Saturday 27 May 2023

Fort Apache, The Bronx (1981)

Director: Daniel Petri
Writer: Heywood Gould, suggested by the experiences of Thomas Mulhearn and Pete Tessitore
Stars: Paul Newman, Edward Asner, Ken Wahl, Danny Aiello, Pam Grier, Rachel Ticotin and Kathleen Beller

Index: The First Thirty.

I’d heard good things about Fort Apache, the Bronx, which has become a cult film for a star as huge as Paul Newman, but I’d never seen it and I didn’t really know what it was.

Well, it’s a crime film that’s set in New York City, which aims not to tell a single coherent story but to give us a taste of a whole bunch of them, using a style we’re familiar with from Hill Street Blues and so many shows following in its wake. Fred Silverman, a network executive who developed Hill Street Blues, has said that his chief inspiration for it was this film, so it’s the beginning of that genre, something clearly not grasped at the time. You can’t measure the amount of influences something will generate from its opening weekend.

The leads are Paul Newman and Ken Wahl, as a pair of NYPD officers working at the 41st Precinct, nicknamed Fort Apache because it’s an ill-equipped and rundown outpost isolated in enemy territory, 70,000 of those enemies across four square blocks of city.

To add to their concerns, a single act at the start of the film, the cold blooded murder of a pair of rookie cops, grows out of proportion. A new captain, in the capable form of Ed Asner, has been shipped in and his responses inflame the situation, leading to rioting in the streets and an outright siege of the station.

Pam Grier doesn’t have a lot of screen time in this one, as was the case in Greased Lightning, but, boy, does she make it count this time! She plays a drug addicted hooker named Charlotte, who we might initially take for a party girl or a calculating murderess, given that she’s who shoots those two cops. She sets them up, takes them down and walks away. The locals fleece the corpses clean as effectively as Jawas.

And then she’s gone, but she shows back up now and again, enough for us to ditch our less severe assumptions about her character. She’s definitely a hooker, with a stereotypical pimp, and she’s definitely living in a different world, so high as a kite on something illegal that she can’t even do her job.

Most of these characters move through the landscape like they belong there, whether it’s the cops or the crooks. It started out in black and white during the opening credits, shifting into colour as they go without becoming much more colourful. This landscape is made up of crappy looking buildings, burned out buildings and piles of rubble that used to be buildings.

By comparison, Charlotte moves through it like she doesn’t even notice that it’s there. Her drug of choice is apparently PCP, angel dust, and it certainly has her flying in the heavens, even as she walks amidst the wreckage below.

What I loved most about this film is what a lot of critics hated about it at the time. We’ve been conditioned over decades to have pretty standard expectations about crime movies and this film simply doesn’t agree with them.

For one, we might expect the cops to be the good guys, but that’s only partly true, with the best of the 41st serving the community but the worst being outright murderers. That triggers a new angle, about whether anyone will break the blue wall and turn in a bad apple.

For another, we might expect Charlotte, as a double cop killer moments into the movie, to get her comeuppance by the end, which is also only kinda sorta true. She does get hers, but at the hand of irony rather than the authorities. There’s a magnificent shot right at the end of the film, where her story almost connects to a broader one but absolutely doesn’t.

Sure, Officers Murphy and Corelli, like every other uniform at the 41st, are aware of the cop killings and they want to solve that case, but they’re given a barrage of other jobs to do that simply get in the way and eat up their time.

There’s a drag queen on drugs threatening to jump off a tall apartment building. There’s a purse snatcher in a flying helmet they’ve been warned about. There’s some pimp beating his whore in the street. There’s a crazy man who’s threatening everyone with a knife. There’s an overcrowded apartment where a fifteen year old girl is about to give birth.

In each instance, Murphy and Corelli get the tough job to do and they mostly get it done. They take the drag queen off to hospital. They stop the pimp and let his hooker go. They take the knife off the crazy man. They deliver the baby and leave it and its mother healthy. Only the purse snatcher gets away, but that’s just the beginning of that thread.

All this gives us a good opportunity to learn about these officers. Wahl does well as Corelli but Newman’s even better as Murphy, this as much a soap opera about his character and his budding relationship with a young nurse, as it is a crime film. Of course, nothing’s far from crime in the 41st, so it shouldn’t surprise us to find Isabella a customer of the drug ring in operation at the hospital.

There’s so much going on here, in strands of intertwined story, that we expect it to run the length of a TV season. The first season of Hill Street Blues ran for seventeen episodes but this only has two hours. That means that a lot of the plot strands don’t go anywhere, which I’m perfectly fine with, given that this is clearly a slice of life script rather than a cosy mystery, but it can be frustrating.

What matters are the moments and the cast who bring them to life. Newman is top of the stack, but Asner and Wahl are solid, with able support from the likes of Danny Aiello, Rachel Ticotin and others. What’s more, Grier is very good indeed here. Even though she doesn’t get many screen minutes, she uses them to great effect. Charlotte is a pivotal character in this film and she’s blistering in the role, easily the best acting she’d done thus far. Even thinking back a couple of weeks on, her scenes are the ones that stand out in my memory.

I can see why many of the critics didn’t like this on its initial release. It was too different from the norm for them to quite grasp what it was doing, though some, like Roger Ebert, did suggest that it played more like a TV show.

I can also see why it became a cult hit, with its impact coming down the road. Even now, it seems ripe for reevaluation, an imperfect film now comparable mostly to the TV shows that wouldn’t have existed without its influence.

Just don’t blink and miss Pam Grier. She’s one of the best things about the movie.

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