ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK (1981)
ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK: THE GAME box cover artwork
Production: LARRY FRANCO and DEBRA HILL for Avco Embassy
Direction: JOHN CARPENTER
Screenplay: JOHN CARPENTER and NICK CASTLE
Cinematography: DEAN CUNDEY
Editing: TODD RAMSAY
Art Direction: JOE ALVES
Music: JOHN CARPENTER and ALAN HOWARTH
MPAA Rating: R
Running Time: 99 minutes
KURT RUSSELL.....Snake Plissken
LEE VAN CLEEF.....Bob Hauk
DONALD PLEASENCE.....President of the United States
ISAAC HAYES.....The Duke of New York
SEASON HUBLEY.....Girl in Chock Full O'Nuts
HARRY DEAN STANTON.....Brain
ESSAY BY PAT H. BROESKE
In terms of inventive plot, few 1981 films can match Escape from New York, a dark futuristic tale in which Manhattan has become the country's maximum security prison. The year is 1997, the crime rate has risen a staggering 400 percent, and, as a result, prison life affords few options. As the opening narration succinctly reveals, "There are no guards inside the prison. Only prisoners and the world they made." As for prison rules, they are exceedingly simple---and chilling: "Once you go in, you don't come out." In Escape from New York, however, one-eyed Snake Plissken (Kurt Russell) must do just that. A former war hero turned master criminal, he has been assigned to rescue the President of the United States, whose plane has crashed within the walled city of New York. At stake is the very future of global peace, because in the President's possession is a tape cassette which must be played at a world summit meeting, to be held in twenty-four hours. For Snake, the mission also carries a life or death sentence; he has been injected with microscopic capsules that carry explosives, and they will detonate within twenty-four hours.
As one of the year's top grossing films, Escape from New York gained much critical attention for its writer-director John Carpenter, who "slashed" his way to notoriety with the milestone horror film, Halloween (1978). With its cynical premise, including bleak futuristic overtones, and its New Wave and Punk nuances (evident in costuming and hairstyles), it was especially popular with the so-called "youth market," including science-fiction and horror-genre enthusiasts. Further, the film is full of "camp" elements, including the casting, which finds one-time Disney child star Kurt Russell obliterating his all-American boy image with his portrayal of the surly, unshaven Snake. Delivered in a laconic, clenched-jaw style, the Russell performance purposefully mimics those of Clint Eastwood. In the same satirical vein is the film's casting of Lee Van Cleef, costar of Eastwood's famed "spaghetti" Westerns, as Snake's antagonist, Bob Hauk, the crafty police commissioner.
Directed in Carpenter's terse, no-nonsense mode, Escape from New York comes at the screen rapid-fire, with few embellishments. Although tucked between the frames are hints of character development, as well as ideology, it is always action first. Opening with an eerie vista of a nighttime New York skyline---without lights, since there is no electricity within the walls---the film reveals the prison's grim realities as two prisoners, attempting escape by raft, are immediately blown up by a hovering helicopter, which was dispatched by an outside tower. Snake Plissken's (Kurt Russell) arrival at the debarkation center is equally grim. As he is led, handcuffed, down stark hallways, an omnipresent voice from a speaker system matter-of-factly drones, "You now have the option to terminate and be cremated on the premises...."
Snake's processing for departure to prison is interrupted when Air Force One, carrying the President (Donald Pleasence), is hijacked. Before the soldiers of the "National Liberation Front of America" can successfully crash the plane into a New York skyscraper, the President handcuffs his briefcase to his wrist and climbs into a special escape pod which is ejected from the plane before the crash.
Tracing the pod's journey via a computerized scanning system, Police Commissioner Bob Hauk (Lee Van Cleef) quickly boards a helicopter, which lands briefly in Manhattan. There, a zombie-like emissary who sports a bizarre laugh and a disquieting presence (he has a glassy eyed hostility, and a shock of hair which sticks straight up), presents Hauk with the President's severed finger, and the demand that he leave immediately---or the President will be murdered. Hauk has no choice but to return to the debarkation center, where he summons Snake to his office.
