In advance of reviewing Escape from New York (1981) for J.D.’s much anticipated John Carpenter Blogathon at Radiator Heaven in October, I’ve been screening some American films from the same epoch that similarly portray the Big Apple as a crime-infested war-zone.
I’ve already reviewed Walter Hill’s fantasy comic-book The Warriors with this specific context of 1970s-1980s “urban blight” in mind, and also made brief mention of Wolfen (1981): a horror film that utilizes the real-life rubble of the on-the-decline Bronx as a home for shape-shifting, nomadic werewolves.
Today, I want to remember a non-genre effort from the same year as Escape from New York, Daniel Petrie’s Fort Apache: The Bronx (1981), starring Paul Newman, Ken Wahl, Ed Asner, Rachel Ticotin and Pam Grier.
Although I was only eleven when the film was first released, I still remember the widespread public controversy this film generated. Police advocacy groups felt that Fort Apache: The Bronx was vehemently anti-cop (because it portrays Danny Aiello as an out-of-control, murdering law enforcement official…). At the same time, some people complained about the film’s less-than-flattering depiction of the Bronx’s Puerto Ricans and African-Americans.
Another group also widely disapproved of Daniel Petrie’s film: movie critics. The consensus of the day seemed to be that Fort Apache: the Bronx was episodic and loosely-structured…more like a regular old TV show (Hill Street Blues?) than a legitimate movie.
In retrospect, however, it seems plain that the film’s much-complained about loose narrative structure is actually its greatest strength. Fort Apache: The Bronx isn’t a neat, canned cop movie in which a crime is presented and then solved, clue-by-clue, by heroic, investigating cops.
Life isn’t really like that, so why should movies have to be?
On the contrary, Fort Apache: The Bronx is an involving, slice-of-life, workaday peek into the existence of a lonely, aging cop in the Bronx — Murphy (Newman) — as he contends with with prostitutes, muggers, and corruption on the police force Accordingly, the film never pushes an overly-plotted Hollywood-style narrative, and the result is a cinematic work-of-art in which the characters feel more realistic; more true, and which life (like real life…) is full of unexpected eddies and tributaries that must be navigated.
Director Petrie makes the most of his laid-back narrative approach, never force-feeding on the audience arguments about abstract ideologies. At its heart, the film does indeed present two approaches to law enforcement — liberal and conservative — but both prove equally ineffective, and the movie never comes down in favor of one over the other. Both are treated sympathetically, and both are shown to have unwanted repercussions.
Instead, Petrie is a fine observer, not a propagandist. He consistently deploys the tenets of realistic filmmaking (authentic location shooting; deep focus long shots, and pans within the frame etc.) to chronicle the life and times of a man with great conscience, but not necessarily great courage.
What is this, the gunfight at the OK Corral?
|Welcome to Fort Apache.
Fort Apache: The Bronx was filmed in the Bronx, the northern-most borough, at a time when it was in serious decline and chaos: a garbage-strewn wreck of 20th century modernity.
Specifically, a wave of arson had occurred in the late 1970s. “The Bronx is burning,” announced sportscaster Howard Cosell, famously, and in this case the crimes were believed perpetrated by desperate landlords hoping to get their money out of failed properties and investments.
Unemployment in the Bronx was also through-the-roof and the region saw a sudden and dramatic shrinkage of municipal support at the turn of the Carter/Reagan decade…meaning that police and firefighters were understaffed, overworked and stretched to the limit.
A police officer in Fort Apache tartly describes the Bronx of 1981 as a “40-block area with 70,000 people packed in like sardines, smelling each others’ farts, [and] living like cockroaches.”
He then ticks down a list of considerable problems including “youth gangs,” families that have been “on welfare for three generations,” “high unemployment,” the “lowest income per capita” and “the largest proportion of non-English-speaking” denizens in the city.
And the men and women policing this population?
|The “natives” grow restless.
“We’ve got the connivers, the slobs, the shirkers. Guys who beat up the wrong Guinea. Gave a diplomat a parking ticket. Screwed a Big Mouth Hooker. Or shook down the wrong peddler,” says Captain Dugan, in the same breath that he calls the Bronx “Siberia.”
On the very day that the new captain arrives at the 41st Precinct in The Bronx (Ed Asner’s Captain Connolly), he is also informed of the office’s widely-held nickname: “Fort Apache.”
This shorthand has arisen because the police officers consider the precinct to be not a police station, but rather a “fort in hostile territory.”
