New York Crime Films of the 70s
During the 1970’s New York gained a reputation for being infamous for being a crime infested hellscape. Filled with desolate subway stations, dark alleyways, and the cheap neon glow of seedy businesses the Big Apple was a haven for every sin and vice. The police who were supposed to be stopping it were seen as overpowered or just as dirty as the crooks. While this reputation may not have made New York a good place to put down roots, it made for a great setting for crime films. This decade saw filmmakers utilize the City the Never Sleeps as the backdrops for all kinds of; cop flicks, gangster movies, and neo-noirs. Many of these now classic films now serve not only as incredible movies, but in a way a time capsule for the era and setting they were in.
The French Connection: While this movie has gone down in history for being the first R-Rated Best Picture winner, for many it is remembered for having filmdom’s greatest car chase. Surly detective, Popeye Doyle discovers evidence of a massive heroin smuggling ring setting up in New York. At the head of this operation is a well-connected French businessman who is looking to bring in a large shipment of his product. With the stakes getting higher by the second, Popeye has to uncover how the heroin is being brought in and who is involved. Over time the French Connection has attained the status as a watershed film in American cinema.
Shaft: When the daughter of a Harlem mob boss is kidnapped, the only man he can turn to is the private dick who gets all the chicks. I’m talking ‘bout Shaft, can you dig it? With connections in both the NYPD and the criminal underworld, the suave detective has to pull in all of his resources to get to the bottom of the case. As the number of people he can trust shrinks, it becomes clear the ramifications of this kidnapping to could lead an all-out gang war which could tear the city apart. With one of the greatest soundtracks in movie history, courtesy of Isaac Hayes, Shaft became a milestone of pop culture and proved that a film with an African-American lead actor could achieve blockbuster success.
Klute: When a chemical company executive goes missing, the only clues point to New York prostitute Bree Daniels as having some kind of connection. Detective John Klute is hired to find out what happened and becomes entangled in Bree’s life. The call girl with aspirations of being an actress has been receiving harassing phone calls which could be connected to a past john that Klute believes has the answers he seeks. Together they investigate this lead and despite being too cold and emotionally distant people the two develop feelings for one another along the way. This moody neo-noir is driven largely by the stellar performances of it’s leads Donald Sutherland and Jane Fonda who nabbed an Oscar for her performance.
Panic in Needle Park: As the drug trade in New York really ramped up at this time, Panic in Needle Park gave a look at those at the bottom of this black market. In New York’s Sherman Square dubbed “Needle Park” Bobby is a small-time dealer whose heart may be too soft for the business. His path crosses that of Helen, a woman with a tough past who is in a relationship with one of his customers. The grow close and eventually fall in love, but at the same time their addiction to the product they sell grows. This ends up costing them everything as the couple struggles with what to do next with their lives. All the while an ambitious NYPD officer knows Helen is connected in the city’s drug trade and makes her a reluctant informant which undoubtedly will have grave consequences for Bobby and their relationship. This emotionally charged film was responsible for showing Hollywood big wigs what Al Pacino could do as a lead.
Across 110th Street: Separating Harlem from Central Park 110th Street once served as the unofficial barrier between racially divided communities. It is here that a robbery goes horribly wrong leaving seven deaths in its wake. Young by-the-book black officer Lt. Pope and an old street-smart white cop Capt. Mattelli are reluctantly partnered up to solve the case. Drawing on the true life racial tensions of the area, the two cops work against the clock in order to find the crooks before the criminal factions in the city do. This harsh and gritty film with a cool soundtrack, is one that is either loved or hated, but there is no denying the power it has.
Serpico: Legendary director Sidney Lumet’s look at the rampant police corruption in the NYPD through the story of true-life detective Peter Maas. After being made a full-fledged officer in New York’s police force, Frank Serpico learns before long it was not all he had hoped. Everywhere he looks, the young cop finds corruption throughout the institution. Things are especially bad in the plainclothes unit he finds himself assigned to, and not taking in a cut makes his new co-workers suspicious. When it becomes clear that his immediate superiors will not do anything, Serpico turns to outside leading to the Knapp Commission and the ruination of his police career.
