Fun City (Pt. 5): Outside Perspectives/Pacino Unplugged...

Taking of Pelham 1 2 3, Taking Off, Born to Win, Panic in Needle Park, Dog Day Afternoon
by J. Hoberman  posted August 29, 2013
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Program notes for The Taking of Pelham One Two Three, Taking Off, Born to Win, The Panic in Needle Park, and Dog Day Afternoon.

This is part of a series of articles by J. Hoberman about the film series Fun City: New York in the Movies 1966-1974, which he curated for Museum of the Moving Image. The series runs from August 10 through September 1, 2013. Articles about all of the films in the series will be posted in the coming weeks. See the series schedule.

Read the series introduction here.

Read program notes about You're a Big Boy Now, Cotton Comes to Harlem, Norman Mailer vs. Fun City, Bye Bye Braverman, and Serpico (part 2) here.

Read program notes about Rosemary's Baby, Little Murders, The Landlord, and The Angel Levine (part 3) here.

Friday, August 30: MANAGING DISASTER

The Taking of Pelham One Two Three. Directed Joseph Sargent. Written by Peter Stone, adapted from the novel by John Godey. Produced by Edgar J. Scherick and Gabriel Katzka. Released by United Artists. Opened at the Criterion and 86th Street East Theaters, October 2, 1974.

“It’s been a while since we’ve had a movie that really catches the mood of New York and New Yorkers. The hijacking seems like a perfectly probable event for this town. (Perhaps the only element of fantasy is the implication that the city’s departments could function so smoothly together.)”—Nora Sayre, The New York Times, October 3, 1974.

Just before leaving office, Mayor Lindsay gave permission for a disaster flick set in the New York subways to be filmed on location—mainly in the tunnel of the abandoned Court Street station in Brooklyn and outside the subway entrance on 28th Street and Park Avenue South.

Cross-cutting between the hijacked subway car, the Transit Authority command center, Gracie Mansion, and the city streets, The Taking of Pelham One Two Three gives some indication of the practical difficulties in navigating (as well as administering) the city. The mayor is a character (played by Lee Wallace as a fatuously indecisive, crowd pandering pol) but the movie belongs to Lower East Side born and raised Walter Matthau’s jaundiced TA inspector. Jerry Stiller appears as fellow transit cop, with Tony Roberts (promoted to deputy mayor after appearing as a police whistle blower in Serpico) is the bullying voice of municipal authority: “We’re trying to run a city, not a goddam democracy!”

Actually some found too much democracy in the movie. Pointing out that the people in peril were not glamorous movie stars but supposedly ordinary New Yorkers, Village Voice critic Molly Haskell wondered, “Who would pay a dollar ransom, much less a cool million, for this carful of Jesus freaks, screaming mothers and obnoxious children, wise old ethnics, fat lady winos, superfly fags, and prostitutes (everyone, in fact—and as a regular rider I can testify to their verisimilitude—but you and me, suffering in silence!)” Nevertheless, the premise held and the movie has been twice remade.


Taking Off. Directed by Milos Forman. Written by Forman, John Guare, Jean-Claude Carriere and John Klein. Produced by Alfred W. Crown. Released by Universal. Opened at the Plaza Theater, March 29, 1971.

Born To Win. Directed by Ivan Passer. Written by David Scott Milton. Produced by Philip Langner. Released by United Artists. World premiere at the New York Film Festival, October 9, 1971.

“Aren’t there enough real problems in Czechoslovakia for Mr. Forman to make movies about without annoying America with fake ones?”—Rex Reed, Daily News, April 2, 1971.

Exiled Czech filmmakers Milos Forman and Ivan Passer took a more documentary approach to filming in New York than their compatriot Jan Kadar in The Angel Levine but they too were largely criticized for misunderstanding the nature of American life. Thus Forman’s Taking Off, the sweetest of generation gap movies, in which a solemn high-school student (Linnea Haecock) vanishes into the East Village, leaving her concerned but clueless parents (Buck Henry and Lynn Carlin) to leave Long Island and essay the counterculture on their own, was mistaken for failed social satire.

