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A scene from 1970s New York
A scene from 1970s New York | © Rich Mitchell / Flickr
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The 10 Best Gritty New York Films From the 1970s

Picture of JW McCormack
Updated: 3 May 2018
With its transformation through gentrification, tourist-friendly atmosphere, and bright lights, it can be hard to remember the New York of the 1970s and ’80s, when rents were cheap, muggings were a given, and in 1975, the New York Daily News read “Ford to City: Drop Dead.”

And yet, for a good 20 years, New York City was a wasteland. Films from this period document a city on the verge of total chaos. On December 22, 1984, Bernhard Goetz shot several muggers on the New York subway, becoming a symbolic figure of vigilante justice, inspiring a slew of films glamorizing citizens who, despairing of the authorities and the growing violence of the city, took the law into their own hands. Below are 10 of the films that depict this vanished New York wasteland when entertainment capitalized on the “grim and gritty” New York of the period.

Death Wish

Few films capture the mood of the city in the 1970s like Death Wish, starring Charles Bronson in what would become a career-defining franchise. Featuring early appearances by Jeff Goldblum and Nightmare on Elm Street’s Robert Englund, this shockingly violent film featured a man at the end of his rope who avenges an attack on his family with brutal justice.

Taxi Driver

“Someday a real rain will come and wash all this scum off the streets. I go all over. I take people to the Bronx, Brooklyn; I take ’em to Harlem. I don’t care. Don’t make no difference to me.” So says Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro) in Taxi Driver, a film of casual radicalization and New York grit that defined the 1970s version of New York City.

Midnight Cowboy

The story of a naive hustler who runs afoul of quintessential New Yorker “Ratso” Rizzo (Dustin Hoffman), Midnight Cowboy from 1969 became synonymous with inner-city know-how with the line “I’m walkin’ here!”—which quickly entered the lexicon.

The Taking of Pelham One Two Three

The New York subway becomes a perilous netherworld in The Taking of Pelham One Two Three. Walter Matthau’s Zachary Garber, transit police, takes on a group of hijackers led by the terrifying Mr. Blue (Robert Shaw) in this slick proto-Tarantino thriller.

Bad Lieutenant

Not to be confused with the Nicholas Cage spin-off, the original Bad Lieutenant features Harvey Keitel at his most unhinged, as a dirty cop looking for redemption in the squalor of New York City.

The French Connection

Director William Friedkin’s masterstroke, this movie is the ultimate New York crime film with the best car chase in cinema history. Starring Gene Hackman as “Popeye” Doyle, it defines the ruthless cop genre amid an all-but-vanished New York City filled with casual crime and brutal gun violence.

The Warriors

It’s only hilarious in retrospect. At the time, The Warriors version of gang violence—as the titular gang tries to make their way back home through rival territory—was quintessential New York cool.

Serpico

The true story of Detective Frank Serpico, this tale of NYPD corruption starring Al Pacino gave the great Sidney Lumet a chance to cash in on the prevailing disorder of 1970s New York.

10 to Midnight

Easily one of the strangest crime movies ever made, this film features Charles Bronson hunting down a criminal who kills unsuspecting women in New York while completely naked. A bizarre forerunner to the slasher genre, it’s true midnight movie fare and captures a totally chaotic NY ambiance.

American Gangster

Although made in the 2000s, this grimy entry in the genre takes us back to the rancid crime epidemic in New York in the ’70s, telling the true story of Frank Lucas (Denzel Washington) as he rises to the rank of kingpin in New York City while being hunted by hero cop Richie Roberts (Russell Crowe).