Note From the Margins




Escape From New York


I watched John Carpenter’s 1981 ‘Escape From New York’ last week for the first time in many years, possibly since the early 80’s. When I saw it as a kid, I thought it was the coolest: a whole city abandoned and converted into a prison, oddball criminals carving out a post-apocalyptic world in the ruins. The landmarks I knew only through movies and TV shows: the World Trade Center, Grand Central Station, Radio City Music Hall, Central Park, transformed into a wrestling arena, a gangster headquarters, a den of rape, violence, horror. New York was synonymous with crime then, with whole neighborhoods abandoned and put to the torch, so it wasn’t such a stretch to believe that it would be rendered uninhabitable by all but the worst criminals. But even then, it wasn’t really a frightening film: the characters weren’t quite real, and the dystopian Manhattan felt more like a video game.

The plot: Snake Plisken (Kurt Russell) is a former war hero turned fugitive about to be shipped to Manhattan after attempting to rob the Federal Reserve. The year is 1997, 10 years after Manattan was declared a maximum security prison (following a 400% spike in crime across the US). In Manhattan: “There are no guards inside the prison, only prisoners, and the worlds they have made. The rules are simple: once you go in, you don’t come out.” The President’s plane has been hijacked by lefty terrorists (remember them?), and the President has escaped in a pod. Snake is recruited to get him out.

The film starts off strong, with shots of a darkened Manhattan across the water, then Snake Plisken (Kurt Russell) soaring in on the power glider, swooping silently over the abandoned streets, up to the top of the silent Twin Towers. That moment of tension is intense: looking down on those familiar streets, wondering what lives there. There’s even a hint of menace when a solitary figure runs across the background, as Snake descends by foot through the Tower after catching a service elevator to the 50th floor. On ground level, he wanders, gun aloft, past boarded up warehouse buildings in what should be Tribeca, to the site of the crashed plane, still smoldering in the middle of what could be Delancey.

From there, the film descends rapidly into farce. In a theatre, Snake witnesses a musical, performed by prisoners in raggedy drag, and meets ‘Cabby’ (played by Ernest Borgnine). It is unclear whether Cabby is a criminal, or somehow left over from New York’s other life. Soon, Snake is caught in an attack by the ‘crazies’, cannibals who live in the subways and come above ground once a month to ‘feed’. In the back of a ‘Chock Full O’ Nuts’, he meets a woman prisoner with surprisingly well-coifed 80’s hair (all the ‘prisoners’ seem to have great hair – even in the Apocalypse, New York remains fashion conscious), but the first very faint hints of romance disappear abruptly when the girl is kidnapped and presumably eaten by the crazies. Snake runs for his life, saved by Cabby in a 70’s style yellow cab, complete with heavy grilles over the windows, who tells him, with remarkable understatement: “This is a rough neighborhood, Snake, you don’t want to be caught down here. I just came down ’cause I wanted to catch the show!”

From there, Snake has to rescue the President from the “A-Number-One, Duke of New York” (played with impressive gravitas by Isaac Hayes). He meets his old friend and nemesis, Brain (Harry Dean Stanton), whose girlfriend also has a perfect 80’s perm, in the basement of the New York Public Library, sets out to rescue the President from one of the abandoned railway cars in Grand Central Station, battle a monster cage fight in what looks like the Great Hall of the Met, before dashing over the 69th street bridge with Brain, Cabby and the President, the Duke giving chase.

The main character of course is the city, yet Manhattan remains curiously out of focus. After I’d watched the film again, I read that it was actually filmed in East St. Louis, which had recently been leveled by a fire, and this explains why a lot of the backdrops are never quite recognizable. The film could have been menacing, but no characters are developed enough, and of course everyone has that great hair, as if the inmates managed to maintain hair salons, even amidst the worst depravity. Even the graffiti is curiously family friendly (“BRICKS”, “Don’t fool with Nico Hext!”) As a period piece, it’s pretty rich: the inmates affect many fashions: Early 80’s New Wave clubber, biker, psycho, drugged-out hippy, black and Puerto Rican street dude. Some of the hippies even wear outsized, purple plastic sunglass rims. Casting this thing must have been a blast.

