various scenes in Little Italy. The sequence centers on Charlie and illuminates his happier past. Masterfully set to The Ronettes’ “Be My Baby,” the grainy 8-mm sequence presents footage of Charlie attending a baptism, shaking hands with a priest, eating cake at a birthday party, and hanging out with Johnny Boy and other friends in the neighborhood. Even though the montage takes place in the city’s gritty criminal underworld, Charlie’s attachment to his home and neighborhood is all too clearr. In turn, the montage establishes our empathy for Charlie; we understand his devotion to Johnny Boy and his reluctance to move uptown. Even in a place as seedy and dangerous as Little Italy, it is still home — a dependable, rare source of comfort and acceptance — for Charlie, a man who struggles to discern his place in the world.
From the opening montage onwards, Mean Streets emphasizes the day-to-day activities of the restless, self-destructive young men in ’70s New York. Their lives are mundane, albeit unpredictable: they go to the movies and tawdry bars, but they also get into sudden fights with each other and strangers. Notably, the glaring yelps of a siren is one of the first sounds we hear in the film. The sirens communicate a sense of urgency and danger, as well as the omnipresent violence threatening the protagonists’ lives in Little Italy.
Director: Alan J. Pakula
The Scoop: Detective John Klute (Donald Sutherland) travels to New York City to investigate the disappearance of a businessman. Klute’s only lead is call girl Bree Daniels (Jane Fonda), who may have received obscene letters from the missing man. She and Klute work together to solve the case and develop an unconventional romantic bond.
Klute is often hailed as a ’70s zeitgeist movie rather than a New York movie. Everything from its reflections on second-wave feminism, to its creepy but cheesy “lalala” score, to Bree’s shag haircut (created by a stylist in the Lower East Side), to its interest in psychiatric analysis, firmly grounds the film in late ’60s/early ’70s culture. While Klute certainly is an artifact of its time, Bree’s outfits — midi skirts, high books, tight wool sweaters worn without bras, and trench coats — continue to be emulated today. And, of course, Bree’s ambivalence about emotional attachment to a man still feels fresh and profound almost fifty years later.
Some of Klue’s cultural value would be muddled or lost if it wasn’t for the film’s New York setting. Like most films on this list, the degradation of the slums and city lifestyles pervade the film. Brie lives in a dismal, poorly lit apartment overlooking a funeral parlor. She and Klute seek out some of her former colleagues, only to find them strung out, desperate, and barely functioning in crumbling tenements. After witnessing the misery of her once-acquaintances, Brie reflects, “I was trying to get away from a world I didn’t think was very good for me. Seeing people that I used to know — that I liked a lot. That were my friends, sort of…They could have been me” to her psychiatrist. Brie realizes how the toxic and licentious New York can enable hopeless existences, especially for women. Scenes at vivacious early disco clubs and street markets occasionally counteract Klute’s bleak meditations on New York. For the majority of the film, though, we empathize with the perspective of the disillusioned Brie, who eventually wishes to escape her claustrophobic, voyeuristic, and demoralizing city milieu.
The Panic in Needle Park (1971)
Director: Jerry Schatzberg
The Scoop: Bobby (Al Pacino), a heroin addict who lives in Needle Park, falls in love with Helen (Kitty Winn), an innocent and vulnerable yet cynical student. Bobby introduces Helen to heroin, and she soon becomes an addict. Their mutual parasitic addiction coalesces into hustling, crime, and betrayal.
Like Dog Day Afternoon, The Panic in Needle Park fervidly uses stark realism to tell its story. Filmed in loose, faux-documentary style, the film is devoid of quick cuts, flashy visuals, or sentimental score. In fact, the film’s soundtrack solely features diegetic noises typical of a city soundscape: a whooshing train, car horns, footsteps. Even the opening credit sequence rolls in utter, eerie silence. Through this realism, Schatzberg allows Bobby and Helen’s banal and destructive lives in Needle Park to speak for themselves without the interference of a judgmental, glamorized, or overly showy filmmaking.
