There’s an anecdote about the filming of Escape from New York in which Kurt Russell, during a break, went walking down a neighborhood in East St. Louis, Ill. while in costume as Snake Plissken. In one version, Russell is walking with John Carpenter, director and co-writer, as they are talking about an upcoming scene. Either way, Russell was walking with his eye patch over his eye and grizzled look one night when he turned the corner and found himself face to face with a young group of street hoods. When they saw Russell, one of them put his hands up and said, “Hey, man, we’re not looking for trouble.”
Either way, the story shows that Russell, who had done mostly work for Disney as well as a child actor, was 29 and trying to break free from his clean-cut image to play the anti-hero that is Plissken. He had previously played a sleazy but loveable salesman in Used Cars in 1980. As rumors abound that Uncle Walt had been talking about Russell the day he died, Russell had recorded dialogue for the adult Copper in The Fox and the Hound released in 1981. But Plissken was as we had never seen him before.
New York is set in an alternative 1997 where Manhattan Island was turned into a maximum prison for all criminals in the country. In the late 1980s, crime had increased 400 percent and walls were built on the bridges connected to the island. All criminals are incarcerated for life on the island regardless of what the crime is. There is a war raging between America, China and the Soviet Union. The President of the United States (Donald Pleasance) is on his way to a historic summit in Hartford, Conn., when Air Force One is hijacked by a guerilla terrorist organization over New York. The President is put in an escape pod with a tracker and a briefcase of sensitive documents and a cassette tape.
Police Commissioner Bob Hauk (Lee Van Cleef) and police land by helicopter but are informed by Romero (Frank Doubleday), a lieutenant for The Duke (Isaac Hayes), a major crime boss in the prison, that they have kidnapped the President and have some demands if they want him released. Romero hands Hauk a severed finger with a signet ring indicating it is the President. But if any further attempts are made to rescue him, they will kill him.
The Secretary of State wants to go in guns ablazing, but Hauk notices that Plissken has just been brought to headquarters to be transferred to the prison after being arrested trying to rob the federal reserve. Hauk knows that Plissken used to be a lieutenant in Special Forces and is an experienced pilot, so he offers Plissken an offer. If Plissken rescues the President, he’ll get a full pardon.
But Plissken finds out after hesistantly agreeing there’s more at stake Hauk has Plissken injected with micro-scopic explosives in his neck arteries that will explode within 22 hours killing him. This is to keep Plissken actively seeking the President when he flies into New York, as well as to keep him from taking a stealth glider north to Canada. Armed with only a M-10 submachine gun and a revolver and his wits, Plissken seeks out the President trying to avoid the scum of New York as well as The Duke.
He is eventually aided with help from a former associate, Harold “Brain” Hellman (Harry Dean Stanton), who works for The Duke, as well as Brain’s wife, Maggie (Adrienne Barbeau) and “Cabbie” (Ernest Borgnine). Brain has managed a formular that allows fuel for the vehicles and also has a diagram of the 69th Street Bridge which is mined. The Duke plans to drive to the wall at the bridge and turn the President over for his release from New York.
Released on this date, July 10 in 1981, it seemed like a bleak look at the future. America has turned into a police state. That hasn’t happened in real life even though police brutality is a major issue now. The Soviet Union is no more even though Vladimir Putin has created his own authoritarian government. Carpenter, who wrote it with friend and collaborator Nick Castle, said he wrote the script in response to the Watergate scandal. And the President and Pleasance’s performance doesn’t make the Commander-in-Chief a likeable person. In a country where people only have an option of being trown away or killed, the President isn’t trying to win any popularity awards. They don’t go into details, but I wouldn’t be surprised if a lot of regular people are prohibited from voting.
While parts of the movie were filmed on Liberty Island, most of it was filmed in the St. Louis area. It was chosen because it had many buildings and neighborhoods that were long abandoned and dilapidating. As one crew member said, there were holes in the buildings that you can see through several city blocks. A scene in which a helicopter flies over daytime Central Park was accomplished by filming in an open field in southern California and imposing a matte drawing of a dilapidated NYC skyline.
Carpenter had a $6 million budget, his biggest so far. It ended up grossing over $25 million, which was an impressive number considering it’s basically a B-movie sci-fi action thriller which weren’t so popular at the time. William Gibson said he was inspired by New York while writing his cyperpunk novel Neuromancer and the movie poster image of the Statue of Liberty’s head blocking a city street would later be used in Cloverfield, even though it’s a little bit of false marketing. Russell’s portayal of Plissken opened more doors in the 1980s.
However, the movie became famous for a deleted opening sequence that was filmed at the Hartsfield Airport in Atlanta detailing how Plissken robbed the federal reserve resulting in a friend of his being shot by the police. The scene really doesn’t add much to the plot and Carpenter himself removed it saying the story begins when Plissken get to NYC. Carpenter realized that you have to kill your darlings.
You can see the scene here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BsLT-zRWWdQ.
A sequel was made in 1996, Escape from L.A. , but it was a box office failure and got mixed reviews from critics with some, such as Roger Ebert, praising it for its satiric humor, while others weren’t impressed. Carpenter has said the sequel was fun to make. I felt it wasn’t too good and just repeated certain things. Russell plays Plissken more as a cartoon character rather than the three-dimensional person he was in New York. There was been a remake in development hell since 2007 with even Russell’s own son, Wyatt, being considered. Thankfully, he has turned it down calling it career suicide. Let’s hope the remake never does escape from development hell.
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