An Uber-Fan's Appreciation of Escape from New York
A bonafide classic of cinematic uber-cool
Having just spent the last fourteen months growing my hair and accumulating all the correct clothing and accessories to become the Wirral’s own Snake Plissken – Alpinestars Hi-Point motocross boots, screen-accurate Siberian camo pants, wrist-clock and tracker etc – as well as investing in all the new figures and comics and Escape T-shirts (I have 37 at present) that have come along, it is actually something of a bittersweet period that I find myself in with the arrival of the new US BD release of Snake’s great escape. You see, my OTHER most favourite character of all time and, arguably, the one that made the biggest impact on my life, Mad Max Rockatansky, is bearing down on us from the simmering carnage-track of Fury Road... and I have already – and expensively – began the lifestyle-shift to favour/honour him. Although I have had full Mad Max regalia for a good while, I have opted to obtain all the authentic clothing and equipment to mimic Tom Hardy’s incarnation of the Road Warrior... which is different again.
Frustrating? Of course. Expensive? Damn right. In trouble with the missus and an embarrassment to the kids and the dog? Erm ... what do you think?
But the biggest dilemma for me is the hair. I have lovingly cultivated my anti-establishment locks for what feels like forever, even enjoying a small chapter in which I became a Musketeer – the hair and the beard and the vast array of leathers just lent themselves to the look – and now, to totally honour Max, I need to have it shorn and get that awesome little MM2 blonde streak put back in. But I know that as soon as I do... that damn Escape remake will suddenly hit the gas and everything will swing back into Snake’s realm!!!!
The vanity and the obsession of an ultra-geek, eh?
Anyway, back to the real reason we are here.“You are the Duke of New York! You're A… Number One!!!”You know it. You love it. So what follows is not strictly a review of John Carpenter’s cult classic Escape From New York from 1981, but what I hope amounts to some fans just kicking back and waxing lyrical over a flawed, yet awesome and highly original SF adventure that is so eminently cool it even makes wearing an eye-patch seem sexy. And if we are going to do that, then you'd best be prepared for one helluva lot of spoilers… and, ahem, be in for the long haul too. So, close one eye and let’s go running through a nightmarish Manhattan alongside the one and only Snake Plissken. You’ve heard of him, right? Yeah, but I bet you heard he was dead, didn’t you?
“I’m ready to kick your ass out of the world hero.”
American angst over Vietnam had found a cinematic outlet in the rage-filled Night Of The Living Dead, the dramas Coming Home and The Deer Hunter and the thrillers Rolling Thunder and Taxi Driver (the film of First Blood hadn’t yet put in an appearance, but was just around the corner) and, almost coincidentally, Carpenter’s stylish exercise into severe anti-authoritarianism would also tap into this trendy vogue for disenfranchised anti-heroes returning from a conflict that nobody wanted or understood with decorated World War III Special Forces veteran Snake Plissken (Carpenter’s onscreen alter-ego, Kurt Russell).
Here was a tough guy who was battle-scarred and bitter. He’s become an outlaw because there's no other place for a man of his talents in this warped, dystopian and fascistic world, but although he is certainly no Robin Hood, you do get a sense that he has some sort of discipline and the last vestiges of honour… even if that honour is now only amongst thieves. But whereas a lot of other filmmakers were busy dressing up their statements about contemporary society in action-thriller clothes, what Carpenter is really delivering here is a Western in modern garb, a genre he adores and had already dabbled with in the updated fort-siege of Assault On Precinct 13. Now he was taking us deeper into the heart of the badlands.
It is 1997 and New York has been converted into a maximum security prison. The United States Police Force, like an army, is encamped around the island of Manhattan. Celebrity criminal Snake Plissken has just been captured and is facing either cremation on-the-spot or incarceration in the hell-hole when, overhead, Airforce One has been hijacked by revolutionaries opposing the “racist police state” and deliberately crashed into the “inhuman dungeon” of this hard-line society. The President (Donald Pleasance) has been taken alive by the inmates under the fierce command of the Duke (Isaac Hayes) and held to ransom just as, wouldn’t you know it, the Third World War is at a critical stage of global meltdown and the tape in his briefcase contains the information that will pull mankind back from the brink of Armageddon if it can only get to the Hartford Summit in time. Seeing only one option, Police Commissioner Bob Hauk (Lee Van Cleef) offers Snake, an expert in covert operations, full pardon for his crimes if he can go in and get the President out… in 22 hours (“We talked about 24!”)“That idea you had about turning the Gull Fire round 180 degrees and flying off to Canada …”Yes, that’s right. That little jet-glider is actually called the Gull Fire and not the Gulf-fire.
