Fun City (Pt. 3): Urban Horror/Fables of Racial Tension
Program notes for Rosemary's Baby, Little Murders, The Landlord, and The Angel Levine
This is part of a series of articles by J. Hoberman about the film series Fun City: New York in the Movies 1966-1974,
which he curated for Museum of the Moving Image. The series runs from
August 10 through September 1, 2013. Articles about all of the films in
the series will be posted in the coming weeks. See the series schedule.
Read the series introduction here.
Read program notes about You're a Big Boy Now, Cotton Comes to Harlem, Norman Mailer vs. Fun City, Bye Bye Braverman, and Serpico (part 2) here.
Saturday, August 17: URBAN HORROR
Rosemary's Baby. Written and directed by Roman Polanski, adapted from the novel by Ira Levin. Produced by William Castle. Released by Paramount Pictures. Opened at the Criterion and Loew’s Tower East, June 12, 1968.
Little Murders. Directed by Alan Arkin. Written by Jules Feiffer, adapted from his play. Produced by Jack Brodsky. Released by Twentieth Century-Fox. Opened at the Beekman Theater, February 9, 1971.
“It is almost too extremely plausible. The quality of the young people's lives seems the quality of lives that one knows, even to the point of finding old people next door to avoid...”—Renata Adler, The New York Times, June 13, 1968.
Polanski milked maximum atmosphere out of a two-week location shoot, turning
the stately old Dakota on 72nd Street and Central Park West (“as likely
a place for horrors as any” per Renata Adler) into Manhattan’s most infamous apartment house. New
York street guy John Cassavetes plays as an extremely sketchy Broadway actor
with naïve Mia Farrow as his pregnant bride, and Oscar-winning Ruth Gordon as
the hilariously sinister character next door.
Rosemary’s Baby established Polanski as one of the few Hollywood filmmakers since the heyday of Val Lewton to construct a horror film almost entirely around the power of suggestion. Indeed, Rosemary’s Baby is a worthy successor to The Seventh Victim, Lewton’s 1943 tale of another Manhattan witch coven. Making his first American movie, Polanski evoked New York as a cold, uncanny city—all the more so in The New York Times critic Renata Adler’s view thanks to the normality of this urban anxiety.
More than the power of evil, Rosemary’s Baby evokes the sense of being alone in the crowd, the unease or even dread engendered by the condition of living in close proximity and relative isolation among countless strangers amid vastly different mental worlds—a theme that the filmmaker would refine some years later in his Paris-set psychodrama, The Tenant. Manhattan breeds paranoia. Polanski gets most of his frissons from the uncanny quality of empty apartments and the strange sounds emanating from the neighboring flat. Phone booths do not bring people together but only isolate potential victims. Television only add to the sense of alienation, as when the movie emphasizes Rosemary’s spiritual solitude by incorporating televised news accounts of Pope Paul’s appearance at Yankee Stadium.
Despite the presence of the pope,
as well as Rosemary’s ringing declaration, “I won’t have an abortion” (possibly
the first and certainly one of the very few times the a-word was used in a
studio film), the National Catholic Office for Motion Pictures, formerly known
as the Legion of Decency, condemned the movie. To see Rosemary’s Baby—and dwell, for a time, in Manhattan’s fallen world—was
to commit a venal sin.
“New York is a cesspool of apathy, hostility, fear, insanity and filth—and anyone who doesn’t know is either retarded, a millionaire who goes everywhere in chauffeured limousines or a leader of the Mafia. I saw Little Murders in the Twentieth Century Fox screening room in the middle of Hell’s Kitchen. When it was over, I walked hurriedly to Eighth Avenue fearing the possibility of being stabbed from one of any number of sinister doorways littered with garbage and junkies, took a subway on which a man lay face down on the floor moaning and bleeding while everyone stepped over the body, entered my apartment building (where my doorman was murdered a few years ago), climbed the stairs (because the elevator wasn’t working), and discovered all the telephones out of order. I’m not kidding. And that’s why Little Murders is not funny. It’s us. It’s now. It’s New York.”—Rex Reed, Daily News, February 12, 1971.
The devil that is spawned in Rosemary’s Baby might be ruling the infernal New York of Alan Arkin’s Little Murders, another sort of urban horror movie adapted by Village Voice cartoonist Jules Feiffer from his stage play.
Feiffer’s caustic—or perhaps toxic—comedy ran less than a week when it opened on Broadway in April 1967; it went on to be the hit of the year in London and a smash when revived, under Arkin’s direction, off-Broadway in 1969. The movie was co-produced by its star, erstwhile Brooklyn chorus boy Elliott Gould recreating his Broadway role as the affectless personification of New York apathy; that it was originally to be directed by Jean Luc Godard gives some idea of its worldview.
Little Murders is not only the most nightmarish of New York movies but so bleak in its worldview and extreme in its satire that it might almost have been made to be shown at midnight—although never violating the canons of Hollywood taste, save perhaps in the intensity of stage actress Marcia Rodd’s turn as what, The New York Times reviewer Roger Greenspun called “the very spirit of indomitable New York”—the film has moments that approach the blasphemy of Pink Flamingos, the situation comedy of Eraserhead and an apocalyptic mise en scène to rival Night of the Living Dead. (Another sign of the times: Little Murders opened a few weeks after the echt white ethnic New Yorker Archie Bunker made his television debut.)
Although is mainly shot in interiors, Little Murders’s relatively few location sequences are all chosen to accentuate Manhattan’s dilapidation and indifference. As confrontational as the Arkin-Feiffer worldview was, New York critics could not fail to take the movie personally. As noted by Vincent Canby in a Sunday think piece, “Frustration and rage and so much a part of New York life and Little Murders is so much a New York movie that I’m curious as to how it will be accepted in towns and cities where the fight for territory is somewhat less constant, less vicious.”
