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.
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.
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).