Author Jason Bailey put together Deeper Into Movies’ favourite movie book of 2021. Obsessively researched and beautifully written, Fun City Cinema chronicles 100 years of filmmaking in New York City, from The Jazz Singer (1927) and King Kong (1933), to Kids (1995) and Frances Ha (2012). Featuring exclusive interviews with legendary filmmakers like Noah Baumbach, Larry Clark, Greta Gerwig, Walter Hill, Jerry Schatzberg, Martin Scorsese and Susan Seidelman, Fun City Cinema reveals how the city’s classic films took their inspiration from its grittiness and beauty.
For this month’s column, we asked Jason to pick some overlooked gems from New York City’s rich cinematic history:
When you’re putting together a book about movies, you have to ask yourself a lot of important questions in advance. What style will I adopt? Do I have access to the right research materials? Who will deign to be interviewed by me, a nobody? But the key question, far and away the most important to both the robustness of your project and your own mental health, is: do I want to spend one to three years watching movies related to this subject?
In working on my latest book, Fun City Cinema: New York City and the Movies That Made It, the answer was a “yes” so resounding, the other questions didn’t really matter. I knew that in writing the book – a 100-year dual history of New York City, New York City filmmaking, and their various intersections – I would analyse some of the classics of Gotham cinema: Taxi Driver, Midnight Cowboy, Dog Day Afternoon, King Kong, The Taking of Pelham One Two Three, and so on. But the really exciting part was having an excuse to track down lesser-known titles, and to revisit and spotlight some of the NYC gems that don’t get the attention they deserve. Here are a few of those. – Jason Bailey
‘Quick Change’ (1990, Dir: Bill Murray and Harold Franklin)
Jason Bailey: Everyone knows and loves Ghostbusters as one of the great New York City comedies, but what if I told you there is another New York Bill Murray movie, made six years later, that is arguably funnier, definitely truer to the New York experience, and, bonus, not inexplicably championed by vast swaths of online incels?
Murray not only starred in this terrific adaptation of Jay Cronley’s novel – he co-directed it, with screenwriter Howard Franklin. It begins with the big guy himself robbing a Manhattan bank in full clown make-up and costumer, and we settle in for a typical bank caper picture, but funny (“What kind of a clown are you, anyway?” “The crying-on-the-inside kind, I guess”). But then, about a third of the way in, Murray and his accomplices pull it off and attempt their getaway; the comic twist here is that the bank robbery is easy, but getting to the airport is impossible. Thus you have an ingenious mash-up of Dog Day Afternoon and After Hours, and if you need further proof of its Gotham bonafides, it’s all lensed by Michael Chapman, the great cinematographer of Taxi Driver and Raging Bull.
‘Night of the Juggler’ (1980, Dir: Robert Butler)
JB: This white-knuckle action-thriller has never seen a proper domestic DVD or Blu-ray release and is unavailable digitally, so if you want to see it, you’ll have to watch one of the sketchy rips that are floating around YouTube. And you should absolutely do that.
James Brolin stars an ex-cop whose teenage daughter is kidnapped by a giggling psychopath (Cliff Gorman, totally unhinged) who has mistaken her for the daughter of a real estate titan. Brolin spends the bulk of the movie chasing around Manhattan and the South Bronx trying to save his little girl – with no help from the NPYD, since he ratted several of his fellow officers out to the Knapp Commission. That’s just one of the little touches of real New York history woven seamlessly into the fabric of this sweaty little exploitation picture, which also features memorable supporting turns by Richard S. Castellano (“Clemenza” from The Godfather) and a shotgun-wielding Dan Hedaya.
‘I Like It Like That’ (1994, Dir: Darnell Martin)
JB: When Columbia Pictures released this vibrant comedy-drama in 1994, it proudly advertised its status as the first film released by a major studio directed by an African-American woman – a pretty sad piece of trivia, truth be told. But they also clearly had no idea how to market the movie on its merits, which is a shame; it’s an entertaining blast of fresh air, with a hyper-saturated colour palette and hyperactive visual style that recalls Do the Right Thing.
It also shares that film’s sense of community; Martin embeds us in her film’s South Bronx neighbourhood, where the thin walls and open windows ensure everyone knows everyone else’s business and has a stake in the outcome. Lauren Velez shines as the picture’s protagonist, who dreams of making it big in Manhattan; Griffin Dunne is terrific as her slightly sleazy record exec boss, and even queen Rita Moreno turns up in a supporting role.
‘Living Out Loud’ (1998, Dir: Richard LaGravenese)
JB: Acclaimed screenwriter Richard LaGravenese made his directorial debut with this sparkling yet grounded romantic comedy-drama, starring Holly Hunter as a wealthy denizen of the Upper West Side who finds herself rethinking her life and ambitions after a messy divorce. It’s cut from the cloth of the great New York domestic dramas of the 1970s – An Unmarried Woman, Diary of a Mad Housewife, Kramer vs. Kramer, etc. – but with wonderful little flourishes of surrealism, romance, and comedy. Danny DeVito provides both the comedy and romance as Hunter’s potential love interest, the good-hearted screw-up who operates the elevator in her building.
‘Sidewalk Stories’ (1989, Dir: Charles Lane)
JB: Writer/director/star Charles Lane looked at the homelessness crisis of New York City in the 1980s and came up with a brilliant way to address it on film: as a silent comedy. The fingerprints of Charles Chaplin are all over Lane’s 1989 debut feature, which borrows the Depression-era ethos of Chaplin’s Modern Times and City Lights and the storyline of his earlier The Kid, with Lane as a street artist who finds himself unexpectedly caring for an orphaned baby. But Lane doesn’t romanticise this world; his film is grimmer than Chaplin, occasionally touched by violence and real desperation, and he mixes the pathos with genuine portraiture of a pressing urban problem, while still massaging out gags from the everyday apparatus of city life.
‘The Angel Levine’ (1970, Dir: Ján Kadár)
JB: The late, great Bill Gunn has been rediscovered and reclaimed as one of the great New York moviemakers, thanks to his films Ganja & Hess and Personal Problems and his brilliant screenplay for Hal Ashby’s The Landlord. Less discussed – and, thanks to its limited availability, less seen – is this comedy-drama from director Ján Kadár, released the same year as The Landlord and playing in the same thematic sandbox of race and class conflict in the city.
Zero Mostel stars as a beleaguered Jewish tailor who prays to God to send him help; that help comes in the form of Harry Belafonte as a Black hustler angel. The two characters work through the tensions of these communities in miniature, aided by Gunn’s perceptive dialogue and ability to turn scenes on a dime from comic to tragic (and back again). Gunn excelled at writing wild, ambitious, messy, humanistic NYC mosaics, and Kadár stages this one with sensitivity and skill.
‘Cops and Robbers’ (1973, Dir: Aram Avakian)
JB: The graft and corruption of the NYPD in the 1970s inspired many a fine drama (including Serpico and Report to the Commissioner); it also gave us this terrific crime comedy, written by pulp prince Donald E. Westlake. Joseph Bologna and Night of the Juggler’s Cliff Gorman star as a pair of New York beat cops, frustrated by their low pay, long hours, and stagnant pensions, who decide to fund their retirement by robbing a slimy blue-blood banker and selling his bearer bonds to the Mob. It sounds like a broad, goofy comedy, but director Avakian anchors the film in the real economic frustrations of the city (which was well on the road to near-bankruptcy) and the divide between the haves and have-nots.
Find out more about Fun City Cinema here.