Historically, of course, we recall Fort Apache as the site (in Arizona) of a sustained battle of some duration between Native Americans and an American army cavalry outpost in September of 1881. Not coincidentally, that’s almost exactly a century before the action of this 1981 film.
As it happens, Connolly’s (voluntary…) transfer to the Bronx occurs on the very occasion that a “cop killer” has murdered two rookies…and another battle of some duration is set to occur. History is about to repeat itself.
Law enforcement assumes it is “open season on cops” after the brutal double homicide, and that the murders are a deliberate political (and revolutionary…) statement against police. Yet the truth is somewhat different…somewhat more random.
|Charlotte’s (Pam Grier) web of destruction.
To wit, the fearsome, anonymous cop-killer is actually a strung-out junkie prostitute named Charlotte (Grier).
Importantly, she boasts no rational, ideological or even racial motives for her violent crimes (she also cuts a john’s throat with a razor blade in one memorable scene…).
Rather, Charlotte is simply a symbolic force of chaos; the spark that ignites an explosion of fear and retaliation throughout the Bronx. She is a reminder in that if you live in a powder keg, motives are incidental. One little spark…and flames erupt.
As Connolly assumes command of the 41st Precinct and deals with the specter of a cop-killing bogeyman, he orders a huge wave of arrests. The police bring in and book prostitutes, bookies, and other petty crooks literally by the bus-ful. The idea is that by shaking the trees, so-to-speak, something will fall out; a clue about the identity of the cop killer.
“You’re just making thing worse,” third-generation cop Murphy (Newman) insists, but Connolly continues to go by the book, in the process actually escalating the tense situation. “You’re going to war,” Murphy points out, again linking the situation of 1981 to the historical Fort Apache battle of 1881.
When citizens riot at the precinct to complain of the new captain’s heavy-handed tactics, Connolly orders – without compunction — “gas ’em,” firing tear gas into the crowd. Then things really spiral out of control.
|Questions of conscience at Fort Apache.
Another cop, Aiello, murders an innocent kid…throwing him off a roof.
Murphy witnesses the crime and must wrestle with his conscience about it. Should he report his fellow officer and risk being considered a “rat” or “stoolie?” Or should he keep his mouth shut?
While the cop-killer case causes further trouble for the police and citizens in the Bronx, Murphy initiates a romance with a beautiful Puerto Rican nurse, Isabella (Ticotin).
To his chagrin, Murphy learns that the brilliant and loving woman also happens to be a junkie…a heroin addict. In emotionally-wrenching terms, Isabella describes for Murphy the reason an intelligent, empathetic person might use drugs: it’s like a vacation from reality for her; one that she occasionally needs just to cope with daily life in the Bronx.
As the relationship between the police force and the community it serves degenerates to violence and paranoia and Murphy grapples with his conscience, the real cop-killer, Charlotte is herself murdered by drug dealers, rolled up into a carpet, and dumped…unnoticed on a heap of trash.
The haunting final images of the film find Murphy and his partner, Corelli (Wahl) chasing a perp through garbage-lined streets in relatively close proximity to the cop-killer’s corpse…but they never see it.
Petrie’s camera pulls back to a long shot of the chase (through garbage and societal detritus), and then pans down to the carpet and the secret within. No cutting here: the use and preservationn of space in the frame is vital and important. By preserving the integrity of the space in his shot, Petrie reveals how everything is connected in The Bronx; how the blighted environment literally precludes the resolution of an important case.
|Taken out with the trash: the cop-killer is never caught.
So the movie’s major crime is not solved. It will never be solved.
The cop-killer case is meaningless…it was never more than random. The match that lit the flame.
What is important, the film establishes in its final freeze frame, is Murphy’s response to the unceasing violence and tragedy all around him. The film freezes in mid-leap, as Murphy is about to tackle the perp, and — echoing in some canny fashion the final, famous freeze frame of Truffaut’s The 400 Blows (1959) — the camera beautifully expresses the essence of this particular man.
Once a policeman, always a policeman.
Law enforcement is in Murphy’s blood (he’s a third generation cop, we learn…), and no matter how bad things get for him — with the community or with his brethren in blue — he’s going to keep fighting the good fight.
It may be simplistic, but that seems to be the film’s ultimate point-of-view regarding law enforcement ideology. Connolly is a hardcore hawk (a conservative), but the film does not portray him as an ogre or monster. On the contrary, he supports Murphy and willfully roots out corruption in his department. At one point, Asner emotionally delivers a speech about the law-abiding people who live in the Bronx and deserve the safety and protection that the law should and must provide. He is an admirable man.