Oh, and as a little incentive to get the job done and not go sight-seeing, Hauk has very kindly put two microscopic bombs in his neck that are timed to go off when the deadline is up. You should never volunteer for anything, eh?
Okay, so we know the drill. Snake goes in, meets various rogues and entities, struggles through a series of chilling and violent set-piece escapades, gets the President – more by chance and the timely intervention of a gaggle of reluctant accomplices that he picks up along the way than by his own resourcefulness – and gets out just in the nick (or neck) of time. Fast, moody and magnificent, Carpenter cuts loose with a tremendously audacious premise that, nowadays, has to be looked upon as some sort of alternate history rather than a stark future-shock.
After the tense stand-off of Assault and the all-out horror shows of Halloween and The Fog, he has his biggest budget and cast to date – and he almost knows what to do with it all. He commences the film quite brilliantly with a pure John Ford-style introduction to the story - the dilemma and the main players all rolled out in one of the most streamlined and economic yet momentum-gathering sequences of his career. The concept is high, the plot jaw-dropping and the script, by Carpenter and Nick (The Shape) Castle, a hard-nosed, hard-boiled, hard-assed delight of quips, one-liners and put-downs. But he makes it all work with his trademark camerawork from Dean Cundey – gliding, phantom-like, down apocalyptic streets, crawling ominously up the massive prison wall and capturing the illusion of madness and anarchy at every turn – his utterly spellbinding synth score (which I can’t believe I still haven’t afforded its own full review!) and his depiction of the staggering wealth of urban wildlife thriving in this tribal cesspit. And you’ve got to admire his now much more ambitious handling of intense action. Even in the downtime section of Snake’s unconscious lull, the film is a riot of the imagination, Carpenter’s upside-down environment a feast of corruption and character.
Visual and thematic ideas tumble over one-another, but the sly thing is that we know we are only getting to see a snapshot of the world that the prisoners have made. The rival factions – those under the rule of the Duke of New York, the possibly cannibalistic Crazies who dwell in the underground and the sewers, the vicious delinquents who “own” Broadway, a tribe of sky-high Native Americans and a whole menagerie of human oddity lurking in-between – have their own mythology that we never get to see in any detail, our tour just a frantic run-around as seen through Snake’s one good eye. Like Mad Max 2 only showing us a couple of tribes yet clearly giving you the impression of a whole world of possibilities (which became more apparent in Beyond Thunderdome and, now, with Fury Road), Escape’s New York gains power by the hints it provides of a greater and deeper society at work, rather than the details it provides.
“We were buddies, Harold. You, me and Fesno Bob. You know what they did to Bob? You wanna see him sprayed all over that map, baby - where's the President?”
Poor Bob was actually gang-raped by the police black-bellies and then burned alive!
After playing the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll in Elvis The Movie for Carpenter, Kurt Russell successfully ditches his Disney child-star tag to become one of the first iconic action heroes of the 80’s. His Snake Plissken is a wonderful creation of sarcasm, resilience and that all-essential arrogant machismo. A man of few words, and most of them barbed and obnoxious, he looks solid, mean and dependable – yet this is Carpenter’s delightful trick… for Snake accomplishes virtually nothing for himself. Every step of the way, he is helped by others who get him from A to B, work things out for him, and generally help haul his ass out of the fire.
Oh sure, he defeats the terrifying man-mountain, Slag (played by the recently deceased wrestler Ox Baker), in a blood-stained boxing ring that has become a true gladiatorial arena in one of the film’s best and most brutal scenes, but he is captured, wounded and belittled almost every step of the way. In spite of all the heroic chic that Snake brings to the table, Carpenter and Russell are having fun with the character. It is almost as though they have been able to see into the future of cinematic tough guys and seen them for exactly what they are – macho fantasies and shallow, one-dimensional ciphers. So, in a pre-emptive strike at the genre that would give birth to many such unbeatable one-man-armies, they make Snake as clumsy, unlucky and as downright vulnerable as they can. He’s only got one eye to begin with, for God’s sake!
