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Hellfire Video Club: NYC SCUZZ!

Long days and nights in pre-Disneyfied New York.

Words Hellfire Video Club Published 07.06.22

Ah, the hot mess of 70s /80s NYC. The crummy condemned buildings. The crime. The sleaze. The unhinged characters. The noise! The shouting! Whilst it might have been a chore to deal with on a day-to-day basis, it sure makes for some great fun flicks. Here we focus on a few faves with stories unfurling across one day/night, upping the intensity factor to match the locale. Anyone who enjoyed the Safdie Brother’s recent-ish ‘Good Time’ should dig these precursors from the past.

Alphabet City

Amos Poe, 1984, USA

Italian-American Johnny (Vincent Spano) is riding high as the big man in the neighbourhood, cruising the streets in his Trans-am, running drugs and collecting protection money for the mob. Only tonight he’s facing a dilemma. They want him to burn down the tenement block which happens to house his mother and sister. In too deep, it seems now is the time to split, but as the night unfolds he begins to realise his Faustian pact isn’t going to be so easy to wriggle out of.

Director Amos Poe was very much a key player in the downtown No Wave scene which spawned so much of the music/art we take for granted today, and in a parallel universe, this should have been his leap to bigger things. A gear shift up from his earlier sketchy, improvised films; keeping the loose freewheeling structures, whilst updating the characters to reflect the dirty cash grabs and amoral posturing of the Reagonomics era. Aesthetically, this is your mid-80s palette in extremis, from the (super-catchy) Nile Rogers’ synth pop soundtrack, to those leather jackets and THAT TRANS-AM. The film is literally drenched in neon and coloured light, making even the most insalubrious surroundings look weirdly attractive.

Night Of The Juggler

Robert Butler, 1980, USA

Oddly enough, most of ‘night’ of the juggler actually takes place in the day. But time confusion issues aside, this one’s a high-impact chase action banger! Former NYC cop (James Brolin) has chucked in his badge after a spat with a corrupt colleague. Meanwhile a textbook psycho lowlife with a racist grudge has kidnapped his daughter from Central Park in error, thinking she’s the offspring of the wealthy property developer ‘ruining’ his city of sleaze, so he can score a huge payback ransom. Naturally our hard man 80s action hero is having none of this, and frantic pursuit across the mean streets of NYC ensues, hotly trailed by his old nemesis from the force, determined to nail him for having the temerity of not leaving it to the ‘experts’, not to mention the chaos he’s leaving in his wake.

Like Alphabet City, this one catches the tail end of the renegade ‘no permit obtained for shooting’ era, and it really shows. There’s a palpable sense of danger that hovers around the street shoot-outs and car chases that just can’t be faked. Add -in a hefty dose of faintly ludicrous action hero machismo and some cartoonish criminal stereotypes, and you can’t help but hit the trashy fun sweet spot.

After Hours

Martin Scorsese, 1985, USA

When a bored office clerk (Griffin Dunne) gets chatting to a girl (Rosanna Arquette) in a late-nite diner, he inadvertently stumbles into the worst night of his life, as a series of bad decisions and misunderstandings spiral into a maelstrom of chaotic, high angst insanity.

Despite being no stranger himself to the sleazier aspects of the city, Scorsese’s classic nocturnal caper focuses on a different kind of urban intensity to the likes of Taxi Driver or the above pairing. The (then) pre-gentrified streets of Soho, with its artists’ lofts and eccentric oddballs providing a slightly less dangerous, but equally unpredictable backdrop. What begins breezy and gently funny takes on a darker, claustrophobic tone as the narrative coagulates into a kind of crippling slo-mo slapstick. Wave after wave of misfortune and moral mis-steps bouncing back to bite our hapless (anti) hero on the ass. A film which perfectly captures the kind of paranoiac dread which sets in during a wired night where nothing seems to go right.

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