Tag Archives: Escape From New York

A Most Underrated Year: Revisiting the Films of 1981

It’s been way too long since the last film retrospective appeared on Fante’s Inferno. My previous posts on the films of the Summers of 1982, 1983 and 1984 were a lot of fun to write, and even more fun to research. But with each year that passed since my last retrospective in 2014, I kept telling myself to get started on the next one, only to have life get in the way of revisiting the films of the Summer of 1985 and onward. So to find the subject of my next film retrospective, I reviewed the list of film releases from 35 and 40 years ago (to stay within my unofficial 80s timeline) to revisit the classics of that era but more importantly to rediscover some forgotten gems.

I initially planned on writing a retrospective on the films of the Summer of 1981, which in my opinion had a very solid lineup. But 1981 was also the year that some of my all time favorite films were released, namely John Boorman’s Excalibur and Peter Weir’s Gallipoli (both of which are still in my personal top ten list of favorite films). Over the years I’ve reviewed several films from 1981 on this site (The Hand, The Last Chase, Gregory’s Girl, Southern Comfort and Time Bandits), so looking over the entire year’s film releases made me realize that 1981 as a whole had a strong mix of classics, cult favorites, guilty pleasures, and a few underrated and forgotten films that deserve to be revisited. Many of them can be found on streaming services today, which allowed me to dig deeper into that year’s lineup and rewatch a few of the less remembered films for the first time in four decades.

But researching this cinematic year led to a very surprising and unexpected opinion: that 1981 is one of the most underrated years of cinema, not only of the 1980s, but of the last 50 years.

I know, I know, that’s a bold statement. But I wrote “underrated” and not “best” for a reason. And while 1939 is considered the definitive “Best Year of Movies,” two recent books add the films of 1962 and 1999 to the debate, and in my opinion 1994 wasn’t too shabby either. Without question the films of 1939 still hold the crown of the greatest cinematic year due to their classic, enduring qualities and the reverence with which they are held to this day. And while only a small handful of films from 1981 could be considered true classics today, the fact that many of the lesser known films from that year are still very enjoyable forty years later legitimately puts 1981 in the category of “underrated” and well worth another look.

It’s safe to say none of the films of 1981 have reached the stature of 1972’s The Godfather, though Raiders of the Lost Ark is one film from 1981 that has earned both classic and blockbuster status along the lines of Jaws (1975) and Star Wars (1977), and was the highest grossing film that year. But two of 1981’s Oscar winners Reds and Chariots of Fire probably don’t get watched with the same frequency these days. If you look at the films of 1972, 1975 or 1977, you’ll see a number of great films (for example 1972 also had Deliverance, Cabaret, and Jeremiah Johnson; 1975 included One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Dog Day Afternoon and Three Days of the Condor; and 1977 included Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Saturday Night Fever and A Bridge Too Far), but in my opinion 1981 pulls ahead in terms of the consistency in the quality of a lot of films across all genres, even the hidden gems and cult favorites.

That’s not to say there weren’t any clunkers or outright bombs that year. For every Raiders of the Lost Ark, On Golden Pond and Chariot of Fire, there was Sphinx, Charlie Chan and the Curse of the Dragon Queen, and the best example of the worst type of film: Going Ape! Like any other cinematic year before or since, there are films that have been forgotten for good reason. But others may also fall into the category of “badly made but fun to watch.” One thing I never do when I revisit an older film is to judge it by today’s standards with regard to effects, cinematography, etc. I’ll mentally turn the clock back and view a film and judge it on its merits of the time. Easier said than done with some films, but I choose to give each of these a fair shake even if some were intended as B movies and lacking in production value. Even some of the lowest budget horror or action films can still be enjoyable in their own right.

Let’s take a look at some of the notable films of 1981:

January to March:
Scanners
Fort Apache The Bronx
Diva
Goodbye Pork Pie
Modern Romance
American Pop
Eyewitness
Cutter’s Way
The Postman Always Rings Twice
Thief

April to June:
Atlantic City
Nighthawks
Excalibur
The Howling
Knightriders
The Hand
Ms. 45
Bustin’ Loose
The Four Seasons
The Last Chase
Gregory’s Girl
Cheech & Chong’s Nice Dreams
Clash of the Titans
History of the World: Part I
Raiders of the Lost Ark
The Cannonball Run
Superman II
Dragonslayer
For Your Eyes Only
Stripes

July to September
The Decline of Western Civilization
Escape from New York
Arthur
Blow Out
Eye of the Needle
Wolfen
Escape to Victory
Gallipoli
Heavy Metal
An American Werewolf in London
Prince of the City
Body Heat
Continental Divide
Das Boot
Raggedy Man
Southern Comfort
True Confessions

October to December
Enter the Ninja
My Dinner with Andre
The Evil Dead
Time Bandits
Ragtime
Whose Life Is It Anyway?
Four Friends
Pennies From Heaven
Absence of Malice
Chariots of Fire
Taps
Quest for Fire
On Golden Pond
Reds

This list will likely bring out comments defending some of the less successful films, questioning their inclusion as “notable,” or debating whether some of the acclaimed films of that year even hold up today. A few additional titles from 1981 might also be included in this retrospective. I look forward to a spirited discussion.