The meeting between the two men provides the only clues to Snake's dark personality; it also shows a thread of similarity between the two. Both served in "the wars," and each, in a sense, has the look of a futuristic pirate. The long-haired Snake has a black patch over his left eye; Hauk wears a gold earring through his left ear. It is Snake, however, who is the most intriguing. Once a war hero, he received Purple Hearts for missions in Leningrad and Siberia, and was the youngest man ever to be decorated by the President. Then he turned to crime, finally drawing a life sentence for the robbery of a Federal Reserve Depository. If he appears coolly unruffled by the prospects of prison, Snake does not hide his interest when Hauk proposes a deal. If he will bring the President, and the tape cassette, out of New York within twenty-four hours, he will get a full pardon. To guard against the possibility that Snake will take the escape plane to Canada (and freedom), Hauk has him injected with the deadly capsules. If he succeeds in rescuing the President within the allotted twenty-four hours, the charges can be neutralized with X-rays.
The film's most riveting moments are set within the confines of New York City. Morality is completely gone in Manhattan; criminals and "crazies" rule, and only the strong survive. Thus, as Snake warily makes his way down darkened streets, he is haunted by fleeting shadows and the remnants of a civilization gone mad. Cars have been overturned and set on fire; garbage and graffiti are everywhere; and people brutally prey upon one another. Making his way downstairs in a dilapidated theater, Snake pauses briefly to stare at a woman being gang-raped. Later, in a gutted building that once was a Chock Full O'Nuts coffee shop, he meets a woman (Season Hubley) who is about to offer herself to him---in exchange for transport out of New York. The encounter ends when "crazies" beneath the floorboards pull the screaming woman downwards.
Tracing the President by signals from a special vital signs bracelet which he wears, Snake's nighttime odyssey pits him against the fearsome Duke of New York (Isaac Hayes), undisputed kingpin of the city. The Duke and his followers are holding the President hostage, unaware that any demands they might have will be pointless within twenty-four hours. In carrying out his mission, Snake enlists the aid of several reluctant allies, including Cabbie (Ernest Borgnine), Brain (Harry Dean Stanton), and Maggie (Adrienne Barbeau), who is identified as Brain's "squeeze" and a gift from the Duke.
Before they attempt to spirit the President across the 69th Street Bridge, which has been mined to make escape impossible, Snake goes through a series of adventures. Betrayed by Brain (who later changes sides), he is turned over to the Duke, shot in the leg with an arrow, and beaten unconscious. When he awakens, he is led to a bloody boxing ring where he must do battle, gladiator-style, with a hulking opponent. Their weapons are nail-filled baseball bats, and Snake is able to drive his into his opponent's head, to the delight of the screaming crowd. Once the battle ends, Snake is able to escape to the streets, where he is reunited with Brain and Maggie, who have the petrified President and the good-natured Cabbie in tow. A taxi driver for thirty years (with a penchant for listening to big band sounds on his car's cassette player), Cabbie persistently turns up throughout the film when Snake, whom he admires, needs him most. While crossing the mined bridge, though, Cabbie's car is torn in half, and Cabbie dies instantly, leaving the others to run on foot. When Brain also triggers a mine and meets his death, Maggie reaches for Snake's gun. No longer interested in escape, she stands on the bridge, awaiting the inevitable arrival of the Duke. Yet despite her bullets, he successfully runs her down, and reaches Snake at the wall, just as the President is being pulled to freedom. The two criminals engage in brutal hand-to-hand combat, with Snake getting the worst of it. Just as the Duke is reaching for his gun to finish off his adversary, however, he is shot by a near-hysterical President, screaming from atop the wall. After being pulled to safety, Snake immediately submits to the neutralization of the detonating devices. Afterward, he looks at his watch, which shows only two seconds to spare.
