Ed Koch's New York in Film

From The Warriors to Wall Street and No Wave to new money, the film-buff mayor oversaw a city transformed.


Ed Koch's New York is the New York City of my youth. I arrived in Manhattan from Southern Mexico in 1978, his first year at City Hall, and ping-ponged between that central borough and other parts of the country until my family finally resettled full-time in the city in 1988. You can read about the city Koch inherited and tried to bully into shape in an array of wonderfully detailed obituaries on the occasion of his passing. But his New York belonged to millions of others, too, and it's worth seeing also how the people of the city that never sleeps saw it and sought to represent it themselves during his three terms in office. One way to do that is to look at the movies by and about New Yorkers made when he was mayor, something the cinemaphile Koch -- a onetime Atlantic movie reviewer -- might have appreciated.

"New Yorkers were particularly proud of Mayor Koch because he was so proud of New York. Every atom in his body lived, breathed, spoke, and exuded the city. He helped save the city and, perhaps most important of all, gave it confidence when it was beginning to doubt itself, which helped pave the way for the growth and prosperity we're still experiencing today," Senator Chuck Schumer said in a statement Friday. "Every New Yorker will miss Ed Koch, and his towering presence."

Well, probably not every New Yorker. But there's no question that the narrative arc of the city was one of transformation under Mayor Koch, and that that arc is reflected in the cinema of his day. The great themes of movies about New York in the Koch era were power and the underground, art and finance, poverty and the new prosperity.

The New York of the 1970s that Koch sought to manage after his 1977 victory is the subject of some extraordinary and extraordinarily weird films, all gritty as the city itself in the era of bankruptcy, racial strife, and economic decline. If you want to know why he was hailed, you need to know what the city looked like before him. It is the subject and the backdrop of all these films -- fictions, to be sure, but not fantasies -- in which crime and corruption and the breakdown of the social order are all on display.

* 1972: Across 110th Street, a thriller about a corrupt cop and his honest deputy in drug-infested Harlem, starring a young Yaphet Kotto. Shocking to a contemporary viewer for its casual racism, the film is an of-its-era sketch of a neighborhood and its myths, which were revisited in 2008 in American Gangster.
* 1973: Serpico -- one of the great Al Pacino films, about whistle-blowing cop Frank Serpico.
* 1974: The Taking of Pelham One Two Three, about a hostage crisis aboard a New York City subway train hijacked by four madmen.
* 1975: Dog Day Afternoon, another Al Pacino classic, about a failed bank heist and how a stand-off between the would-be robber and the police turned into a media sensation.
* 1976: Taxi Driver, featuring Robert DeNiro as a vigilante cab driver disgusted by crime and sleaze and a star turn by a very young Jodie Foster.

New York being New York, its fictions took many forms, some of them more experimental and less commercial than others. The best recent film I saw on the city in this period was the documentary Blank City, about No Wave film and the Cinema of Transgression in the East Village and Tribeca in the late 1970s and early 1980s -- the front-end of the Koch era. The trailer gives you a sense of the urban backdrop of the day, as well as some marvelous images of Blondie before she was a singer. It's very much worth seeing:

Koch's first term also saw The Warriors (1979), a fantasia about a gang from Coney Island trying to make it home from the Bronx after a gangland convention went awry and the rest of the city's thugs -- and police -- went on a manhunt for them.

The famous "come out to play-aay" fight scene set-up gives perhaps a better sense of the film than its own historic trailer.

Uptown, the same year, we got Woody Allen's more genteel Manhattan, with Diane Keaton. From the voice-over in the trailer: "Chapter One: He adored New York City. He idolized it all out of proportion. No, make that, he, he romanticized it all out of proportion. (Better.) ....Let me start this over. Chapter One: He was as tough and romantic as the city he loved. Behind his black-rimmed glasses was the coiled sexual power of a jungle cat. (I love this.) New York was his town, and it always would be."

But the fears of the 1970s didn't dissipate easily, leading to 1981's Escape from New York, a dystopian fantasy about what the city would be like in 1997 -- "the high adventure of the future" imagined New York as a maximum security prison surrounded by mined bridges. In reality, it was the year Giuliani was re-elected to office, defeating Manhattan Borough President Ruth Messinger.

By 1984, the public image of the New York City was coming around, leading to films centered around dreams of making it in the city, such as The Pope of Greenwich Village:

But the city repaired itself unevenly. Across town we had 1984's Alphabet City -- which had a darker, 1970s feel.

Toward the end of Reagan's second term, 1987's Wall Street examined the pathologies of the new money culture through the character of Gordon Gekko, who famously said, "Greed, for lack of a better word, is good."

Based on brat pack writer Jay McInerney's 1984 novel of the same name, Bright Lights, Big City took a look at young love -- and loss -- in the city in 1988:

Working Girl, with Melanie Griffith, Harrison Ford, Sigourney Weaver, and about a million giant shoulderpads and pussy-bow blouses, in 1988 looked at a new kind of female character in town:

And brat pack writer Tama Janowitz saw her 1986 collection of short stories Slaves of New York adapted into an 1989 Hollywood tale of love, art and real estate in the East Village and Lower East Side. (Apparently bed bugs have replaced fleas since then, but New Yorkers have always been at war with the vermin.)

The East Village bohemia of Slaves of New York is a world better represented in Maripol's Downtown 81 (you can watch the whole thing on YouTube), starring a 19-year-old Jean Michel Basquiat, which was only recently released despite being filmed decades ago. It's very documentary about the scene, even if only loosely organized about a narrative.

The Bonfire of the Vanities was very much a part of the story of Koch's New York and the conflict between new money and settled-in decline, though released in 1990:

The opening shot is celebrated for being an amazing tracking shot, but it's also notable to a contemporary viewer for its extravagant celebration of a writer as a personality -- something which now seems as antique as the mutton-sleeve arms on those '80s dresses.

Metropolitan, released in 1990 about the fading world of Upper East Side debutantes, was also part of Ed Koch's New York. I know because one of the big dinner scenes was filmed in City Hall after hours, I'm pretty sure in the late fall or winter of 1989. (I was assistant wardrobe mistress on the film and recently discovered in my archives a giant stack of black and white photos of that night's scenes, at any rate. No idea why I have them -- I suspect they were unused promotional stills.)

But perhaps the last word should go to the mayor. He died on the same day a documentary of his life is set to open in New York. Titled, simply, Koch, Neil Barsky's documentary is something I now can't wait to see.


Update: Obviously, this is not an exhaustive list, so please do add your own favorites and recommendations in the comments.