Connolly’s approach is deliberately contrasted with Murphy’s approach. Murphy has been tagged as a “liberal” by his fellow officers and he believes that, given the miserable situation in the Bronx, the best way to go forward is with some level of understanding and empathy for what this particular community deals with. It’s not necessary to bludgeon and bother the community every day, every minute…not when it is dealing with desperation, poverty and other problems.
These two men — of vastly different stripe — are both dedicated to protecting and serving, though they view the situation differently, and I like how the film never attempts to make either a “villain” or a “hero.” Rather, they are both pursuing a higher goal in the way they honestly believe is best, and again that strikes me as authentic and even-handed. The final freeze frame — of one cop in action, doing his job — suggests the answer to such crime and poverty is individual commitment. Personal dedication (in the form of Connolly and Murphy) — not political agendas — will bring better days.
“We’re Living in a World We Never Made…”
|No escape from the Bronx.
Fort Apache: The Bronx is an affecting film for a number of reasons, but first and foremost because the audience comes to recognize Murphy and Isabella as good, likable people. They are not so very different from us at all.
Accordingly, we root for the characters to succeed, and for their relationship to succeed as well. Together, they could share some sliver of hope; of happiness.
Yet, that’s not a realistic hope given where and when the characters live. To intimate this, Petrie often shoots the film’s star-crossed protagonists from behind bars as if to visually represent or symbolize their entrapment and eventual doom.
|Deep focus cage.
You just know that for Murphy and Isabella, things aren’t going to end well, so we consistently see them through these myriad visual “cages.” Strung-out Isabella through the panels of french doors in her apartment, for instance. Or Murphy — like a gorilla at the zoo — shaking the zigg-zagged bars of the precinct windows.
It’s not a world that either Isabella or Murphy made, but they are victims to its eddies and tributaries, as I wrote above.
|The loneliness of the long distance cop.
In some of the best of these cage-styled compositions, Petrie employs deep, or long focus, so we see not merely the cage and the characters trapped within….but the chaos whirling outside; the oppressive world crushing them: riots, violence, drug-dealers, etc.
Petrie also powerfully and regularly utilizes real locations in long-shots of his star, Paul Newman, navigating the streets of the Bronx. He does so not just to foster the film’s sense of authenticity or realism, but to reveal — again — the crushing effect of the “larger world” upon Murphy and the other characters.
Again and again we see Murphy walking the garbage-strewn streets alone; pacing, deep in thought, before a world of desolation, rubble and destruction. Society at large has abandoned this place; this “hostile” territory.
I should add that these shots are not faked; not augmented with Hollywood fakery in the slightest. This is what the Bronx looks like in 1981 (on the centennial of the Fort Apache battle…), and in seeing it, we start to understand the suffusing sense of despair evident in the film.
|Another long shot of Murphy in the ruined Bronx.
No one should have to live or work on this blighted landscape…and yet — if you were born there — how do you escape it? If you have no income to speak-of, how do you pick yourself up and just walk away from what little you own? How do you get a job, if there are none available?
Over and over, the surfeit of long shots on location establish and emphasize the most dangerous “enemy” lurking in Fort Apache.
That enemy is not the mad hooker murdering cops and pimps; she’s just a side-effect of the environment. The real enemy is a failed, even cursed borough, and the strange society that has grown up in it under the shadow of ubiquitous fires, pervasive violence and utter poverty..
The Bronx is burning.
The overall aura of Fort Apache: The Bronx is, finally, one of resignation and forbearance. The movie assiduously observes how things are in “the moment” (Murphy’s moment in 1981, specifically). It reflects conditions on the ground, so-to-speak. My argument about the film is that this vibe has been persistently misunderstood as lassitude; as languor or lack of energy.
The loose narrative structure and the oppression of the surroundings are meant to overwhelm us (the viewer); but in some cases, critics seemed to think that they also overwhelm the film, or Petrie himself.
I don’t see that; and nor do I see the film as a collection of cliches, as others have suggested.
By taking the “crime investigation” aspect out of the drama (and by downplaying action as much as possible), Fort Apache: The Bronx actually squeezes out many commonly-held cliches of the cop movie format, leaving audiences a plain view of a city in chaos, and the people who inhabit it. Perhaps the movie works best as a time-capsule, then.
Fort Apache: The Bronx is a movie about a world Murphy and others in the Bronx “never made” but have to live in and navigate every day. They have a responsibility to make it better, and in the end, that’s what the movie is about.
The final freeze frame suggests that, at the very least, Murphy is on the job and will stay on the job. That’s a start.