First up in this retrospective will be the films of January through March of 1981!

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Escape From New York (1981)

Escape From New York Poster

Release Date: July 10, 1981

Starring Kurt Russell, Lee Van Cleef, Ernest Borgnine, Harry Dean Stanton, Adrienne Barbeau, Donald Pleasence, Isaac Hayes

Directed by John Carpenter; Written by John Carpenter and Nick Castle

John Carpenter’s Escape From New York is a film that I’ve been looking forward to revisiting for awhile now.  It’s an old favorite of mine that I have vivid memories of watching on cable back in the 80’s, sometimes followed by a screening of The Warriors.

The film takes place in 1997, nine years after the entire island of Manhattan had been walled off and turned into a maximum security prison.  Prisoners are only given life sentences, but are offered the option of immediate death and cremation prior to departure.  Decorated war hero Snake Plissken (Kurt Russell) has been sentenced to life in New York for robbing a federal reserve.  As Plissken waits for the shuttle to Manhattan, prison warden Hauk (played by Lee van Cleef) receives a distress signal from a hijacked Air Force One.  The President (played by Donald Pleasence) is ejected in an escape pod as Air Force One crashes into downtown Manhattan.  Hauk scrambles a rescue team, but by the time they find the abandoned escape pod, the President has been taken hostage by The Duke of New York (Isaac Hayes), the island’s leader.  They’re given 30 seconds to leave the island or the president will be killed.

Back at prison headquarters, Hauk offers Plissken a deal: bring the president back alive and he’ll be granted a full pardon, but equally important is the cassette in the President’s possession containing information on cold fusion.  The President must be returned in time for the Hartford Summit with China and Russia in order to share the formula for cold fusion in a show of good faith for world peace.  Plissken agrees, but any thought he had of using it as an opportunity to escape is quickly diffused when the warden implants two explosives in his neck that are timed to detonate in 23 hours unless Plissken succeeds in his mission.

Plissken lands a glider on the top of the World Trade Center and avoids rogue packs of prisoners as he makes his way through downtown Manhattan guided by a tracking device linked to the President.  The beacon leads him to the basement of an old theater (complete with a musical act, proving the lights never never will go out on Broadway even if it becomes part of a maximum security prison) but quickly finds out he’s been on the wrong trail and the President is now prisoner of The Duke.  An old cab driver named Cabbie (played by Ernest Borgnine) recognizes Plissken and offers to take him to The Brain (Harry Dean Stanton), who can in turn lead Plissken to the Duke.  Plissken and the Brain have a history that Plissken hasn’t forgiven or forgotten, but have to work together to get the President out of New York.

Escape From New York is almost exactly how I remembered it when I watched in the 80’s.  Kurt Russell is the star of the film as Snake Plissken, but the supporting cast of Isaac Hayes, Ernest Borgnine, Harry Dean Stanton, Adrienne Barbeau and led by the amazing Lee Van Cleef (The Good, the Bad and the Ugly) is top notch.  The special effects, particularly the models, miniatures and matte paintings that recreated Manhattan, weren’t as dated as I thought they would look 33 years later.  Ironically the film was shot primarily on location in East St. Louis, Missouri (the true New York locations were Liberty Island and New York Harbor), but cinematographer Dean Cundey and production designer Joe Alves did a great job turning it into the decaying, deadly Manhattan in Carpenter’s dystopian representation of 1997 New York.

Most films I revisit after 30 odd years tend to feel slower paced the second time around, but from the moment Snake lands in Manhattan and the clock winds down, the film plays out at a fast, action packed pace though sometimes at the expense of the characters.  Carpenter takes the time at the beginning of the film to present Snake’s qualifications for the mission, but neglects to reveal his motives for committing the crime that got him a life sentence to New York.  I also thought the script tended to take the easy way out on a couple of occasions by having several characters in the film, prisoners with very little in terms of electricity and communication with the outside world, instantly recognize Snake Plissken as if he was a celebrity.  Unfortunately there are moments when the script only gives the bare minimum of character information when slowing down the pace to answer these questions would have added that one additional layer the story needs.

Overall Escape From New York is a great film that still holds up.  It may not have the visual effects of Blade Runner, but the premise, cast and production design make for a great ride.  It’s been at least 25 year since I’ve seen Escape From New York and revisiting this film didn’t disappoint.

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