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Prisoners and The Worlds They Have Made

August 8th, 2011 · 2 Comments

“We sent Barry Bernardi, who was our location manager, who also served as our associate producer, on a sort of all-expense paid trip across the country looking for the worst city in America. He stopped off at various places and they were much too clean and unworkable. He eventually called us up from St. Louis. There had been a recent fire, which had destroyed about 20% of the downtown area. Block after block was burned-out rubble. In some places there was absolutely nothing, so that you could see three or four blocks away these brownstone buildings in the distance.” Debra Hill interviewed by Michael Beeler for Cinefantastique, September 1996

Escape From New York (1981)
Directed by John Carpenter
Written by John Carpenter and Nick Castle
Produced by Larry Franco, Debra Hill
99 minutes

Juggling dire predictions for the United States as the nation dragged itself out of the 1970s and the creative freneticism of filmmakers in complete rapture with their medium is Debra Hill‘s production of a John Carpenter film, Escape From New York. One of the most enduring B-movies ever made, this low budget cirque du soleil stretched its budget and its vision to the limits, delivering a show quite unlike any action picture, sci-fi movie or western had up to that point in time, or for that matter, since. In the near future of 1997, soaring crime has resulted in modifications to the city of that never sleeps: Manhattan is now the country’s one maximum security prison. Waterways and bridges are mined. Paramilitary units and a containment wall surround the island, where the only rule is that once you go in, you don’t come out.

When Air Force One is hijacked and the president (Donald Pleasance) is jettisoned en route to a summit, Police Commissioner Bob Hauk (Lee Van Cleef) opts for a one-man rescue by convict Snake Plissken (Kurt Russell), nihilist with attitude who “volunteers” when he discovers tiny charges have been injected into his arteries. Given 24 hours to return the president, Plissken lands a glider atop the World Trade Center and with the clock ticking, navigates a Big Apple now the domain of deadly gangs and the worlds they’ve created. Plissken is rescued from cannibals by a cabbie (Ernest Borgnine) who reunites the gunslinger with his compadre Brain (Harry Dean Stanton), who occupies the Public Library solving problems for The Duke (Isaac Hayes), feared leader of the gang that runs New York and have taken the president.

Intrigued by the potential for NYC as an urban jungle after he sat through Death Wish in 1974, USC Film School grad John Carpenter wrote a strange, violent and apocalyptic script no studio wanted to touch titled Escape From New York. Six years later, Carpenter and his producer Debra Hill dusted it off to fulfill the second of a two-picture deal with Avco Embassy Pictures, bringing in a college buddy named Nick Castle to inject some irreverence into the nonstop action. Carpenter dreamed of Clint Eastwood playing Snake Plissken, while his financiers lobbied hard for Charles Bronson. Going against type, a child actor all grown up named Kurt Russell was cast, while the urban decay the filmmakers were desperately searching for was found in St. Louis, where a fire in 1977 had reduced 20% of downtown to ruins.

While the geopolitical landscape of Escape From New York remained purely speculative, Carpenter’s prophecy of rising gang activity and rioting actually came to pass, at least on the West Coast, where a deliriously overcooked 1996 sequel, Escape From L.A., was set. The joys of the original are the character actors who are as solid in front of the camera as the poor and hungry crew is behind them. In addition to Isaac Hayes, Adrienne Barbeau and Tom Atkins bring an understated nobility to their respective roles as gun moll and deputy warden. Carpenter composed a crackerjack musical score synthesized by Alan Howarth, while Dean Cundey utilized newly developed Panavision lenses to light exterior shots with remarkable depth. A classic western at its heart, the film’s “fuck you” attitude toward authority seems to embody the best punk rock music bombarding airwaves at the time.

Rotten Tomatoes “Tomatometer” average among 65,662 users: 72% for Escape From New York

Metacritic “Metascore” average among leading critics: N/A

What do you say?

Tags: 24 hour time frame · Alternate universe · Cult favorite · End of the world · Famous line · Flashback · Gangsters and hoodlums · Inventors and Tinkerers · Reckless Driver · Shootout

2 responses so far ↓

  • 1 J.D. // Aug 8, 2011 at 7:56 am

    Great film with one of THE all-time badass anti-heroes ever committed to film. Kurt Russell owns that role from the first frame and his interactions with authority are classic. I also love the detail of the bombed-out, decayed New York City – a frightening dystopia if there ever was one.

    Also, the way Carpenter cranks up the tension, as Snake’s time continues to run down gets me every time, even though I know how it’s going to end.

  • 2 Joe Valdez // Aug 11, 2011 at 5:57 pm

    J.D.: I would have far preferred to see Clint Eastwood play Snake Plissken — as opposed to doing that monkey sequel or Firefox — but agree that Kurt Russell goes for it and totally embodies this unsympathetic angel of death. The women in his life tend not to stay alive very long, do they? Thanks for commenting!

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