Filmed in and around New York during the summer of 1970, even as hard-hats battled hippies in the streets of Lower Manhattan and the generational nightmare Joe (also shot partially in the East Village) haunted the city’s second-run houses, Taking Off is more concerned with anxious parents than wayward children. Still, it is Forman’s incidental documentation of the counterculture that gives the movie its particular flavor. The filmmaker took an apartment in the East Village, soaked up the atmosphere at the Fillmore East, and held an open audition at the Electric Circus for girls, 14 to 20, who could sing. He would discover his 16-year-old runaway in Central Park, hanging with the hippies around Bethesda Fountain, but the audition (whose participants include then-unknowns Carly Simon and Kathy Bates) is interspersed as punctuation throughout the movie.

As suggested by the novelist Sandra Hochman who profiled Forman in the Sunday New York Times, Taking Off was essentially an investigation. “It is almost as if Forman were an archeologist of the imagination, digging up all sorts of details about those strange young people who are everywhere.”

“As a slice from the life of a middle-aged New York junkie, Born to Win is, of course, a study in losing…”—Roger Greenspun, The New York Times, October 11, 1971.

Forman’s colleague and sometime collaborator, Ivan Passer addressed another social issue in his first American movie, a deadpan comic tragedy, given its world premiere at the 1971 New York Film Festival. George Segal plays a hipster hairdresser, addicted to smack, characterized by Archer Winsten in the New York Post as “a walking withdrawal symptom.”

A follow up to the outrageous Where’s Poppa?, also produced by Segal and Jerry Tokofsky’s company, Born to Win was shot during the winter of 1971. The coldness of the city seems to permeate the film which, however different in tone, rivals The French Connection for its location work. Segal’s once middleclass junkie works out his particular doom not only in Times Square and Chelsea but also on the streets of the Upper East Side and out at John F. Kennedy airport, places that Passer is able to subtly empty of crowds and render coolly exotic.

Born to Win not only places its star in a freshly observed realm but surrounds him with a small constellation of vivid performances—Hector Elizondo as Segal’s connection and sometime employer, Jay Fletcher as his manic buddy, Paula Prentiss as his zonked out ex-wife, and, especially Karen Black as the poor little rich girl who decides to fall for him. (Adding to the movie’s street cred, the young Robert De Niro has a small role as an undercover cop.)

One of the least appreciated and most neglected movies of the American New Wave, Born to Win had the distinction of finding favor with both Andrew Sarris and Pauline Kael. Sarris described it as “a very stirring, funny movie” while Segal’s character struck Kael as “an absurd man seen not in the abstract setting of an absurdist play but in the lower depths of New York City.

Sunday, September 1: PACINO UNPLUGGED

The Panic in Needle Park. Directed by Jerry Shatzberg. Written by Joan Didion and John Gregory Dunne, adapted from the book by James Mills. Produced by Dominick Dunne. Released by Twentieth  Century-Fox. Opened at Loew’s Tower East, July 13, 1971.

Dog Day Afternoon
. Directed by Sidney Lumet. Written by Frank Pierson, adapted from the magazine article by P.F. Kluge and Thomas Moore. Produced by Martin Bregman and Martin Alfand. Released by Warner Bros. Opened at the Cinema I, September 22, 1975.

“The Panic in Needle Park is an absorbing downbeat drama that takes a hard look at the drug scene on New York’s West Side, in particular Sherman Square, called Needle Park by its inhabitants. It is a story of degradation and betrayal, and yet a story of love.”—Ann Guarino, Daily News, July 14, 1971.

“On the one hand, Schatzberg has done an expensive remake of
Trash with all traces of humor removed… On the other hand, Schatzberg has done a tacky remake of Love Story with all traces of fantasy removed.”—Robert Colaciello, Village Voice, August 19,1971.

An American art film that had its world premiere at the Cannes Film Festival but would have found its natural home in a 42nd Street grind house, The Panic in Needle Park opened to mixed reviews, some prompted by the movie’s incongruously fashionable creators, Bronx-born former fashion photographer Jerry Schatzberg and the screenwriting team of Joan Didion and John Gregory Dunne.

