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Escape From New York

Escape From New York(1981)

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"I have this script in my trunk" is how John Carpenter pitched Escape from New York (1981) to AVCO Embassy Pictures - at least that's how Carpenter tells the story. Two years earlier, the USC-schooled filmmaker and his producing partner Debra Hill had scored an unexpected hit with the proto-slasher Halloween (1978), prompting A-E president Robert Rehme to offer the team a two picture deal. First out of the gate was the seaside ghost story The Fog (1980), with an adaptation of Charles Berlitz and William F. Moore's controversial 1979 (allegedly non-fiction) book The Philadelphia Story: Project Invisibility set to follow. When Carpenter stalled on the adaptation, he pitched Escape from New York to Rehme, who gave the project the green light and got the production rolling in late summer 1980. (The Philadelphia Experiment was passed to director Stuart Raffill and premiered in 1984.) Carpenter had been shopping Escape for years with no interest from the major studios. Early drafts had reflected a mounting national cynicism in the wake of the Watergate scandal and the resignation of disgraced President Richard Nixon while last minute rewrites (undertaken by Carpenter associate Nick Castle, who had played "The Shape" in Halloween) were banged out in the immediate aftermath of the 1979-1981 Iran Hostage Crisis.

AVCO assigned Carpenter his highest budget -- $6 million. (Five years earlier, George Lucas' unprepossessing space opera Star Wars had been made for half again as much.) Despite the uptake in spending money, Carpenter was faced with a daunting task: to create a dystopian version of New York City (transformed in 1988, so the story goes to a high-walled maximum security prison) in an apocalyptic vision of 1997. With Manhattan proving prohibitively expensive and the backlot lacking the requisite verisimilitude, Carpenter decamped instead to rundown St. Louis, Missouri, a former railway hub that had been devastated by deindustrialization of the Rust Belt and charred by a 1976 firestorm that had reduced several waterfront blocks to blackened shells. Principal photography commenced there in August 1980, with filming of specific setpieces shifting throughout production to Georgia's Atlanta International Airport, to Los Angeles (Culver City Studios and the San Fernando Valley, where the prison exterior was mocked up at the Sepulveda Dam Flood Control Basin - backdrop as well for the closing credits of The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension), to Pasadena's Art Center College of Design and CalArts (California Institute of the Arts), Long Beach, and even New York's Liberty Island, location of the Statue of Liberty, whose head featured prominently in Escape from New York's promotional artwork.

Though AVCO executives preferred to see an established star take the lead - Charles Bronson, Nick Nolte, and Tommy Lee Jones were suggested and rejected by the filmmakers - there was for John Carpenter only one man to play protagonist Snake Plissken, a WWIII veteran turned fugitive from justice cashiered by the United States Police Force into rescuing the abducted President from New York Prison (where terrorists have ditched Air Force One). A former child actor, Kurt Russell had been endeavoring for years to change his squeaky clean image and had even auditioned unsuccessfully for the role of Han Solo in Star Wars. Russell had worked with Carpenter previously in the made-for-TV movie Elvis (1979) and the maverick writer-director insisted on casting him as the one-eyed Plissken, an amalgam of Clint Eastwood's Man with No Name, John Wayne's Ringo Kid, and (it would seem) Hell Tanner, the biker outlaw antihero of Roger Zelzany's 1967 novella Damnation Alley. Kitted out with a black eye patch, a Cobra tattoo (rising suggestively from below the waistband of his camouflage pants), a muscle tee-shirt and various implements of destruction, Russell realized the character would appeal to moviegoers when he was able to face down a quartet of genuine St. Louis toughs onto whose turf he had unwittingly strayed during a long night of location shooting.

A longtime admirer of Howard Hawks, Carpenter was finally able with his fourth feature film as a solo director to indulge in a Hawksian supporting cast rich in seasoned character actors, among them Ernest Borgnine (as Cabbie, a helpful hack), Harry Dean Stanton (as Brain, a prison inmate and go-between), Halloween star Donald Pleasence (as the hostage POTUS, a character pitched to the actor as the love child of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher), and former spaghetti western star Lee Van Cleef (as Hauk, the stone-cold face of post-apocalyptic authority). Carpenter also added to the call sheet Academy Award-winning soul singer (and occasional actor) Isaac Hayes (as the villainous Duke of New York), then-wife Adrienne Barbeau (as an old flame of Snake's), Russell's then-wife Season Hubley (as the ill-fated Girl in Chock Full o'Nuts), and serpentine actor Frank Doubleday as Romero (one of several characters Carpenter would name after fellow filmmakers), a particularly unpleasant inmate with a mouth full of filed-down piranha teeth. Also along for the ride was Halloween ingnue Jamie Lee Curtis, who provided an uncredited voiceover.

Released in July 1981, Escape from New York clicked with summer moviegoers, earning back five times its production budget. While Carpenter and Russell reteamed for The Thing (1982), a more faithful adaptation of John W. Campbell's 1938 story "Who Goes There?" than had been Howard Hawks' The Thing from Another World (1951), continental filmmakers copied Escape from New York with shameless abandon, offering such derivative (but highly enjoyable) clones as Enzo Castellari's 1990: The Bronx Warriors (1982), Sergio Martino's 2019: After the Fall of New York (1983), and Joe D'Amato's Endgame (1983). Escape from New York also paved the way for a decade of jut-jawed American action heroes, among them Sylvester Stallone in First Blood (1982), Rambo (1984), and Rambo III (1988), Chuck Norris in Missing in Action (1984), Missing in Action 2: The Beginning (1985), and Braddock: Missing in Action III (1988), and Arnold Schwarzenegger in The Terminator (1984) - directed by James Cameron, who painted matte backdrops for Escape from New York -- Commando (1985), Predator (1987), and The Running Man (1987). Carpenter and Russell revived the character of Snake Plissken for a tongue-in-cheek sequel, Escape from L.A. (1996), whose cult has yet to declare itself, and a purported remake is currently languishing in Development Hell.

By Richard Harland Smith

Sources:Return to Escape from New York (2003), dir. Michael GillisThe Escape from New York & L.A. Page Russell interview by Geoff Boucher, Entertainment Weekly CapeTown Film Festival, March 2013

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