Escape from New York is one of the few box office successes of John Carpenter (although it was a low budget film, costing just 6 million dollars of the time). Despite being very young when he made it, the director rose to fame with Halloween (1978), which he directed two years after his splendid Assault on Precinct 13, while his 1980 movie, The Fog, didn’t impress much (although I personally adore it).
With Escape from New York, John Carpenter continued developing his typical themes already seen in Assault by making another movie with an anti-hero protagonist and where he used all possible opportunities to mock authority and the established order. Kurt Russell (the two met when working on the TV movie Elvis two years earlier) is Snake Plissken, a criminal and former war hero, who’s sent to the maximum security prison of Manhattan to save the US president who got stranded there after a plane crash. The film is set in the future (1997!) and the whole of Manhattan is a prison. Also, the US President is interpreted by the great British (!) actor Donald Pleasence, that is Dr. Loomis in Halloween, so as to maximize his cynicism and stupidity. If this seems ludicrous to you, wait for what comes next: Snake has only 24 hours to save the President, as explained by the ruthless director of the prison played by Lee Van Cleef. I’m sure that Carpenter felt honored to direct him, given his passion for western movies (in fact, there are many western elements in this film). However, due to budget limitations, Carpenter had to do his best to shoot all the Lee Van Cleef’s scenes in just one day! If you pay attention, some of those scenes are out of focus, but Carpenter didn’t have the chance to re-shoot them because Van Cleef was no longer available! But I’ve already started with the anecdotes rather than going straight t the point!
Let’s get to it: this film is not only a cult movie, but it’s also a true masterpiece! Snake is an unforgettable character: not bothered by what’s going on around him, he goes straight towards his objective and follows his own personal moral code that makes him coherent, but at the same time absolutely antisocial. In his mission, he meets various other noteworthy characters: the aforementioned director Hauk (Van Cleef) with whom Snake establishes an amazing relationship of mutual esteem despite being antagonists, Brain (the late Harry Dean Stanton) and Maggie (the then wife of Carpenter, Adrienne Barbeau, already seen in The Fog), the taxi driver Cabbie (Ernest Borgnine), and above all the completely schizoid Duke of New York interpreted by Isaac Hayes who then would have been Chef’s voice in the first seasons of South Park. All these characters are surprised to see that Snake’s alive and all speak the same line of dialogue: “I thought you were dead!“, a bit like Napoleon Wilson who in Assault on Precinct 13 asked everyone: “Got a smoke?“.
The totally deviated New York society isolated from the rest of the United States is the most typical post-apocalyptic society, but it should be said that this movie helped define the typical post-apocalyptic society itself (together with other great movies like the Mad Max by George Miller). But it wouldn’t be a Carpenter’s movie if the criminals in Manhattan were not at all worse than the authorities who kept them locked in. The prison guards led by Hauk use Plissken as an object rather than a human being and the US President and his colleagues are organizing a World War with nuclear weapons!
And what about the amazing soundtrack composed by Carpenter himself (who’s also screenwriter together with his friend Nick Castle)? The initial theme, then reused in several occasions during the film, is simply fantastic, so memorable! Even the special effects are remarkable and 100% practical. For example, there are impressive matte paintings (a young James Cameron worked on those) to trick the viewer into believing that the whole movie was shot in New York even though only the helicopter scene on Liberty Island was actually filmed there!
In short, let’s face it, this film not only had all the elements to prove that Carpenter was a master of cinematic art, which is undeniable, but it also had all the elements to make him a Hollywood outcast due to the strong social commentary and satire and the rejection of all mainstream schemes. You won’t find a spotless and fearless hero who defeats the villain and conquers the beautiful lady here! The following year, the Hollywood establishment exploited the criticisms of The Thing to begin marginalizing the director and make him less “harmful” (this happened to other intelligent and heterodox directors like George Romero and Terry Gilliam, for example). But that’s another story.
What else to say about Escape from New York? It’s certainly an adventure / science fiction movie, but it also creates a lot of atmosphere thanks to a spectacular cinematography that masterfully uses the city’s artificial lights to create a unique visual style, taking advantage of a story that takes place entirely at night. With its mostly whispered dialogues, it almost feels like a noir!
Finally, I highly recommend buying the DVD of this film for the cut scenes (such as the bank robbery that ended badly for Snake) and for the commentary by Kurt Russell and John Carpenter telling anecdotes about the making of the movie, really unmissable! A great Bluray edition has recently come out but I still haven’t bought it, apparently there’s additional content… but let me stop here. If you haven’t seen Escape from New York, I hope I gave you some reasons to do so. If you’ve seen it already, I hope I’ve given you some interesting food for thought. Ciao!
PS: no, I didn’t forget that in 1997 Carpenter directed a sequel, Escape from Los Angeles. Sooner or later I will also write about that one…