But the fact that their futuristic flip-side of Rooster Cogburn overcomes so many trials and character flaws to become a true, dyed-in-the-wool, downright inspirational cinematic hero is where most of the magic lies. The look. Oh, man, the look. Customised urban camouflage combats with a Siberian slant, a zip-shouldered black muscle vest, crazy, golf-cleated motocross boots, an uber-distressed leather jacket, raggedy long hair and an eye-patch – Snake Plissken could have been the campest thing in town, but with his swishing anti-establishment barnet, that take-no-crap sneer and a magnificent Clint Eastwood impersonation, Kurt’s cyclopean maverick mercenary is the epitome of the future urban guerrilla.“Hauk sent me… we’ve gotta move fast!”
“Move fast? You’re goddamn right I’ll move fast!”After turning the little gnome-like Donald Pleasance into a gun-toting, bogeyman-battling Middle-American psychiatrist in Halloween, John Carpenter has the English actor then make the massive leap to US President here … and the craziest thing about it is how superbly the casting works. Pleasance is appreciably slimy, self-centred and egocentric when he is enjoying the luxury of safety - “God save me … and … watch over you all,” he says to his doomed aides on the place, but the sentiment is profoundly superficial – and a gibbering, pants-wetting wreck in the hands of the Duke. And, boy, do his grungy captors make the most of their own unorthodox Senate Debate with him – they slice one of pinkies off, use him for target practice and, worst of all, force him to wear a long blonde wig! Pleasance, spending the majority of the film in a state of quivering mute terror, takes it all on the chin. His glib return to power and authority at the end is the very epitome of patronisation, and we all feel the same disdain as Snake when that “compassionate” reply to his enquiry about the deaths that allowed his freedom comes up way short. But of course it is that final expression of dumbstruck embarrassment and simmering anger that makes President Pleasance so memorable … and believable.
“Sssnaaake Plissss-ken … I’ve heard of you. I heard you were dead.”
Carpenter is infinitely better at creating his environment and establishing the set-up for the story than he is at signing it off at the end. Well, this allegation has been a very common complaint that critics have levelled at him, with Assault, The Fog, Halloween, Prince Of Darkness, Ghosts of Mars, Village Of The Damned, They Live and even The Thing (of all things) getting flack for having apparently lost steam during the final act. The middle three I tend to agree with, actually. But Escape seemed to court a lot of scorn in this regard, with the snipers shooting down the lack of a satisfying payoff (a totally unfounded claim), a rushed finale (it’s pell-mell momentum is pretty much vital, I would say), and the fact that Snake has to be rescued for a second time by the convenient arrival of Cabbie (Ernest Borgnine), which they erroneously put down to Carpenter simply not knowing what to do in order to extricate his hero from yet another jam and get him to the bridge on time (erm, this last complaint crumbles because the cavalry, in the form of Borgnine’s nervous but ever-cheerful Cabbie, actually forms a symmetrical gag – the point of which being precisely that Cabbie is always in the right place at the right time like the ever-present cabs of the real New York.) And let’s face it, without Cabbie (“You slime!”), Snake’s search and rescue mission would have completely and utterly failed. But, it is certainly true that Carpenter is prone to narrative lulls – the worst being encountered in Prince Of Darkness (which I discussed liberally in reviews for its score CD and BD release) and Village Of The Damned. Here, though, Carpenter avoids this trap – which would have been the stand-down in tension when Snake is captured, knocked unconscious and awaiting his fate – by having the wonderfully eerie sight of police helicopters dancing about in the mist over the Hudson and Bob Hauk surveying what may be dawn on the last day on Earth. Regarding how Carpenter structures the film, it is unavoidably clear that he had the beginning and the end totally sorted. The in-between bits, however, are a different matter. But what I find so appealing about the film is this seat-of-the-pants momentum of everybody literally “winging it” throughout the various slap-dash encounters and confrontations. Like with anything, if you sit back and analyse the narrative you are going to find flaws. But the film is deliberately and joyfully comic-book in tone and atmosphere. Occasionally threadbare and with one or two lacklustre duels – the skirmish beside the train after a dazzlingly good and seemingly super-stealthy rescue attempt and the, ahem, ridiculous moment when Snake is able to faze the Duke and his squadron of goons by shooting at the stolen car engine and covering them all with steam instead of, say, just shooting the Duke between the eyes – but the good stuff far outweighs the “not quite as good” stuff.
“Listen to me, Hauk. The President’s dead, you got that? Somebody's had him for dinner!”
