On the John at the movies, with…
Fort Apache, The Bronx (1981)
Cast: Paul Newman, Pam Grier, Rachel Ticotin, Ken Wahl, Ed Asner, Danny Aiello, Sully Boyer
Director: Daniel Petrie
Screenplay: Heywood Gould
Review: May 19, 2010
***Warning! Stay away from Part II of this OTJ At The Movies profile if you have not yet seen Fort Apache, The Bronx !”***
Click here for Part I.
Click here for Avril Brown’s take Fort Apache at Comics Waiting Room.
Now that we’ve said all of that, let’s move through the other reasons why this was such a fantastic viewing experience, one by one as they come to me.
1. Simple cinematic storytelling
The opening shot establishes just about everything we need to know about Fort Apache. A police car HUGE in the bottom right corner of the frame, set inside a burned out urban environment. Cracked concrete street. Dilapidated El system. Graffiti on the train cars. Boarded up stores – even the mattress factory is out of business! When comfortable sleep is no longer profitable, things are bad.
From the left stumbles a lady of the night. She is wearing a leopard dress, and is approaching the police car. The two officers comment: (the trailer below is pretty close to the scene verbatim, with the violence edited way down)
COP 1: Hey – check this out. She been workin’ the night shift.
COP 2: (laughing) Ain’t she freezin’?
COP 1: She so wacked she think she’s in the Bahamas!
The woman arrives at the window. This is Pam Grier, known here as “Charlotte, the hooker who kills for sport.” Pam and the cops trade early morning “on the job” banter. The police are having a laugh at the expense of what appears to be a drunk, doped up hooker. The hooker is having “a laugh” at the expense of working police by killing them.
The murder is startling and violent. Other than the fact that she is played by Pam Grier, the movie offers no clues to the reality of the hooker’s intentions. We see her reaching into her bag for something, and then they cut back to the police P.O.V. as Pam points a gun straight for the camera. Bam, bam, bam, with screams and blood. And she stumbles away.
Neighborhood members carefully approach the car. They ransack it when the coast is clear, grabbing money, guns, cuffs, and whatever else from the bodies.
And that’s your first scene. For a film that spends much of its time floating around whichever character seems most interesting, it actually establishes its loose themes right out of the gate.
Later, when the movie decides to humor a plot, strands grow from the fallout of this opening murder. But the picture is not “the story of the hooker who kills for sport.” It is the story of the relationship between citizens and police and an exploration of the criminal instinct. So we get a strong opening scene, establishing setting, theme, and character.
2. Attention to character
The character work picks up as our story unfolds. Life is rough in New York’s 41st precinct. Located in the South Bronx, the local police station is nicknamed “Fort Apache” for reasons that become quickly obvious. Paul Newman stars as Murphy, a street cop on the older side of the job. Things change at Fort Apache after the murder of the officers. A hard-lining new commanding officer named Connolly (Asner) arrives to take over command from the grandfatherly Dugan (Boyar/Mulvany).
Connolly’s entrance is the film’s announcement of its intentions to do strong character work. First he runs into a desk sergeant who refuses to even humor Connolly’s authority, drilling him with sarcasm, indifference, and cold passion: “I got twenty-two years on the job and I’m ready to retire tomorrow if I get a hard time from my new commander. I’ll take the half pension before I take any crap from anybody.” He then kindly directs Connolly to Dugan’s office.
Then, before Connolly can get too far into his introductory speech, Dugan launches into the defense of his own job performance, discussing the difficulty in running a police station in the middle of a neighborhood with poverty, bad education, drug abuse, and gun violence. “Things go bad, blame Dugan!” he shouts on his way out the door. Welcome to the job, Commander.
The movie has more characters than it can realistically handle, but that’s okay. One of the big reasons why Avi and I reacted so positively to this film, I think, is that we entered it with limited knowledge, and it delivered the basics of what we really want in a movie: it was well acted, well written, confident enough to linger over its best moments, smart, funny, daring, audacious, sometimes bizarre or absurd but always interesting, entertaining, engaging.
3. Quotable material
Lots of quality, quotable material that I will leave you to discover on your own. For now, let me just say that along with everything else it has going, Fort Apache, The Bronx features the greatest first date scene ever captured on film. The portrayal of the relationship between Newman’s cop and Ticotin’s nurse is playful, challenging, and touching, never moreso than in their first date.
(Note: The following dialogue is an approximation, as I don’t have the DVD handy. I promise, though, first chance I get, I’m heading back to Av’s to borrow it.)
They sit silently at bar table.
MURPHY: First dates are tough.
MURPHY: Say something.
ISABELLA: About what?
MURPHY: You know: tell me about yourself.
ISABELLA: (sly) I don’t really like talking about myself.
MURPHY: (dragging out the “okay”) Okay. You tell me about myself and I’ll tell you about yourself, and whoever’s closest, the other buys drinks.
