Apparently, I should have chosen 1981 for my Summer Movie Season debate claim from the Lambcast a couple of weeks ago. After all, 1981 had “An American Werewolf in London”, “Raiders of the Lost Ark”, “Superman II” and this film, the one that turned Kurt Russell from a Disney kid into an action star. I saw “Escape From New York” in the Summer of 1981 at the El Rey Theater on Main Street in my hometown of Alhambra California. I’d been married for a year and I had summer off between semesters, while my poor wife had to work, so I saw this at a matinee by myself. I had to take her to see it the next week, because I knew she would love it, and sure enough, she fell completely for Kurt Russell.
This was a low budget film that made the most of every dollar they had to spend. John Carpenter was a viable director after his success with “Halloween” and he had made a TV biopic about Elvis with Kurt Russell, so it feels a little inevitable that they would work together in a completely original project. The premise is a simple one, Manhattan has been turned into a maximum security prison, where the convicts are dumped to make out the best they can. In the middle of an international crisis, the President’s plane goes down in the area, and someone has to go in and recover him and the McGuffin he in possession of. Former military hero, now convict Snake Plissken, is given the job as a way of gaining his freedom.
Russell does his best Clint Eastwood impression throughout the film, and that makes sense because when Carpenter originally wrote the screenplay years earlier, he had envisioned Eastwood in the part. Snake is an anti-authoritarian, like John Carpenter himself, so the movie is full of middle fingers extended toward the government, convention, and anything else that was pissing off the director at the time. Russell plays Snake as a sullen outsider, who wisely trusts no one and is a lot more of a strategic thinker than he is given credit for. He snarls and growls his way through the plot, remaining cool in the face of every obstacle he ends up against.
The action scenes are not complicated but they are fun. As Snake tries to get away from a swarm of crazies at one point, he uses his weapon to improvise a door through a wall. It’s a terrific looking action piece and emblematic of the kinds of creative moments Carpenter brings to the film. I combat sequence in a boxing ring is brutal without getting as gory as it would be if this film were made today. The nihilism evinced by Snake is downright compelling, even if it runs contrary to the world’s best interest. He is so indifferent that he even puts off a moment of personal revenge because he is tired. His final FU to the whole affair is completely fitting with the character and the semi-dystopian world that all of the characters are operating in.
Four years ago, we got to see the movie at the TCM Film Festival, with both Carpenter and Russel in attendance.
I’d been a fan of the TV critics Siskel and Ebert since I’d discovered their show on PBS a couple of years before this film came out. While putting this post together I came across their reviews for this film, and if you have a few minutes you can watch it here:
As much as I respected Roger Ebert, I usually found myself on the same side of the equation as Gene Siskel. This may have been the tipping point for me way back in 1981, and lasting until Siskel’s death in 1999.
Last night’s screening was presented by Austin based film maker Robert Rodriguez. Before the movie screened he did a brief introduction and he surveyed the house on the number of people seeing the movie for the first time, for the first time on the big screen, and who had seen it in theaters in 1981. A couple people up front were given some nice gifts, one of which were some personal sketches done for the film and signed to Rodriguez by production designer Joe Alves (the production designer of Jaws also). He shared a bit about his personal relationship to the movie, and how he came to be acquainted with Carpenter and worked with Kurt Russell on “Grindhouse”. He promised a few stories after the film as well.
The most amusing one involved Kurt Russell. Rodriguez was showing off his love of “Escape From New York” to Russell when they were together one time by showing that the wallpaper on his phone was an image of Snake Plissken. Russell responded by getting out his own i-phone, fumbling with it for a minute and then asking Suri “Who am I” , to which Suri replied, “You are Snake Plissken”. Kurt laughed and said, I’m the only one in the world who can do that.