The really clever thing about Carpenter’s urban adventure is that the large and colourful collection of characters become so memorable with only the most minimal of fleshing-out. Honestly, in the hands of a lesser director, this cast could have been utterly squandered and rendered instantly forgettable. But he adheres to Hawks’ advice that each character must make an immediate impact with their first appearance on screen. And Escape has some of the best, most attention-grabbing and yet most economical around.
Just look at who he got to serve time in and around Manhattan Island Maximum Security Penitentiary! On the black-belly side of things, we have the awesome Lee Van Cleef providing what is, miraculously, one of his best ever roles. Old but hard, this ex-war-horse clearly has no love of the tyrannical state that America has gotten itself into, and is something of a maverick himself, but also has an eager disdain-cum-respect for the prisoners, as witnessed perfectly by his response to the Duke's sinister lieutenant Romero's matter-of-fact threats. In fact, the dynamic between Hauk and Snake is an inversion of the relationship we see between Sheriff Will Teasle and Johnny Rambo in First Blood, the original novel as opposed to the film version, that is. Both of them are war-veterans, both have a different way of dealing with things and a vastly opposed, yet still surprisingly connected outlook, and both have a grudging admiration for one another. Of course, Carpenter was riffing on the pairing of Cleef’s older bounty hunter with Clint Eastwood’s younger buck in For A Few Dollars More. The drawling Eastwood voice that Russell uses only adding to this homage. “We’d make one helluva team, Snake,” offers Hauk at the end, and this is where Russell’s anti-hero adopts the Rambo approach and chooses to walk, well limp, down a different path and one that will, inevitably, only lead to confrontation again. Van Cleef, sporting an earring (Richard Dysart’s Dr. Copper in The Thing would even have a nose-ring!) and that magnificent watch/wrist-band combo full of studs and the wispy hair of an aging hippy, paints a figure who is also bucking the trend in his own way. He may be on the side of law and order, but he is still a maverick – the same old Western figure he played so often who could, on a whim, flip over to the wrong side of the tracks if he felt like it. Or if the price was right. He even offers Snake a job at the end of it all, almost as though the mission was Plissken’s selection test. And don’t you wish you knew what that job was? Somehow, I don’t think it was legal … do you? Van Cleef masks the agony of an old horse-fall injury extremely well, his gait suggestive of a gruelling life of action that befits Hauk perfectly. The twinkle in the those iced ebony eyes revealing that keen, undaunted interest in further adventure.
“I guess I go in one way or the other … doesn’t mean sh*t to me … give me the paper.”
“When you come out.”
“I told you I’m not a fool, Plissken.”
“Call me Snake.”
Like a security blanket, Carpenter furnishes the cops with some of his more reliable supporting actors. The great Tom (I’m like a cuddly Nick Nolte) Atkins plays the head of Liberty Island security control. Named after the-then head of Avco Embassy, who released the picture, Bob Rehme, Atkins struts about in the regulation black fatigues and combat boots, affecting a series of very serious expressions throughout. Rehme doesn’t actually do anything other than pass messages on and look anxiously at computer read-outs and visual simulations, yet you still come away from Escape with the distinct impression that he played an indelible part in what happened. For the ever-likeable Atkins, the role possibly came as something of a let-down after being the leading man in Carpenter’s previous directed outing The Fog and, perhaps realising this, Carpenter would ensure that the actor got the main part in Halloween 3: Season Of The Witch. Then there’s good old Sheriff Brackett from Halloweens 1 and 2, Charles Cyphers, as the Secretary Of State. Well used to working with Carpenter, with Assault On Precinct 13 and The Fog under his belt as well, Cyphers, admittedly, gets even less to do than Atkins, although he does have a peculiar fascination for Snake’s salvaged night-goggles, doesn’t he? But look at young John Strobel as the ominously monikered “Dr. Cronenberg”, the police scientist who puts those pesky little implants into Snake’s neck, as he totally milks what is a miniscule part. To be honest, the bit-parter from The Fog, is actually very good in this small, but pivotal role. After injecting the miniature bombs, look at how he keeps staring at Snake’s throat – there’s a real sense of guilt and shame about what he’s just done. And, then, when our boy lunges for Hauk, there is genuine shock in his eyes. His final plaintiff “That’s it” to a breathless Snake as he applies the X-rays to his neck is also greatly handled. It is funny how such small roles can become hugely magnified in the scheme of a cult classic. And far above the ground we find Nancy Stephens, the nurse in Halloweens 1 and 2, as she takes a drastic career change here as the speech-reading terrorist who downs Air Force One at the start. The image of the pilot and navigator beside her, their throats slashed, is an eerie preliminary to the frozen corpse found in The Thing.