New York heightens the bleak intimacy of Bobby and Helen’s doomed romance. Schatzberg emphasizes the city’s dirty alleys, rotten apartments, cheap diners, packed subways, and trashed gutters. From Harlem to the Upper West Side to the State Island Ferry, the entire inhospitable city rots into an urban nightmare unsuitable for the young, relatively naive couple. New York proves itself inept as the backdrop of their romance; it simply replaces the fulfillment and happiness of their budding relationship with anxiety, betrayal, selfishness, infidelity, and drug abuse. Panic in Needle Park’s downbeat mood shares similarities to many dystopian films, which makes the reality of its forthright filming in the actual, unromanticized 1971 New York all the more harrowing.
Super Fly (1972)
Director: Gordon Parks Jr.
The Scoop: The suave, utlra-cool drug dealer Priest (Ron O’ Neal) has earned the respect of the neighborhood and enjoys the comfort and luxury the life has brought him. But he plans to retire from the business after one last deal: thirty keys of cocaine for a million bucks, which he will split with his reluctant partner Eddie (Carl Lee).
Early blaxploitation film Super Fly stands as one of the best in its genre, in large part due to the intimacy of its New York setting. Priest travels from the littered and crumbling Manhattan streets, his lavish mid-town apartment, to the squalor of Harlem apartments. We receive a comprehensive look at the urban decay of the city, which contributes to the film’s time-capsule quality and illustrates how Priests’ actions affect various social ecosystems in the city. Whether Priest sells cocaine or attempts to escape the business, he exploits, or even ruins, the life of someone else. After witnessing the various seedy and sinister city streets, we understand why our hero previously resorted to the life of crime. As Eddie claims, “I know it’s a rotten game, but it’s the only one The Man left us to play.” Systematic racism prevents Priest and Eddie from achieving the fallacy of the American Dream; if they weren’t drug dealers, they would be trapped “working some jive job for chump change day after day.”
Filmed on a low budget of $500,000, Super Fly captures its New York streets with a documentary-esque, amateur intimacy. The camera often doesn’t stay in focus on characters walking across the street. Action and traffic shots are bumpy and shaky. Occasionally, we’ll see the production crew’s cables and equipment in the frame. Parks Jr.’s scuzzy, earthy directorial approach to Super Fly enhances its perversely captivating, ultra-70s atmosphere, as do Curtis Mayfield’s wonderful soundtrack, O’ Neals’ potent performance, and Priest’s gaudy, flamboyant outfits.
Midnight Cowboy (1969)
Director: John Schlesinger
The Scoop: Naive dishwasher Joe (Jon Voight) travels to New York in pursuit of becoming a prostitute and attaining personal fortune. The city proves itself hostile to the naive Joe, but he eventually forms a bond with the ill, eccentric hustler, Enrico “Ratso” Rizzo (Dustin Hoffman). As Joe struggles to keep his hustling career afloat, Rizzo’s health severely declines.
OK, Midnight Cowboy technically isn’t a ’70s film. But it would be remiss not to mention one of the first films that shattered common romanticized notions of New York and introduced its uglier dimensions. As one of the most beloved counterculture and New York movies, Midnight Cowboy notably centers on an outsider’s newfound, disillusioning experiences with the city (which hadn’t even reached its peak physical turmoil and deterioration). Joe expected to find instant comfort and fortune in New York. The chaos and rot of the city, though, shatter his misperceptions. In one of the most recognizable and striking shots of the film, Joe walks down a busy sidewalk; he’s nearly as blurred and invisible as everyone else in the crowd. Joe thought he would stand out in New York. In spite of his cowboy hat and good lucks, though, he anonymously navigates the city unnoticed.