The Super Cops: From respected filmmaker Gordon Parks comes a film loosely based on a true story of the NYPD’s top cops. Fresh from the academy, Greenberg and Hantz immediately make an impact in fight the city’s crime. This is due in large part to their unconventional tactics and willingness to put in work off the clock and undercover. Naturally this does not make many friends and the two become isolated from the rest of the precinct. The Super Cops is easily the least heavy film on this list, it is a fun action-adventure buddy cop flick which has developed a bit of a cult following in recent years.
Mean Streets: The film responsible for putting the now legendary talents of Martin Scorsese on the map. On the gritty streets of Little Italy, Charlie finds himself conflicted between his faith and his work as an enforcer for his Mafioso uncle. His best friend Johnny Boy is in deep against a loan shark which draws Charlie in as a mediator between the two which Johnny’s volatility makes difficult. Complicating matters is the clandestine affair between Charlie and Johnny’s cousin Teresa which is progressing much further than he intends. As the conflicted young man tries to reconcile the varying aspects of his life it only leads to more problems.
Taking of Pelham 123: The classic which features Martin Balsam having the most significant sneeze in movie history. The day on subway train Pelham 123 was seemingly like any other, until four men pull off an elaborate hijacking of the train and demand a $1million ransom. The curmudgeonly Lt. Garber of the transit authority finds himself the unwitting man in charge of resolving the tense situation. While the mayor is happy to pay he million to resolve the issue, Garber begins to see issues with the hijacker’s plot.
Dog Day Afternoon: The last Al Pacino film on this list features one of the greatest performances of his career. Directed by Sidney Lumet, Dog Day Afternoon is based on the true story of Sonny Wortzik, an attempted bank robber who finds himself out of his depths. Hoping to score enough money to pay for his lover’s sex reassignment surgery, Sonny finds that robbing a bank is not as easy as it seems. Before long his bumbling crime sees him surrounded by the police, but thanks to an impassioned speech invoking the Attica prison riot he gets the people on his side. Despite long negotiations with law enforcement, Sonny naturally cannot get away with it and his story comes to an unhappy ending.
Taxi Driver: If Mean Streets made people notice Martin Scorsese and Robert DeNiro, Taxi Driver showed what this duo could do at their full hard boiled potential. DeNiro gives what may be his greatest performance as the troubled insomniac cab driver Travis Bickle. Driving around New York after nightfall he sees the very worst of the city on a regular basis. It further drives his cynicism and bleak outlook when he crosses paths with Iris, a teenager trapped in prostitution. His attempt to form a romantic relationship with a woman working on a presidential campaign ends in disaster. The way Bickle sees it there is nothing left but for him to go out in a blaze of violence by assassinating the candidate, but fate takes an unexpected turn. A massive hit upon it’s release Taxi Driver has gone on to be recognized as one of the greatest films ever made.
Fingers: Socially awkward Jimmy “Fingers” has a passion for music. When not listening to classic R&B he is demonstrating skill at the piano. His loan shark father routinely utilizes him as an enforcer on those who need to pay up. When the opportunity to perform at Carnegie Hall arises, Jimmy’s two lives combine as he falls for a woman while at the same time running afoul of a Mafia boss who owes his father money. An offbeat and underrated film, Fingers is centered around an incredible performance by Harvey Keitel.
The Warriors: The New York City of this film is divided up by a collection of colorful themed gangs who all answer to the highly-respected Cyrus. At a large gathering of the different factions Cyrus is killed and the Warriors are the ones who take the fall for it. For the rest of the night they have to find their way across the city avoiding he police and having to battle it out with rival gangs. When they reach Coney Island, the Warriors have one last challenge in the form of their rival gang the Rogues. With it’s skewed version of a realistic New York City as well as it’s memorable characters and cool action the Warriors seemed destined for it’s current status as a cult classic.