Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Greetings from the South Bronx...circa 1980-81

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:


Unknown said...

"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"

I don't know if it's the Bronx but BEAT STREET shows a pretty run-down looking NYC as several in the protagonists live in some pretty slummy, bombed-out areas.

Ned Merrill said...

BEAT STREET is totally possible. Haven't seen in about 15 years, but I do strongly recall that they used the Hoyt-Schermerhorn station in Bklyn (one of my regularly traveled stations) for the scene where the guys fight on the tracks.

Hoyt-Schermerhorn has an unused track so Hollywood productions have used it a lot and disguised it to fit each film's narrative needs. See: THE WARRIORS, NIGHTHAWKS, TURK 182, BEAT STREET, etc.

Nathan said...

Great post!

I have never watched it all the way through, but the exploitation film TENEMENT: GAME OF SURVIVAL from 1985 uses similar Bronx settings.

Also, there was a lot of uproar in the Bronx neighborhoods where FORT APACHE, THE BRONX was shot. Community groups got hold of the script and objected to the Bronx and its inhabitants being associated with wild west savagery. They protested its shooting and forced normally liberal Paul Newman to defend his participation in what they considered to be a racist film. The story of the opposition (and the tactics used by Time-Life to oppose the opposition) are told by Richie Perez in the book Cultures of Contention (Real Comet Press, 1985), which also has some great photos of the protests. In one, two children hold a sign that says "Fort Apache Indians are not savages and neither are we."

This is really Interesting when you think about Wolfen exploring native themes at exactly the same time.

Also, I see what you mean about the tv-like quality of FATB - its always looked to me like it was shot in the early 1970s, not 1980. I thought it was because of the uniforms the police were wearing though... It definitely doesn't feel as modern as other police films shot closer to the beginning of the 1980s.

Ned Merrill said...

Thanks for the info, Nathan. I think I've heard mention of TENEMENT before. Will have to look for that and CULTURES OF CONTENTION at some point. I would be very curious to hear the thoughts of those Bronx residents if they were to revisit FORT APACHE, THE BRONX today (if they ever actually watched it in the first place). I'm not part of any of the minority groups portrayed on screen, but the film does not seem outwardly offensive to me--the cops are certainly not portrayed positively, except for Newman, of course, whose real-life liberalism certainly informs the onscreen characterization. At one point, he jests with Ken Wahl about how his fellow cops, including bad apple Danny Aiello (a real-life conservative) think he's too much of a liberal. The police treatment of the South Bronx residents is criticized in several scenes; I'm thinking in particular of the riot scene and its tragic aftermath. I was never an avid viewer of HILL STREET BLUES, though I would like to revisit it, but it seems to hold a lot of similarities with FORT APACHE, THE BRONX; unfortunately, only the first two seasons were ever released on DVD. Another cop show that I watched as a kid, but could not really appreciate at the time was BARNEY MILLER; it's a show that has long had a good reputation amongst real cops. As with HILL STREET BLUES, only some of the seasons have been released on DVD.

Nathan said...

Re: the politics of the film, I generally agree. I think it was a time though when social movements were becoming aware of the political power of popular representations and protesting their production (in addition to boycotting them). Cruising, as you know, is a similar example.

Marc Edward Heuck said...

Reportedly, Michael Wadleigh taped a full commentary track for either the laserdisc or DVD of WOLFEN that WB did not port over - don't know whether it was due to things he said (possible; according to my former GEEKS-mate Andy Zax, who worked on the 40th Anniversary WOODSTOCK reissue, he's quite a pistol), or whether they just cheaped out on the release.

I've seen the "Orion Pictures presents" treatment also used on the trailer for SHARKY'S MACHINE. It would appear they really wanted to make a splash as a studio name, even though at the time they were essentially a WB adjunct. Strangely, the trailer for their earliest release, OVER THE EDGE, doesn't feature that. However, the way that it is cut is very reminiscent of the house style at United Artists back in the day - leaving me to wonder if perhaps that film was originally a UA project that the exiting board took with them when they formed Orion.

Ned Merrill said...


Thanks for the info about Wadleigh's commentary track; I recall reading something about that in the past. Would love to see that SHARKY'S trailer, but it isn't on the DVD and I haven't seen it crop up on Youtube. Interesting theory about WOLFEN moving over from UA; it's entirely possible, of course, based on the intertwined histories of both companies. Don't think I've watched enough UA trailers from that period to discern the house style you speak of, but my interest is now piqued.