Midnight Cowboy presents uninformed audiences with the palpable sleeze of late ’60s New York — especially in Times Square. During the day, Joe and Rizzo aimlessly wander the general disorder of the streets; during the night, they endure the seediness of counterculture (a la the lengthy Warholian party scene), drugs, and prostitution. In another iconic, parodied scene, a taxi almost bumps into Joe and Rizzo as they cross the street. Rizzo slaps the cab’s hoods and shouts, “Hey, I’m walkin’ here! I’m walkin’ here!” before the cab drives off. It’s a minuscule, specific, and even banal moment. Nonetheless, it invokes the general minutiae of city life — how it can make the simple task from transporting from one place an anger-inducing adventure.
The Blank Generation (1976)
Director: Ivan Král, Amos Poe
The Scoop: A documentary chronicling the rise of the New York punk and new wave scene. Filmed in large part at legendary venue CBGB’s, The Blank Generation features performances from now beloved musicians like Patti Smith, The Ramones, Richard Hell Blondie, The Heartbreakers, Talking Heads, and Television at the beginning of their careers.
The Blank Generation has not achieved Taxi Driver levels of near-universal reverence, but it still documents New York’s emerging punk and new wave scenes — one of the city’s greatest artistic feats. As a crucial historical document, The Blank Generation simply features musicians performing at local venues — Blondie plays a soul-crushing cover of “Out In The Streets,” Television grooves with “Little Johnny Jewel,” Ramones blaze through “I Don’t Care,” etc. However, like the subjects they filmed, Král and Poe adopted a DIY approach totheir craft; they recorded with a black-and-white 16mm camera without synchronized sound and inserted demos in post-production. While The Blank Generation would have been a more satisfying viewing experience if we heard the actual audio of the performances, it’s nonetheless thrilling to watch so much raw, uninhibited talent in these young and budding musicians, many of who went on to achieve widespread fame and critical acclaim. We also get see the band members goof off backstage, chilling footage of New York streets, and several musicians — including Debbie Harry — attending what appears to be the greatest New Years Eve party ever.
The French Connection (1971)
Director: William Friedkin
The Scoop: New York Narcotics Detectives “Popeye” Doyle (Gene Hackman) and (Roy Scheider) pursue a wealthy French heroin smuggler.
The French Connection’s gritty evocation of New York is as vivid and cold as its characters. As one of cinema’s most amoral heroes, Popeye harasses and endangers regular civilians amidst a hostile and chilly city. Throughout the film, Popeye anxiously drives around New York in hopes for a revelation in the case. He navigates a stark, gray wasteland, one pervaded with ambient car horns, drab skyscrapers, and brutal traffic. These scenes render the film a hypnotic rhythm, not to mention a grounded and subtly cynical portrayal of the blemished metropolis.
Notably, the famous car vs. elevated train sequence was shot in ordinary Brooklyn streets without the knowledge of local New Yorkers. Friedkin mounted the camera on Popeye’s car; there was no traffic control; Hackman and the stunt driver had to evade and dodge real pedestrians. It was illegal and reckless…and totally worth it. Friedkin’s pursuit for a truthful representation of the danger latent in Popeye’s desperation to catch Nicoli (Marcel Bozzuffi) resulted in one of the most anxiety-inducing and impressive car chase scenes in cinema — one that documents the frenzy of New York in all of its striking chaos.
Director: Sidney Lumet
The Scoop: Frank Serpico (Al Pacino) is a honorable cop in New York. After Frank explores his identity, moves to Greenwich Village, and embraces late ’60s counterculture, the unconventional policeman grows long hair and a beard, which relegates him to plainclothes assignments in turn. He slowly discovers the corruption latent among several police departments — his peers take payoffs and abuse their power. As Frank decides to expose the misconduct, he becomes subjected to false promises, mental instability, and relentless harassment from his colleagues.