I will let the rest of that go, only to say that their descriptions seem simultaneously stereotypical and spot on, and 2. The scene’s conclusion is perfect and lovely.
Bonus material for favorite random lines I remembered: (other than, of course, the half-pension line)
CORELLI pulls out a book in the car while MURPHY drives.
MURPHY: (dismayed) “Why don’t you read something ordinary like the Yellow Pages or Dick Tracy?”
4. Multiple moods
The first date scene was so good, in fact, we immediately rewound and watched it again. There were few purely sweet scenes in the rest of the film, if any – Fort Apache has no problem flipping from sweet romance to absurd humor to graphic violence to social commentary to sad human portrait and back again.
As a filmgoer, I enjoy out-and-out dramas/comedies, like Schindler’s List or The Blues Brothers. I enjoy grimly serious stories with humor (No Country for Old Men, The Wire,), and absurd comedies with pathos (Arrested Development, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Chappelle stand up).
Then there’s material like The Royal Tenenbaums, Love Actually, Pulp Fiction, and Fort Apache that find delight in being all over the board. Tenenbaums is ultimately a bittersweet story about a family, Love Actually a celebration of human love, Pulp Fiction a movie of cool.
Fort Apache is, ultimately, about Havin’ Fun at The Movies, as identified by the decision to close out with an action freeze frame. (More on this in a moment.)
5. The make-ya-think factor
Among the movie’s surprise moods (or, anyhow, surprise to me and my expectations) is its social commentary concerning the relationship between citizens and police and the question of criminality. The hunt for the cop killer brings Connolly, and it doesn’t take long before Connolly enacts Martial Law on the 41st precinct. The movie stays away from portraying Connolly as evil or crazy, and in this way challenges audiences to take serious consideration toward the nature of police work.
Fort Apache becomes a nice example of what happens when you don’t listen to Bunny Colvin: “You call something a war, and pretty soon everybody’s gonna be running around acting like warriors. Running around on a damn crusade, storming corners, slapping on cuffs and racking up body counts. And when you’re at war, you need a fucking enemy. And pretty soon, damn near everybody on every corner’s your fucking enemy! Soon, the neighborhood you’re supposed to be policing, that’s just occupied territory.”
Granted, the movie does not go all the way with this or any other thread be it thematic or narrative-related, so it’s not as if Fort Apache ever approaches The Wire’s level of searing character destinies.
But during the scenes themselves, right there in the moment as you witness community members fighting back, the police captain ordering tear gas on the crowd, an on-duty officer chastising two off-duty officers who were called in by onlookers for brawling on the sidewalk, or a discussion concerning a police officer guilty of tossing a kid off a building, the film works as sincere social commentary.
6. The freeze frame
As for the errors, there are a few. The fate of Grier’s character is not cool, and I mean that in the Pulp Fiction sense: Grier’s character was “cool,” (albeit amoral and bloodthirsty), and the movie’s treatment of her is not cool. (Though I did enjoy her closing… cameo, let’s call it.) And things probably did not need to progress that way for Isabella.
Ultimately, though, all that matters is a film’s ending. “Wow them in the end, and you’ve got a hit.” So says the Robert McKee of Cox and Kaufman, as well as IU English professor Ray Hedin (in so many words).
So here we go with the ending of Fort Apache, The Bronx:
Murphy has just resigned, leaving Corelli as the lone member of a two-man Serpico team that has recently ratted out a fellow officer. Murph and Corelli ride away from the station, and as they are talking wistfully about their time together and the future ahead, that strange purse-snatcher who has been wearing “the flight-suit helmet shaped like Princess Leia’s hair” and has popped up throughout the film to harass the people of the Bronx by knocking them over and stealing their bags. Murphy has already run this dude down once, and failed.
They spot him and hold the briefest of debates over whether or not they should chase this man down, for the sport of it I guess. Of course they should!
…and it was a few moments into the chase that I said to Avi: “This needs to end with some kind of crazy freeze frame, and then maybe the words FORT APACHE, THE BRONX flying on screen in thick type.”
The camera follows the chase from up close, and then from far away, and then from up close again… one of the film’s (charms/quirks/flaws) is its knack for scenes that lack discernible rhythm, so you’re wrong each time you wonder “Oh, maybe it’s ending now?”
We’re far away now, and the camera pans down, away from the three runners. “Ah,” I said at this point with a casual admiration, “they’re going to just leave Murph and Corelli chasing that guy. That’s pretty cool.
Scene keeps going, as the shot drops down to reveal something revealing in a junk yard. Then back to a close up of Murphy and Corelli chasing Purse Snatchin’ Leia. “Oh, we’re back.”
Suddenly Murphy makes this ridiculous lunging, one-handed dive toward the purse-snatcher, and BAM! FREEZE FRAME!
“YES!” I popped out of my seat at Avi’s apartment, tore my sweatshirt off from over my head and whipped it at the ceiling fan, and began hopping around, celebrating. “PERFECT!” Avi and I high-fived. It was quite a scene.