Making his film debut as a fast-talking junkie, 30-year-old Al Pacino went straight to The Godfather and on to Pacinodom. Kitty Winn, cast as his wide-eyed consort, a little girl lost slumming with a vengeance, won the Best Actress award at Cannes and soon after retired in obscurity. Relative neo-realism and an open ending were not unusual in 1971, but The Panic in Needle Park is unusually sordid: Winn’s character is introduced taking a crowded subway home from an illegal abortion; the movie is punctuated by close-ups of junkies shooting and booting and, according to casting director Juliet Taylor, the extras were “people who’d come off the streets,” including “some real heroin addicts.”

Shot by Adam Holender, the director of photography on Midnight Cowboy, the movie features some choice locations, including an authentic cold water loft and the then hustler-ridden Whalen’s drugstore at the corner of 8th Street and Sixth Avenue, although Verdi Square, the small park where Broadway crosses 72nd Street stood in for Sherman Square, a block away. Nevertheless, the association stuck. Several years later, the architect Garrison McNeil was commissioned to rebuild Verdi Square: I don’t even think this is Needle Park. I think the real one is behind the entrance to the 72nd Street subway. But the film was shot here and the stigma stuck. I hope it clears up soon.”

“The day in question was Tuesday, August 22, 1972. The temperature was 97 degrees. I was driving out to Long Island on the expressway, and, as was my custom, I was listening lethargically to the endless repetitious news bullets on WINS. I have been a news freak all my life, and news freaks don’t need real news to feed their habit. Then suddenly there was real news of the most ridiculous kind. A bank was being held up in Brooklyn. The police had arrived. Hostages were being held. A state of siege was in force. Demands were being made. It was a familiar scenario, but with bizarre variations. One of the bankrobbers demanded that his wife be brought to him, and, when the police complied, it turned out that the ‘wife’ was a transvestite. I began to suspect that Andy Warhol and Paul Morrissey had staged the whole operation as a tasteless parody of the terrorism around us.”
—Andrew Sarris, Village Voice, September 29, 1975.

On screen and talking for almost the entirety of Dog Day Afternoon, Al Pacino gives his career performance.
Fully embodying the role of a mercurial, spectacularly chutzpadik nutcase—part Yippie rabble-rouser, part naïve altar boy—who robs a Brooklyn bank to finance a sex change operation for his male “wife,” Pacino dances his way through what Vincent Canby called Sidney Lumet’s “most accurate, most flamboyant New York movie.” Dog Day Afternoon is also Lumet’s best directed movie (with John Cazale, Charles Durning, Chris Sarandan, and Judith Malina providing stellar support) although, given its structure and pyrotechnics, a better word might be “orchestrated.”

Opening with a long montage of unglamorous neighborhoods, sweltering city streets, and less-than-bucolic beaches, Dog Day Afternoon was based on an actual event that occurred during the summer of 1972 (ten days after the Democratic Convention where candidate John Lindsay had once hoped to be nominated president) only blocks from the movie’s location on Prospect Park West between 17th and 18th Streets. The story not only received extensive local attention, with Arthur Bell treating it as a gay liberation cause célèbre with Mafia conspiratorial overtones in the Village Voice, but got national coverage in Life magazine.

Much of the action is confined to the bank. Lumet cross-cuts between the hostage drama within and the street theater cum media frenzy outside even as Pacino’s Sonny regularly runs back and forth, playing to two (and sometimes three) audiences. Helicopters crowd the skies, news crews and photographers regularly violate the police perimeter, neighborhood kibitzers razz the cops, participants grant live interviews. “The movie’s concentration of time and place adds terrific intensity to the melodrama,” Canby wrote. “Indeed, it’s a part of the content and style of this quintessential New York film. More than any other city I know, New York is a present-tense town, a place where the moment is everything…”

With Dog Day Afternoon, Lumet and Pacino immortalized (in so far as movies are immortal) a fourteen-hour drama that Fun City made for itself.



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J. Hoberman is a renowned film critic whose latest book, Film After Film: What Became of 21st Century Cinema, was published by Verso. He was the senior film critic at the Village Voice, and he now writes for numerous publications including and The Tablet. His writing is aggregated at his website,

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