Unlike Taxi Driver and The Panic in Needle Park’s one-sided depictions of New York, Serpico posits a nuanced (and at times disjointed) account of early ’70s NYC lifestyles. Frank lives in Greenwich Village, the birthplace of ’60s counterculture, the Beat Generation, and modern LGBT movements. Here, there are spacious apartments, clean streets, and citizens who sell adorable sheepdog puppies on the sidewalks. (Frank buys one and we get to gradually see the dog grow to its adult size — honestly one of the best parts of the movie.) However, Frank’s work positions him in the messier and dirtier parts of New York. Garbage is everywhere. We often don’t see anyone other than cops and criminals on the streets. Even the police offices and headquarters are run-down, grotesque, and poorly lit. These segments of New York feels detached and ominous, starkly juxtaposing with the languid tranquility of the Village.
The duality of the city evokes some of Frank’s central predicaments. In the Village, he’s encouraged to embrace his counterculture identity; at his work, his identity becomes scrutinized and ridiculed. In some cases, his fellow officers can’t even recognize Frank as a cop and nearly kill him as a result. Frank can lament to his girlfriend, Laurie (Barbara Eda-Young), about the department’s corruption all he wants. As soon as he walks outside of his apartment, though, he becomes forced to approach his whistle-blowing and complaints with extreme caution, precision, and tip-toeing. Most of New York treats the honest, “weird” Frank with hostility or indifference, which makes the film’s tragic ending upsetting, but not unsurprising.
Taxi Driver (1976)
Director: Martin Scorsese
The Scoop: Isolated, deranged veteran Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro) works arduous hours as a taxi driver in New York. He becomes obsessed with saving two women — political campaign worker Betsy and twelve-year-old prostitute Iris (Jodie Foster) — from the filth, corruption, and decay of the city.
Taxi Driver begins with a recognizable image, one emblematic of 20th century New York City: a taxi cab. But Scorsese instantly defamiliarizes this ordinary artifact of New York. The cab emerges from a yellow-tinted fog, as if it’s exiting hell. It looms, rather than moves, at a slow speed from a low angle. The taxi looks antagonistic and menacing; its uncanny appearance becomes explained after the next cut: a tight close up of a Travis’ restless eyes scanning his environment. From a wet and blurred windshield inside his cab, Travis examines the visually distorted and out-of-focus city streets. The opening sequence introduces Travis’ disdainful, subjective view of New York City. In Taxi Driver, we see the real New York — its cabs, its streets — but it’s distorted through the eyes of a forlorn man who considers it a sewer.
Travis’ riveting clash with New York dominates the film’s story. We see macabre images of a pimp romancing Iris, scummy porn theaters, claustrophobic traffic, dilapidated buildings, garbage pervading the streets. The artificial lighting, with all the demonic reds and saturated yellows, unnerve us just as they unnerve Travis. When Travis declares his Biblical disdain of New York and laments, “Someday a real rain will come and wash all this scum off the streets,” we understand his point of view. All the same, Travis finds himself drawn to Times Square and 42nd Street, the homes of most of the city’s pimps, prostitutes, porno theaters, drugs, and crime. Travis could theoretically drive anywhere he wanted, but he gravitates to these maligned streets; they fuel his hatred. Travis’ perception of New York drives his alienation, his yearning to become Betsy and Iris’ saviors, and his eventual descent into crazed violence.
Taxi Driver’s direction, performance, script, and music all coalesce into one of the most captivating stories about urban ecosystems, period. Scorsese masterfully uses New York as a crucial backdrop for one of cinema’s most complex character studies; De Niro’s performance convinces us of Travis’ rage, loneliness, and desperation; Paul Schrader’s script catalyzes uncomfortable yet sympathetic feelings for Travis; Bernard Hermann’s romantic and tense score allows us to enter the headspace of “God’s lonely man.” 40 years after Taxi Driver’s release, we tend to remember the film’s more iconic moments (“You talkin’ to me?”) while glossing over the beating heart of the movie: a loner’s enraged, pitiful, and displaced alienation in a city he despises.
If your itch for ’70s NYC movies still hasn’t been scratched, check out Shaft, The Taking of Pelham 123, and Saturday Night Fever. Happy viewing!