I was in New York last week, enjoying the traditional end of summer weekend. Labor Day heralds the start of a new season and even though the temperatures are still sky-high and city slickers swelter summer, it seems, is in the past. Whilst I was there I reflected on something that has been nagging me for a while. When my father visited New York in the 1970s he returned with stories of how exciting and dangerous the city was. It still excites, and has the capacity to inspire, but does it do danger as it once did? Is it really the concrete jungle that rappers would have us believe? It, like any city, has its dangerous neighbourhoods where you wouldn’t walk alone, but its reputation as an out of control, lawless, bankrupt metropolis that prompted the headline shown above has tamed in recent years. Thanks to a host of initiatives, from the Knapp Commission to Rudy Guiliani’s clampdown on the squeegee plague, New York has sharpened its act. It is safer, sassier and in rude health. What has nagged for some time though is the notion that somehow, for some reason, this has had an impact on its crime fiction output. The New York I remember my father telling stories about is the New York of Frank Serpico and Donnie Brasco. Of ‘Popeye’ Doyle and ‘Cloudy’ Russo from The French Connection, Sonny Wortzick from Dog Day Afternoon, and Travis Bickle from Taxi Driver. Gritty, edgy, and uncompromisingly stark is how we see the city through its 1970s lens. In my view, and I appreciate this may be a controversial one, is that in line with the clean up of New York, there has been a lightening of the lens. As the city has become safer, so has its crime fiction. There is nothing wrong with this, and there are several notable examples that argue against my point, but to me, the future ain’t what it used to be, to quote Yogi Berra one of the Big Apple’s greatest adopted sons. Rather than rage against that, today I want to indulge in New York crime as it was the 1970s. What follows is a short list of works we’ve not previously covered in these pages. I can’t believe I waited so long.
- Donnie Brasco: My Undercover Life in the Mafia – Joseph D. Pistone’s 1988 autobiography chronicles his life as Donnie Brasco, an undercover FBI agent who, for six years, infiltrated the Bonnano crime family. Between 1976 and 1981 Pistone was erased from the FBI’s records. He was, as far as the Bonnano family were concerned, a bona fide wise guy. I cannot even begin to imagine what he saw, what he went through, or how he lived a double life in that manner. But then I guess that is the point. It wasn’t a double life. He was part of the underground, not part of the FBI. Pistone’s story was lifted from the pages of his memoir to the silver screen in 1997 by director Mike Newell, with Johnny Depp as Donnie Brasco. Paul Attanasio’s adapted screenplay missed out on the Academy Award. I often rage against that, but only until I remember it lost to Curtis Hansen’s adaptation of James Elroy’s L.A. Confidential. Tough call for the academy. If you have read the memoir, or seen the film, I challenge you to walk down Mulberry Street in Little Italy without thinking about Pistone. I was there last week. I got shivers down the back of my neck and yet it couldn’t be more different today.
- Taxi Driver – Screenwriter Paul Schrader and director Martin Scorsese’s 1976 portrayal of a post-Vietnam New York City. Surely the best film never to win an Academy Award, Taxi Driver is frightening, compelling and quite frankly one of the greatest films ever made. It is misjudged by those who claim Travis Bickle, a former Marine turned taxi driver, is a psychopath. The film is a searing indictment of trauma, psychosis, war, attitudes to war veterans, and the notion of heroism. If that last comment troubles you then just consider how the story might have ended had Bickle been successful in his attempt to assassinate the Senator.
- Serpico – Peter Haas’ biographical account of Frank Serpico, an NYPD officer who worked tirelessly to expose the rotten core of corruption that was endemic in the force. Serpico testified before the Knapp Commission which, in 1972 published its findings into corruption. If you read the commission’s report today it will shock, but perhaps not surprise you. Frank Serpico and his fascinating story were adapted by Waldo Salt and Norman Wexler and, under the guidance of director Sidney Lumet, the undercover officer was portrayed onscreen by Al Pacino in a 1973 adaptation that brought Pacino a Golden Globe award.
As regards Serpico and Donnie Brasco, I’ve often wondered what the real life protagonists of those stories must think when they read, watch, or remember for real the events that defined their lives. Surely the acclaim of Hollywood, or even the lack of it, is meaningless when you consider the sacrifices they made in attempting to protect the streets of New York City?
I’ve picked a tiny handful of the extraordinary output of crime fact and fiction from 1970s New York in this post. I could fill an entire year of blog entries on this topic. However, to return to the point I made earlier there is no real excuse for the crime fiction in New York to be anything other than top drawer. The city has all the ingredients you could ask for. It is perhaps the most ethnically diverse city in the world, especially when you consider how many nationalities are crammed into such a short piece of concrete jungle. It has the largest police force in the entire United States and the sheer breadth of crimes that are committed is infinite. It is home to the origins of organised crime and some of its best crime fiction output is based on real stories. It may lack the violence of the 1970s, and that is clearly a good thing, but it shouldn’t mean that crime fiction fans slake their thirst on a diet version of former glories.
If you can, find the scene in Taxi Driver, where Travis Bickle practises in the mirror with his gun. Look in De Niro’s eyes, listen to the music that fades in once he has finished his monologue…no matter what you might think of New York taxi drivers today, just be glad you never hailed Travis Bickle. I bet President Ford is.