‘Escape’ has much in common with ‘The Warriors’, including the time period, the vision of a post-Apocalyptic New York, and some memorable scenes. But the Warriors is far more compelling – even realistic. Kurt Russell’s ‘Snake’ is so flat, uninteresting – we are never told why a war hero became a fugitive worthy of being shipped to the worst prison in the nation, and Snake goes through no change of character, no moment of vulnerability even. As soon as I’d watched the film, I’d pretty much forgotten it.

Maybe not that vision of a great city abandoned. Somehow, even if it was out of focus, that still rings true. I wonder how many people who’d lived in New York in the golden mid-century era, felt something similar when they came back after the great hollowing out of the 70’s and 80’s. Having been to Detroit, and coming from a town that has more or less been abandoned, I can recognize that it happens.

But who would have guessed that Manhattan would indeed become a gated community – but for the rich? It’s almost like ‘Escape’ in reverse.

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  • Bucko

    I snorted seltzer out my nose reading this (painful) it was so funny. The weird dry-ice world of apocalyptic New York, where they all have great hair and great nicknames. They don’t make movies like this anymore. This also informed my vision of New York. Totally why I moved here. OK, maybe not…

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  • cityofstrangers

    Hi Bucko,

    Ha! Hope your nose has recovered. Yeah, it really is a period piece – I’d forgotten we actually took this film half-seriously when it came out. Great hair and nicknames, dry ice – NY as a really cool, if kind of heavy nightclub. I’m sure for many people, desolation was part of the attraction of NY and all places like it. Yes, if only life was sort of like this . . .


  • Alex in NYC

    If I’m not mistaken, the lion’s share of “Escape…” was actually filmed in — wait for it — St. Louis.

    • cityofstrangers


      That’s right – I mention it about halfway down the post. I didn’t find that out until after I’d watched the film again and puzzled through why I didn’t quite recognize anywhere in the film, not even what I thought was Grand Central. Carpenter didn’t have enough money to film on location in NY, so he went to St. Louis, which had just suffered a devastating fire that basically wiped out entire neighborhoods. Lots of grand, empty buildings around as well. I can understand why he did it, but it still gives the film an oddly removed feel if you know New York. Nowadays of course, they could just recreate it with CGI. I’m not sure which is better . . .


  • Thomas Jefferson

    I’m surprised no one has continued the story or built up a new on in graphic comic book form.

  • cityofstrangers

    Hi – I believe there was an ‘escape from LA’, and there is definitely a video game based on the film (perfect setting right?). Why no sequel? Hmmm . . . good question.


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  • rj

    you have east st louis and st louis confused. east st louis is in illinois and st louis is in missouri – two different municipalities. the fires were in east st louis, but very, very little of the shooting occurred on that side of the river. st louis is where the majority of the film was shot, selected because carpenter was looking for the worst city in america.

    ultimately, the film is not about new york. it is about st louis and how representation disavows real issues (and real places) for the promise of entertainment. st louis had lost 300,000 residents when the crews came around – since 1950 the city has lost about 600,000.

    • rj

      there were fires in st louis: – though most was filmed in missouri. in fact, chain of rocks bridge – now part of a metro bike trail system – was purchased by the production crew for $1 for filming and then sold to the city for $1.

    • COS

      Quite possible – I’ve never been to St. Louis and, as a furriner, don’t know a lot of this country outside of NYC. That is amazing about St. Louis though, I’d heard that parts of the city were pretty desolate, but didn’t know the city had lost so much of its population. What was the cause? It seems St. Louis was a forerunner to Detroit and Buffalo (and Gary, Ind. And Cleveland. And Trenton. And . . . ), what New York could have become if things had turned out differently.

      I confess I was a little disappointed to find out ‘Escape from New York’ was really ‘Escape from St. Louis’. I am fascinated by apocalyptic scenarios and places – aren’t most people – but it amazes me a little bit that this wholescale abandonment of American cities has gone so little remarked. Sure, we talk about ‘the rust belt’, urban sprawl etc, but no one seems to question why a culture that put so much energy into building these cities, then just forget about them. I thought of that often walking around Detroit a couple of years ago.

      Thanks for the link – I’d never heard of this fire. Amazing.

      Interesting site btw – keep up the good work.