“Hey Chief … nice night. Nice boots, chief … nice boots.”
Over the wall and across the river, things get considerably more exciting and larger-than-life. But the wonderful thing about Carpenter’s audacious premise is that we don’t get any of the usual prison-movie stereotypes and clichés amongst the inmates. Well, other than the Duke of New York, a Number One, who rules the joint, that is. And as “The Big Man, that’s who”, soul-lord Isaac Hayes is superb. He has the arrogance, the surly aggression and the swaggering cool of the master of all he surveys. Chandeliers mounted on the front of his Cadillac, a pair of shades, a fabulous Naval officer’s gold-braided tunic and natty white canvas jeans complete his funked-up cavalier ensemble. Hayes develops a twitch, a sweaty brow and a malicious obsession once Snake and everyone else begin to throw spanners in the works of his grand-plan to have every inmate walk across the bridge to freedom, that totally flies in the face of his earlier confidence – and this only helps to ground a character who is, as written, nothing more than a panto-villain. And siding with this rogue is Frank Doubleday’s colossally sinister Romero, his hair hauled up into a thistle-like fright-wig, his face made to look cadaverous, his teeth filed to points. Doubleday was the emotionless gang-leader who gunned-down the ice-cream vendor and the little girl in Assault On Precinct 13’s most shocking sequence. Here, he gets a much meatier role and he truly gets into it. “You touch me – he dies. You’re not in the air in thirty seconds – he dies. You come back in – he dies.” Brandishing the President’s severed finger (and boy does it look like one of those cheap tricks you can get from a joke-shop!) and mock serenading Hauk’s now impotent authority with a little bow, Romero is the diabolically flamboyant extension of New York’s depravity. John Strobel may milk his miniscule sideline role, but Doubleday almost steals the entire show with his shock-rock performance. A pointed finger that seems to exert a restraining force upon Brain and Maggie; the ability to listen to a cassette just by placing it to his ear; a gargoyle-like expression during his rasping death-spasm – Doubleday invests more in Romero than many modern A-listers do in a dozen movies.
“The President's gone! Brain took him!”
But Snake needs those all-important allies to help him make it through the night. And with fabulous character-actors in Ernest Borgnine’s Cabbie and Harry Dean Stanton’s Brain, Carpenter scores a mega coup. Dumbing it down slightly, Borgnine loses the frightening cruelty of his psychotic brake-man from The Emperor Of The North (in which he fought Lee Marvin's hobo, ironically, called A-no.1!) and the raw nobility of his violence-devoted outlaw in The Wild Bunch to bring a certain “cosiness” to this helpful lackey. He may be able to hurl Molotov cocktails with a casual ease, but Cabbie is no fighter. He’s been driving the same cab through the Big Apple for THIRTY years – “Yes, sir, this very same cab!” – but we never find out what crime he committed. Personally, I like to think that when the population were moved out and the city transformed into a prison, he just remained there. He has nowhere and no-one else, but the cab and the city. So he just chose to stay home. Brain, or Harold Hellman as Snake knows his old accomplice, is a wonderful creation. He clearly isn’t as smart as everyone thinks he is – but because he isn’t a simple thug like the rest of the population and he knows just enough that can be exploited (gasoline, greenhouses, rigged-up generators etc) he is important to the Duke, and therefore protected. Stanton, a former Kelly’s Hero and titbit for the Alien, is marvellous at conveying a character that may have some degree of power, but is forced to live forever under the fear of what may happen when that power eventually fails and the Duke no longer needs him around. Full of nervous ticks – look at his squirrelly little jump when that church bell tolls as they leave his library-cum-refinery, and his extremely guarded demeanour whenever the Duke is near, or even when the Duke is just mentioned in passing. You have to remember that Brain is also something of a stool-pigeon. In it purely for himself – and his buxom moll, Maggie, of course (more on her in a minute) – he is someone who will stab you in the back in the blink of an eye, if it will get him out of trouble. We already know how Snake feels about him after what happened to poor Fresno Bob in Kansas City, so although he is a necessary part of Snake’s impromptu team, we know that we just can’t trust him. But you have to admire the way that the Brains of New York (“He’s Mr. Fabulous!”) works out the greatest enigma of them all – how Cabbie came to be in possession of that all-important tape!