Big Apple, small screen

As a teenager, I imagined New York City as it appeared on TV shows: gritty urban terrain on Kojack, benign sidewalks on The Odd Couple. I hadn’t seen a lot of old movies. That all changed when I moved to the city. Before the VCR revolution, you could see all kinds of movies on TV. It just required good timing, and a little patience.

Just as WCBS-FM programmed every rock & roll oldie that mentioned New York, the local TV stations padded their schedules with a staggering array of classic New York films. Virtually any movie set in the city – from vintage musicals like West Side Story and On The Town (“the Bronx is up the Battery down”) to deservedly obscure horror flicks – qualified as classic. Watching them was an education as well as great entertainment.

My cheap Samsung TV wasn’t a limitation when it came to these New York movies; in fact, the stark contrast of black and white enhanced the city’s “local color.” The grandeur and glamour of midtown Manhattan radiated in flickering shades of gray. Black and white vividly conveyed the trademark grit and grime of the city, too. Even the most colorful action movies of the 1970s (another staple) were diminished far less than you’d expect.

Certain scenes became emblematic, indelible, through loop-like repeated viewing. I can still picture the panoramic opening scene of Shaft!, for instance: Detective John Shaft striding through 70s-sleazy Times Square, accompanied by the strut and throb of Issac Hayes’ immortal theme song. Most spectacular was the trans-Manhattan chase scene in The Seven Ups, two boat-sized 70s sedans careening all the way from the lower east side up to (and over) the George Washington Bridge before a harrowing crash on the Palisades Parkway. Repeated viewings of this sequence (and a similar scene in The French Connection) put me off city driving for years.

Sweet Smell of Success seemed to be on every week. I memorized chunks of the hard-boiled dialogue (“match me, Sidney”) and marveled at the black-and-white glamour of 50s Manhattan. Burt Lancaster and Tony Curtis were mesmerizing as respectively, a tyrant gossip columnist and toadying press agent. I’d never read a gossip column until I moved to New York.

Watch this space for further explication of these films and other small screen NYC classics like The Taking of Pelham 123 and The Warriors.


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