Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Ten Statements About....ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK (1981)

Yep...most naturalistic finishing blow eeeeever....
"Remember, once you're inside you're on your own."
"Oh, you mean I can't count on you?"

1) Boy, is this script lean. The only guy who's really verbose is Lee Van Cleef's Hauk, and even he's terse and to the point. Carpenter apparently knows we're not here to watch exposition, so he's more than happy to move along and get us to the fights, the car chases and the nastiness.

2) Even for Carpenter, who's noteworthy for populating his films with characters that break away from being stereotypes, this is a film full of vivid characters. Even those characters with scant face time, like Frank Doubleday's sawtoothed Romero, or Charles Cyphers' Secretary of State, have their moments in the sun. As such, it's very hard to choose stand outs....

3) ...however, I will cite a couple, beginning with Van Cleef's Hauk. I particularly like how Hauk has a weird sort of respect that he never out and out admits to Russell's Plissken. He seems to admit it to others--defending his choice, running interference for him and continuing to buy him time--but the closest he comes to admitting how much he values Snake is when he offers him a job at the end. Van Cleef's confidence and body language says more than enough about his thoughts.

4) And then there's the tag team of Harry Dean Stanton's Brain and Adrienne Barbeau's Maggie. I love how we're never quite sure where these two are standing in regards to Snake and the situation with the President. Even though we only get their backstory in a line or two of dialogue, Stanton and Russell makes this relationship's veracity through their physicality toward each other. And the beauty of this is how these two do unpleasant things, but in no way become evil in our eyes because this is the world they've been living in for the last nine years and duplicity is the only way they can survive.

5) I can overlook that the majority of this film is shot not in New York, but in East St. Louis---if the script didn't have such a cavalier attitude towards New York City's geography, starting with their stubborn insistence that there is a '69th Street Bridge.' There is literally no way that Snake's progress through this city makes any sort of sense. It's as if the entire lower half of Manhattan was squooshed together into one square mile. I know this prolly wouldn't bother most people, but for me it nags and nags...

"Of course you should let me in...I'm the most New York thing
in this film!"
6) You'll notice I haven't mentioned much about Russell's Snake Plissken at all...and that's because the genius of Russell's performance is how the film doesn't so much happen because of him but in spite of him. The majority of Plissken's success is due to luck and circumstance--he only directly affects the story a scant handful of time. But because the character Russell creates is so well-structured and charismatic, we continue to assume he is the hero and not just our P.O.V. It's a trick Russell and Carpenter pull off again in Big Trouble In Little China, and it's a thing of beauty.

7) The reason I like Ernest Borgnine's Cabbie isn't because he provides comic relief in this film. It's because he makes it very clear early on that he's been driving a cab for thirty years...which means he chose to stay in New York when it was converted to a prison. In a film filled with things pretending to be New York, Cabbie is the most authentically New York thing in the place!

"Either I shoot you, or the viewers learn we're in St. Louis...
no one wins, Harry!"
8) I know Donald Pleasance worried about being a U.S. President with a British accent....but I didn't find him out of place. I assumed he was a Bostonian Brahmin--and given his role is smallish, it doesn't detract much at all. Pleasance does manage to walk that fine line of making him callous, maybe even dismissive without being a monster (unlike what we got in the sequel in Cliff Robertson).

9) And I appreciate that this is a political satire where the script doesn't spell everything out for you. We know just enough from the opening crawl to know that this is a country in decline, that things are going to fall apart a lot faster in the future, and that this is where we may be going. And I equally appreciate the fact that pay off of this film utilizes a musical, subliminal call for looking to the past to erase the disasters that could be forthcoming.

10) I gotta be honest...for a film that's supposedly action oriented, there's a lot of clunky action. The whole fight scene with Ox Baker's Slag is particularly awkwardly staged, as is the 'firefight' on the World Trade Center and, well, pretty much every fight in here. If it wasn't for the physicality of Russell, I suspect we'd look on these set pieces a lot less kindly.

Overall...a film that is pretty ungainly, but is well-redeemed by a whole raft of great characterization and a subtle script that spreads its satire lightly and not with great nasty gobs of stuff falling all over itself (unlike the sequel, which maybe I'll get to one day).

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