Sunday, August 18: FABLES OF RACIAL TENSION
The Landlord. Directed by Hal Ashby. Written by William Gunn, adapted from the novel by Kristin Hunter. Produced by Norman Jewison. Released by United Artists. Opened at the Coronet Theater, May 20, 1970.
The Angel Levine. Directed by Jan Kadar. Written by William Gunn and Ronald Ribman, adapted from the short story by Bernard Malamud. Produced by Chris Schultz. Released by United Artists. Opened at the Little Carnegie Theater, July 28, 1970.
“However you react to The Landlord, prepare to be haunted.”—Howard Thompson, The New York Times, May 21, 1970.
An indolent Westchester princeling (Beau Bridges) purchases a row house on a street in a then-Black brownstone Brooklyn neighborhood. Hal Ashby’s first feature, directed from the actor William Gunn’s adaptation of Kristin Hunter’s novel, is among the funniest social comedies of the period. The hero establishes a brief, bittersweet rapport with his hustling, scuffling, half-crazed tenants—even learning something about race and what would be called “gentrification,” before retreating back into his money and privilege.
This mock bildungsroman, at once
broad and nuanced in its characterization of a young man’s coming of age in a
city roiling with ethnic conflict, can be seen as an older, wiser remake of You’re a Big Boy Now or perhaps a
jaundiced metaphor for the Lindsay administration. The Landlord received mixed reviews, in part because of its new
wave shifts in tone from the screwball
antics of Bridge’s idiotic family to the pathos of Diane Sand’s career
performance as the tenant with whom the landlord becomes most involved. Pearl
Bailey is ineffably sly as the building’s resident soothsayer: “How do you
ofays come into owning these rat traps?” she asks the new haut WASP landlord.
“Do you give them to each other for bar mitzvah presents?” Bailey steals every
scene she is in and plays a fantastic two-hander with Lee Grant, as Bridge’s
malevolently ditzy mother.
As the movie’s hero went native so, in a sense, did the production. The Landlord was originally supposed to be shot in Philadelphia, where Kristen Hunter’s novel is set; it would not have been made in Brooklyn without the encouragement of the Mayor’s Office. Filming largely on a single location—51 Prospect Place, off Sixth Avenue, in Park Slope—Ashby attempted to blend his crew into the neighborhood, which was made to look more rundown, mainly by parking a few derelict cars on the block. There were no trailers on the street; the filmmakers rented space on location to use for dressing rooms, equipment storage, and even living. Meanwhile, Pearl Bailey commuted daily from Broadway where she was starring in the all-black production of Hello Dolly.
Pace the grim view of Manhattan’s Upper West Side found in Little Murders, the real gentrification action circa 1970 was not Brooklyn so much as there.
“Kadar’s unfamiliarity with New York
shows. His camera views the city as if it were a tourist unwilling to wander
too far from his hotel. But the spirit is right…”—Paul D. Zimmerman, Newsweek, August 3, 1970.
William Gunn also contributed to the script of The Angel Levine, an even more racially integrated (and haunting) fable of ethnic tension in a New York City tenement, adapted from a 1955 Bernard Malamud story about an elderly Jewish tailor with a dying wife who, having applied for public assistance, is visited instead by a shabby black man identifying himself not only as a Jew named Levine but claiming to be “a bona fide angel of God.”
Intriguingly, an earlier version of the Malamud story had been announced in 1962, with Ossie Davis as the angel and Jack Gilford as the tailor, directed by documentarian Victor Solow from Saul Levitt’s script. The timing, as well as the leftwing personnel, suggests that this unmade Levine would have been a hopeful paean to brotherhood. Not so the movie that was made seven years later—only a few months after the divisive teachers’ strikes that pitted largely black Brooklyn communities against a heavily Jewish union. The Angel Levine is altogether less sanguine and less coherent than Malamud’s story but also, in its way, more realistic.
Harry Belafonte’s company
produced the movie and, anything but shabby, Belafonte plays the title
character as a smoothly assertive ghetto hustler, inadvertently killed while
robbing a store and leaving an embittered common-law wife (Gloria Foster).
Belafonte’s original choice for the downtrodden tailor was Edward G. Robinson
but Robinson’s ill health opened the door for Zero Mostel, who establishes a
touching rapport with the octogenarian Polish Yiddish actress Ida Kaminska. The
director, fresh off the boat, was Czech émigré Jan Kadar, who had directed her in
his Oscar-winning Shop on Main Street.
One of three Czech filmmakers who would make their first American movies in New York City, Kadar was criticized for generally misunderstanding the milieu—and specifically for using a lonely tenement on the Upper East Side as his primary location. On the other hand, perhaps Kadar realized as his reviewers did not that the area around 77th Street and First Avenue had been a Czech neighborhood and certainly, his shooting the movie’s final scene, around the Ethiopian Synagogue in Harlem was a knowing touch.
RELATED CALENDAR ENTRYFun City: New York in the Movies 1967–75
KEYWORDSRoman Polanski | J. Hoberman | Alan Arkin | Hal Ashby | Jan Kadar | Little Murders | The Angel Levine | The Landlord
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Fun City: New York in the Movies 1966-74 (pt. 1) by J. Hoberman
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J. Hoberman is a renowned film critic whose latest book, Film After Film: What Became of 21st Century Cinema, was published by Verso. He was the senior film critic at the Village Voice, and he now writes for numerous publications including Artinfo.net and The Tablet. His writing is aggregated at his website, j-hoberman.com.More articles by J. Hoberman