This week’s pick is yet another John Carpenter classic. Kurt Russell stars as the first ever action hero of the 1980s in Escape From New York (1981). After success with Halloween and the horror classic The Fog, Carpenter’s next project would be a unique blend of science fiction, action, noir and a western. The result is one of the finest multi genre classics of its time.
Set in a dystopian future (now the past) the United States’ crime rate rises to an astonishing four hundred percent in 1988. To combat the growing crime rate, the United States becomes a totalitarian police state and the great city of New York is turned into the one prison for the whole country. A fifty-foot containment wall is erected around all of Manhattan Island, all the bridges and waterways are mined, and the United States Police Force patrols the wall perimeter to insure no one escapes. Once you go inside the prison, you never come out.
Carpenter wrote the screenplay in the late seventies as a way to get his foot in the door as a screenwriter if no one was going to hire him as a director. Carpenter sited the Watergate scandal and the political chaos of the 1970s as the inspiration behind Escape From New York. This bleak and frightening outlook of a totalitarian alternate U.S. was considered too out of the ordinary for many studios. Carpenter shelved the project and swore that he would make it eventually. After Halloween and The Fog, Avco Embassy Pictures gave him the ability to turn his screenplay into a motion picture.
After the film’s opening narration (performed by Carpenter Scream Queen Jamie Lee Curtis) the film flashes forward to 1997. USPF officers intercept a distress call from an unidentified plane codenamed “David 14” which is flying over restricted airspace. The plane’s true identity is discovered as Air Force One that is on its way to a summit meeting in Hartford, Connecticut (of all places) for a meeting between the U.S., The Soviet Union, and China. When I think of exotic locals for a summit meeting, I think of the insurance capital of the world.
The President (Donald Pleasense) flees the plane by using an escape pod after a terrorist hijacks the plane and forces it down. Air Force One crashes inside Manhattan over Battery Park and a rescue team is sent in to extract him. When the soldiers arrive on scene, they find the President’s escape pod empty. A prisoner approaches the extraction team and shows them the ring finger of the President and orders them into the air within twenty seconds or they will kill the President. The soldiers quickly board the helicopters and retreat back to security control on Liberty Island.
Police Commissioner Bob Hauk (played by the ever cool Lee Van Cleef) proposes a rescue mission to go into the prison and bring back the President within twenty-four hours. Hauk enlists the help of war hero turned criminal Snake Plissken. One of my absolute favorite scenes in the film is where Hauk and Plissken chat in Hauk’s office and Hauk makes Plissken the offer.
Plissken fights for no more causes and has become disillusioned by what America now stands for. He is sentenced to life imprisonment for a botched bank robbery a few years back. Hauk tells Plissken he will receive a full pardon for every criminal act he has ever committed in the United States if he brings out the President in twenty-four hours so that he can still present the contents of an audio cassette concerning nuclear fusion at the summit meeting. Snake reluctantly agrees and is equipped with a series of weapons and gadgets for his mission. Hauk believing that Snake will cut and run, has Snake injected with two microscopic explosives which will detonate inside his carotid arteries in twenty-four hours unless the charges are neutralized with a high dose of x-rays within the last 15 minutes of the countdown. Snake vows that when the mission is completed he will kill Hauk.
With time now commencing on his twenty-four hour life clock, Snake lands a glider atop the World Trade Center and proceeds down to street level where he pieces together where the President is being held due to the signal from his life-monitor bracelet. Snake soon discovers the ferocity of the prison and narrowly escapes death on several occasions. The pacing of the film and Carpenter’s brilliant screenplay make Escape From New York the “Granddaddy of all action films”.
Other standout performances in the film include Harry Dean Stanton (Brain), Adrienne Barbeau (Maggie), Issac Hayes (The Duke of New York), Ernest Borgnine (Cabbie), Tom Atkins (Rehme), and Frank Doubleday (Romero).
The set designs and scope of production on Escape From New York are some of the most creative and least expensive endeavors for a film made on a budget of only six million dollars. Being unable to shoot in NYC on such a budget, and not wanting to use sets disguised as city streets, Carpenter and location designer Barry Bernardi settled on the burnt out remains of East St. Louis, Illinois which had been vacant after a large fire destroyed several city blocks in 1976. Carpenter and crew set up production there and used some of the city’s east coast looking architecture as a perfect representation of NYC streets. The majority of the film’s shots were done in several locations around the U.S. Many of the scenes that take place on Liberty Island, are actually the flood channels of the Sepulveda Dam in Sherman Oaks, California.
Carpenter had the electric company shut down several blocks so that the streets could be wetted down and that the light could be reflected off of the pavement with bonfires burning in key spots of filming which gave the film the unique photography effects pioneered by Carpenter crew member Dean Cundey who would go on to have a distinguished career in Hollywood as a top cinematographer.
One of the best tracking shots in the film is in the beginning where the shot of Liberty Island control was actually shot at the base of the Statue of Liberty. The camera follows Tom Atkin’s character with a tracking shot into a booth and the black backdrop hides any evidence of a film cut. The scene then pans to a soldier walking out of the booth and with movie magic you are in Sherman Oaks, California which doubles for Liberty Island control. It’s one of my favorite uses of editing, and cutting in any film.
A lot of the film’s success can be attributed to Carpenter’s best friend and co-writer Nick Castle who helped to create much of the dialogue and characters that would appeal to those watching the film in NYC. One of Castle’s characters is “Cabbie” played by veteran Academy Award winning actor Ernest Borgnine who has been driving the same cab for over thirty years in NYC.
One of my second favorite parts in the film is the gladiator scene where Snake is to be the night’s entertainment for the villainous Duke of New York (Hayes) in an old theater turned into an arena. Snake fights an inmate played by professional ex-wrestler Ox Baker. Baker was not used to Hollywood choreography and on several occasions almost fatally wounded Russell during filming. In an interview given several years after the film, Carpenter explained that Russell went over to Baker in between scenes, angered over Baker’s inability to stop hurting him and lightly kicked him in the groin in order to get him to stop throwing him across the ring like a rag doll. Carpenter said after the groin tap, Ox finally calmed down and the scenes went much smoother.
Escape From New York proved to be another hit for Carpenter. The film grossed over twenty five million dollars in the U.S. alone and spawned many international rip offs in the process. Kurt Russell who was best known for many children and teen comedies done through Disney, beat out actors like Charles Bronson and Tommy Lee Jones who were possible choices for Snake. Carpenter showed his screen tests to the executives from Avco and they were impressed that Russell was able to pull off a Clint Eastwood type, and make him a convincing modern day gun for hire. The role would now give Russell the roles he had lost out to because of his affiliations with Walt Disney Pictures.
The film is also noted as one of the earliest jobs that employed a young artist who was working as a matte painter for Roger Corman’s New World Pictures. This individual would also go on to a distinguished movie career and would become an expert in 3-D camera technology and has directed two of the highest grossing films of all time. The young artist’s name was James Cameron.
Escape From New York is available on DVD and Blu-Ray combo thru MGM/UA Home Video and can be rented via Netflix.