“Maggie doesn’t know exactly where he is …and unless you know exactly, precisely where he is … you’ll never find him.”I’ve discussed the virtues of having Adrienne Barbeau in a film from this period many times already. The then-Mrs. John Carpenter, as Brain’s squeeze, Maggie, she gives the film not only some much needed sex-appeal, but a tremendously strong female character in her own right. Never once used as a plaything or a damsel in distress, Maggie is as tough as nails and as sassy as they come. You can almost imagine her as the matriarch of the one of gangs in Walter Hill’s The Warriors, can’t you? Bedecked in a low-cut purple dress, lilac cowboy boots, and with a turkey-bone and feathers in her tumbling gypsy curls, she is another instantly iconic character. There is even a moment when Carpenter allows her to become his Gothic Queen as Cundey's camera lovingly captures her coming down the stone steps in the library holding aloft a flaming torch and passing through exquisitely lit archways and cobwebs – it is like something out of a Hammer film, or a Bava, or one of Corman’s Poe adaptations. He and she clearly know what they are doing, as well, as the scene when she is fondling the barrel of Snake’s gun so abundantly shows. And you can’t help but be touched by her affection for Brain. “Maggie … he’s dead,” growls Snake, urging her to come away after the smart-ass has gone for an explosive ride through the air, but Brain’s babe knows that there is no escape for her now .... only salvation through sacrifice. When I first saw the film, I remember being incredibly moved by this final act of enraged devotion. I love the way that you see her lips trembling, that fierce inner-resolve almost crumbling, as she turns towards the Duke’s fast-approaching caddy on that fateful bridge. And that death-scene is a thing of quirkily erotic horror and violence too. Look at Maggie’s orgasmic reaction each time she fires at the Duke, literally euphoric “mini-deaths” delivered with each blast. The eventual collision is savagely nasty but, realising that just seeing getting Maggie shunted out of sight by the Duke’s pimped chariot wasn’t enough of a send-off, Carpenter even cast his wife down on their garage floor for an additional insert that allowed us the haunting final sight of a river of blood pouring between those two majestic peaks. Cheers, John!
“The President was on-board.”
“President of what?”
“That's not funny, Plissken.”
There wasn’t only romance between Carpenter and Barbeau, either. Remember that girl in Chock Full O’ Nuts? Played by Season Hubley, the poor punkette who finds herself stranded after dark when the Crazies come out to play didn’t just fall for Snake, she fell for Kurt as well, although their marriage wasn’t to last very long. It must be funny when star and director look back upon this film and see their ex's, mustn't it? Hubley, a seasoned stage performer, brings us a hint of that greater mythology of the fallen Manhattan with her convincingly delivered exposition on the gang situation, bestowing the film something of futuristic take on West Side Story. Although swiftly dealt with, her demise still makes me shudder.
I love the way that all Snake’s gear ends up with other people. Slag, the veritable Titan, gets the life-clock. The ringside ref has the tracer (but he’s obviously too dumb to spot that little safety-catch that Hauk thinks is so clever). Maggie gets his Magnum and, man, she looks way better when firing it! The Duke even gets Snake’s mule-kicking Ingram sub-machine-gun. And not to be left out, Romero even trades the Prez’s tape for Cabbie’s hat! Carpenter’s future prison is the land of swapsies, folks! Hell, even Buck Flower - “I'm the President. Sure I'm the President!” - who has been a regular in a lot of Carpenter’s films gets to wear the President's pulse-beacon bracelet. His delightfully shaggy down 'n' out here is a curiously welcome sight, though, grinning like a loon with his false teeth removed. Even after a rather oddly monotonous beating, he carries a delirious sense of humour. The running gag about people assuming that Snake was dead – very Hawksian in a film that actually owes just as much to John Ford – is beautifully offset when a furious and wrathful Plissken is about to put the hurt on the ever-duplicitous Brain … “Yeah, you and everybody else!” But this is as blackly comic a movie as Carpenter has ever made. His politics and renegade attitude to all forms of authority have often nudged their way into his work, but the director is, at heart, an entertainer and few of his films have been as consistently entertaining as this.
“Cronenberg! Get over to Station 19 … they're coming across the bridge.”
Whilst we like to bemoan that tacky-looking shot of the glider spinning to its doom over the edge of the World Trade Centre, a lot of visual effects are actually surprisingly accomplished considering what was quite a low budget for such a large scale and ambitious production. I mean, the glider’s initial arrival in New York, sinuously whooshing through the high-rises, looks just fine. Its desperate slide to a halt on the roof is equally well done, with that top shot looking down the side of the tower into the gloom of an almost dead city actually fairly vertigo-inducing. Put it this way, the glider is infinitely better than the lousy CG sub in the lame LA sequel that should never have happened. Visual effects were actually handled by Roger Corman's New World studios in a self-contained facility that had been built to house Battle Beyond The Stars. The opening shot, featuring two escaping convicts on a raft that the police summarily blow out of the water, involves a ten-foot model of New York combined with live action prisoners and chopper, a miniature prison wall and Liberty Island with carefully rotoscoped searchlights flowing over them. The finished sequence looks amazing considering the lack of funds. Old school tricks like glass-painted matte shots, painstakingly produced by none other than the young James Cameron, remain effective ... although the creases in the grey/blue sky backdrop curtain behind the city now seem all too apparent.
Okay, we’ve had a look at what makes the film so damn indispensable in the annals of SF/adventure, but there’s a great many elements that just don't add up, or are just plain silly. We’re fans, we can take the flack and, besides, the naff bits are all part and parcel of why we love the film so much. So let’s have a look at the daft underbelly of the great Snake Shake.
Why, oh why would anyone put a telescopic sight on a revolver? Either the rear optic is the size of a lens in Mr. Magoo’s glasses, or you are supposed to hold the gun right under your nose to line up a target – and with a .357 Magnum, I most certainly wouldn’t recommend doing that. And just how many bullets does it hold? We actually see both Snake and Maggie blasting off more than the full quota of six shots, respectively in a couple of separate scenes. (They even put a telescopic sight on the Ingram, although coupled with the sound-suppressor, it does look mighty sweet! This works just fine on an MP5, but not on the boxy, bullet-spraying dinosaur of the Ingram.) Anyone else always wonder why a Crazy chooses to stick his arm out around the edge of the bookcase so that Snake can then very conveniently blast it off? And what about that flimsy wall that our hero uses up a shed-load of rounds on as he shoots a pathway through it, when he could clearly have just jumped straight through with no problem at all? At least Carpenter could have added a deeper sound effect for the crunch as Snake leaps through, just to make it seem weightier.
“We got a diagram from a guy who got all the way across …before they shot the poor bastard.” Hmmm …you know what I’m going to say here, don’t you? Just how did this guy get the map back to them after he’d been shot? Okay, the gorgeous Maggie doesn’t actually say that he was shot and killed, but you certainly get that impression. I suppose he could have wrapped it around a rock and thrown it back to someone hiding behind a junked car with his dying breath. Aye, of course he could. Or maybe there was actually a human chain of prisoners passing it back like a baton. Did the cops obligingly post it back? But the truth is that Carpenter just loved the gallows comedy of the line and never really thought about the mechanics of it all. Don't you get fed up with people viewing the film for the first time asking whether or not that was the President’s head on the parking meter on Broadway? They could have picked any head to make a cast from, so why choose one that does actually look a little too similar to Donald Pleasance? And then there's my favourite gaff of them all. Take a look at poor Slag's bashed noggin after Snake whacks that nailed bat into it. First of all the bat is lodged on the back of his cranium, then we see it fall out. Next shot, it is back in again … and we see it fall once more. Cut to the crowds all legging it out of the arena and, you guessed it, the bat is back on the bald guy's bonce! Spot any more? Post 'em up!“You can't meet the Duke? Are you crazy? Nobody gets to meet the Duke. You meet him once and then you're dead!”Well, apart from the wistful image of the Twin Towers looming hauntingly across the film’s vista, and playing a crucial part in the story’s plot, not to mention the rather prescient fact that a hijacked plane ploughs into the city, Escape From New York offers up a lot of lingering resonances and impressions. Snake just standing there in the middle of the street, arms crossed, as the Duke and his entourage rumble down towards him – the absolute pillar of bravado and stupidity combined, commodities that would both be expertly and hilariously employed for Russell’s later portrayal of Jack Burton in Big Trouble in Little China. The disembodied and distorted voices of the helicopter pilots conducting surveillance sweeps over the prison – “Nothing on the infra-red body scan. No movements in the searchlights. Something strange going on down there.” The bizarre but strangely comforting stage show that some of the prisoners, in drag, put on for the art-starved … and the deviant. (Carpenter, Cundey, Castle and Halloween III helmer, Tommy Lee Wallace all joining the ragtime band.)Snake, forlorn and at a loss as to how to locate the President, just pulling up a chair and sitting down in a dark street to contemplate his fate. Native American Indians circling the good guys on the roof of the ex-centre of world commerce - surely some metaphor there, John? Snake’s look of genuine panic as awaits the winch to pluck him to safety as the Duke bears down upon him. Donald Pleasance's face as he stares at the cassette player that may just have consigned the world to oblivion, as Snake nonchalantly guts the real tape and walks off into an uncertain future – next to the ambiguous finale of The Thing, surely the most satisfying conclusion that Carpenter has come up … a big “up yours” to the Man that makes the mimicked ending to the sequel look incredibly childish. Even touches of phraseology such as the bizarre way that Brain says to the Duke about the now captured Snake, “Something’s going down, we need himmmmm!”
The score, of course, is seminal. Carpenter, in association with Alan Howarth, worked hypnotic wonders with the metronomic, mean and moody music for Snake’s breakneck tour of New York. Vintage analogue synth – it’s just never gone out of style! His brooding main theme, like that of Assault and Halloween, has been sampled, riffed-on, disco-ised and emulated ever since, but never equalled. Even recent movies such as The Guest (whose Downton Abbey star has been mooted as playing Snake in the Carpenter produced remake), Cold in July and It Follows have overtly and unashamedly paid tribute with their own electronic scores. Whilst Howarth can’t seem to keep his keyboard noodling fingers off the classic Carpenter scores, bringing out remixes all the time and even playing live performances around Europe, the basic original mix remains the benchmark for synthesised film scoring. Economical, repetitive and innately groovy, the music is immediately recognisable and just as powerful and memorable as anything by John Williams, Jerry Goldsmith, Elmer Bernstein or James Horner. Even John Carpenter has finally realised this. After decades of simply playing down the contribution his music has made to not only his movies but to pop culture at large, he is now embracing a new career slant by putting out an album of freshly composed, but instantly recognisable and atmosphericsynth music. I have already covered this album, Lost Themes, and eagerly await further material. But, arguably, his best music smothers Escape From New York. I may prefer the main title from Assault, myself, but when you hear that emphatic opening beat, you are instantly hooked.
And what about the hysterical line-up of names in the end credits? Honestly, you look at some of them … Roger Bumpass and Lowmoan Spectacular, anyone?!!! Escape From New York entertains all the way through to the final title fade-out.
“Here, give me that tape!”
“Not just yet ...”
Okay, you've stuck with me through all this nostalgia, but there's another reason why this film means so much to me and has become one of those pivotal and cherished celluloid events. You see I saw this previewed in things like Starburst Magazine and on Barry Norman’s Film ’81 just before it came out and, seeing how besotted I was with the imagery from it, my dad, bless him, actually took me to London the week of the film’s opening to see it in Leicester Square. The film was a “AA" and I was 12 years old, so I was lucky to get in! But then again, nobody was going to challenge Big Fred Mac! Not even the Duke. On the front billboard of the cinema there was a full-size yellow New York cab mounted as a promotional gimmick and that sensational UK poster (the surrealist one with Snake’s face looming over the top of New York, as attack helicopters swarm towards it, which I now have on the living room wall!) that seemed as huge as the Great Wall of China. We saw the film twice the same day. It was one of the most special occasions of my childhood and, sadly, one of the rare times that myself and my father ever actually agreed on anything. We agreed that Snake was the best!
And if you forget the lousy and unnecessary sequel – which is easy to do - he still is.
And so’s my old man.
By the way, the film may be still without that opening bank robbery sequence, but it has been slightly tweaked. It now has the same music cue – The Duke Arrives – playing twice in quick succession… in it's appropriate slot as, well, the Duke arrives outside the library, and then again, a couple of minutes later as Snake and co run the gauntlet of Broadway – a sequence that was originally unscored. We also have the alternate audio take of Brain shouting “Goddamn redskins! They're savages, Mr. President!” on the roof of the World Trade Centre, plus the amped-up sound of Indians warbling all around them. Whilst I disapprove of the cue-repeat, I must admit that the alternate audio take actually sounds better.
Escape From New York is much more than a minor classic of modern action and adventure – it is a bonafide classic of cinematic uber-cool. Carpenter didn't reinvent the wheel with it, but he took the Western anti-hero and successfully transported him to the future and helped establish the bleak, caustic and nihilistic approach to derring-do that has remained a genre convention ever since.
“You gonna kill me now, Snake?”
“I'm too tired. Maybe later.”
I know just how you feel, Snake!
You can open that eye again now, folks.
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