A tired, angry Snake is then approached by Hauk, who has other projects in mind. "We'd make one hell of a team," he tells an incredulous Snake, who walks away without acknowledging the offer. The President, meanwhile, is being made up for a television broadcast, at which he will play the critical cassette which was retrieved by Snake for the summit conference. In the aftermath of the violent rescue mission, Snake wryly observes the transformation of the once-trembling kidnap victim to self-assured bureaucrat. He tries to talk to the President, but is told that air time is approaching. As he trudges dejectedly away, the President steps before the cameras and states "I present this in the hope that our great nations may learn to live in peace." He then inserts the cassette into a player, but instead of stern words about nuclear war, the tape carries only a selection of big band music. In the distance, Snake, who has obviously switched the President's tape with Cabbie's, casually unravels the tape once considered so vital to world peace. On that cynical note, the film comes to an end.
At the time of its release, Escape from New York which was budgeted at seven million dollars, was Carpenter's most ambitious project (Halloween was filmed for $320,000). Much of the film's striking futuristic look is the result of the shrewd work of art director Joe Alves, who utilized locations in St. Louis, New York, and Los Angeles, as well as miniature sets. As with any science-fiction film, one of the film's highlights is its vision of the future; in the case of Escape from New York, that vision entails a look at the World Trade Center (Snake's special escape plane lands on top of it), as well as a crumbling Madison Square Garden, where the gladiator bout is staged.
Escape from New York was actually the first film project to be written by Carpenter since his days at the University of Southern California, where he became involved with The Resurrection of Bronco Billy (1970) and the Midnight Circuit favorite, Dark Star (1974), but it was not made until Carpenter had established himself as a critically acclaimed genre director, notably with Halloween and The Fog (1980). When he finally returned to Escape from New York, it was with USC friend Nick Castle (who portrayed the Shape, the killer of Halloween), as cowriter. Produced by Debra Hill, who has teamed with Carpenter for all of his major projects, the film's cast includes performers who have frequently worked with Carpenter. In fact, Russell followed his portrayal of Snake Plissken with the role of MacReady, the reluctant hero of Carpenter's The Thing (1982). Adrienne Barbeau, Mrs. John Carpenter, is invariably in her husband's films.
Like most films by Carpenter, Escape from New York has a driving single-mindedness which, along with the feeling that the film's premise was actually more invigorating than its production, caused some critical dismay. The film was mostly praised, however, as was Russell's performance, which borrowed heavily from the smug style of Clint Eastwood's early works.
As for the character of Snake, both Russell and Carpenter feel he is unique among movie antiheroes, because he is never redeemed. That was a conscious understanding between actor and filmmaker, says Russell, who has explained,
We knew we were taking a chance. After all, if audiences didn't like the character, they wouldn't like the film....Every other movie anti-hero does a turn-around. Not Snake. He never helps a kid, or saves a woman. He's a one-dimensional machine of destruction.
Carpenter himself has said that he made Escape from New York in order to present "an extremely black comedy, reflecting my very dim, cynical view of life." That view, he says, usually takes the form of finding people trapped---with evil encircling them. "My feeling," Carpenter explains,
is that evil never goes away. You never can kill it, you can't destroy it, you can never have a definitive ending to it....What makes the films interesting is the fact that the people trapped in the situations bind together to protect themselves--and win. They try to win, and I think this is the way I see life. The only salvation is to fight against the things that plunge you to self-destruction....It is a fight. So you can take it as a metaphor for life.
Metaphors aside, Carpenter's works also often pay homage---sometimes humorously---to filmmakers who have influenced him. In Escape from New York, the Duke's zombie-like messenger is named Romero---a salute to George A. Romero, whose 1968 film, Night of the Living Dead, unleashed a plague of zombies. The doctor who injects Snake is named Cronenberg---a nod to Canadian filmmaker David Cronenberg, whose film Scanners (1981) involved a number of persons who (like Snake) had been triggered to explode.
With Alan Howarth, the versatile Carpenter also composed the gyrating score for Escape from New York. He is now at work on his latest production, Firestarter (based on the best-selling novel by horror master Stephen King), following his recent poorly received remake of The Thing.
From MAGILL'S SURVEY OF CINEMA.
Essay © 1982 SALEM PRESS. All Rights Reserved.
Box cover artwork courtesy of Tom Ericksen
Box cover artwork is the property of its respective owner.
Title and logo designed by Karen Rappaport
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