Just caught up with these two 1981 genre entries (one a straight-up police drama, the other a police-occult horror hybrid) via cheap DVDs from Amazon Marketplace. While neither was particularly well-received upon release, I see them as two more supremely valuable filmed documents of pre-gentrification, pre-Giuliani New York City, particularly the Bronx, which isn't seen as often in Hollywood films as some of the other boroughs. Aside from this, even though I know I shouldn't be at this point, I'm continuously fascinated by the way in which the studios can all pounce on the same idea at the same time; my favorite example of this is probably the "gang cycle" of 1979 and, here, on a smaller scale, we have the Bronx movies of '81, one made by Time-Life Films (distributed by Fox) and the other made by Orion (distributed by Warner). I would be curious to know of other mainstream Hollywood films, which made as much use of dilapidated Bronx buildings and neighborhoods as Wolfen and Fort Apache, The Bronx did, around the same time as these two pictures. Feel free to leave them in the comments section below.
Directed by Michael Wadleigh (Woodstock), Wolfen is stylishly filmed by Wadleigh, d.p. Gerry Fisher, and production designer Paul Sylbert, effectively using the same kind of p.o.v. thermography as Predator would several years later. Along with all of the great Bronx location work, which includes an abandoned church built and destroyed specifically for the film, Wolfen also has some beautiful footage of the Brooklyn Bridge, Battery Park, and some absolutely breathtaking shots from atop of the Manhattan Bridge. Albert Finney leads a great cast that includes Diane Venora, Edward James Olmos, Gregory Hines, Tom Noonan, and Dick O'Neill in a story about an ancient breed of wolves, with Native American connections, feasting on Bronx denizens that is perhaps a little leisurely and padded at just under two hours. That said, we're left with an air of mystery and ambiguity at the conclusion and have antagonists that are not entirely bad and, in fact, are admirable and sympathetic in many respects. Not having read the Whitley Strieber novel on which the film is based, I'm not sure how faithful the film is, or if my reading from the film is entirely correct. Nevertheless, I was mostly riveted throughout. If made today, Wolfen would probably somehow be even longer, but less nuanced and deliberate than the 1981 film in favor of more explicit f/x, horror, and gore.
I haven't yet read this scholarly piece on Wolfen and its representation of the Bronx, but it looks quite interesting.
It's funny that I watched this right before my brother introduced me to this site, which features some magnificent and audacious illegally-shot footage from atop the Williamsburg Bridge and inside abandoned subway stations and tunnels.
Fort Apache, The Bronx boasts what is, as far as I can tell, the last action role for Paul Newman. At 55, the actor's age is not surprisingly used as a major plot point in this story of a veteran New York cop toiling away in the city's most dangerous precinct. I would agree with the criticism of the time that said that the film's overall construction and narrative felt quotidien and tv-like, but, with hindsight, the film looks a lot better because of its sincere approach, stellar cast (Newman, Ed Asner, Ken Wahl, Danny Aiello, Pam Grier, Rachel Ticotin, Kathleen Beller, Miguel Pinero, Paul Gleason, Randy Jurgensen, Sully Boyar), and the fact that material like this is almost never seen in Hollywood films anymore; 30 years later, a property like Fort Apache, The Bronx is almost solely the realm of television. As with Wolfen, my attention was held throughout and I got quite a kick out of the teaming of veteran Newman and hotshot Wahl, once again making me wish we'd seen more of Wahl after Wiseguy.
This trailer features a great v.o. and on-screen logo announcing Orion's involvement with Wolfen as well as some remarkable footage of decrepit Bronx buildings being demolished:
The classic Vestron logo introduces this Fort Apache, The Bronx trailer that does not appear on the DVD:
Vintage television spot: