Saturday Night Cinema: Fort Apache, The Bronx

Tonight’s Saturday Night Cinema feature is Fort Apache the Bronx (1981), starring Paul Newman. Paul Newman plays a veteran policeman in this hard-boiled cop story. The men in blue are neither portrayed as heroes or brutes, but as “ordinary human beings who try to cope in a pressure-cooker.” This is 1970s New York City, decimated by years of Democrat rule . It may very well be a look forward to what the city might look like under de Blasio.

NY Times film review: Fort Apache the Bronx (1981)

THE controversy over Daniel Petrie’s ”Fort Apache, the Bronx,” about life at an embattled police precinct station house in the South Bronx, recalls the controversy over William Friedkin’s ”Cruising” except for one important detail: ”Cruising” turned out to be a dud, a big, fat soggy mess of a bomb that never went off, while ”Fort Apache, the Bronx” looks as if it’s going to be a hit, a movie that will be seen by a lot of people. The film, which opens today at the Criterion and other theaters, is a tough-talking street melodrama, both shocking and sorrowful, acted by Paul Newman and a huge cast with the kind of conviction that can’t be ignored.

Because ”Cruising” was such a muddle-brained, nervously dishonest movie, it destroyed itself, rendering moot all questions about the film maker’s responsibility to observable political and social truth. Those questions have much more point in connection with a film as entertaining as ”Fort Apache, the Bronx,” which, having been filmed in the South Bronx and having been based on the experiences of two New York police officers, has the effect of fact presented as fiction.

The setting of the film is not Oz but the South Bronx, which is inhabited not by Munchkins but by real people. One of the reasons the film is so effective is that, right from the start, the audience shares a sense of physical desolation that eventually becomes psychological as well as spiritual. Having implicated us in this truth in such a fashion, the film makers would seem to have a responsibility to be accurate, though I suspect that not everyone objecting to the film would agree on all of the things about it that are supposed to be inaccurate. These objections can’t be answered here, which is not to say that they shouldn’t be raised.

Mr. Petrie’s South Bronx is an urban nightmare, a contemporary American vision of World War II Hamburg (or Dresden or Manila or Hiroshima), destroyed not by saturation bombing, artillery warfare or the A-bomb but by decades of what is euphemistically referred to as urban decay, civic neglect and shifting population patterns. The heart of this community is Precinct Station House 41, which, as one of the policemen explains to the new station chief, is not a precinct house but a fort in hostile territory. It’s where the old people gather during the day to sun themselves, gossip and play cards, comforted by the immediate presence of the law.

Outside the station house, there is chaos – drug dealing, prostitution, murder, mugging and discontent on an epic scale. The film begins almost casually: Early morning. A deserted side street. Two rookie police officers sit in their patrol car near the end of their night shift. A tall black hooker named Charlotte, wearing a blond wig and spike heels, totters over to the car. She makes them a proposition they can refuse in good humor. She giggles. They suggest she go on home. She assumes a seductive pose, leaning through the window on the driver’s side. As they talk some more, Charlotte, still giggling, pulls out a handgun and shoots both men at point-blank range.

The mystery of the killing of the two rookies is just one of the daily problems to be fort apachefaced by Murphy (Paul Newman), a veteran police officer, and his young partner, Officer Corelli (Ken Wahl), in their line of duty. There are also would-be suicides, babies to deliver, a confrontation with angry community activists and corruption within the precinct house itself, including one white officer’s mindless murder of a Puerto Rican youth.

Heywood Gould’s original screenplay, which is credited as having been ”suggested by the experiences of Thomas Mulhearn and Pete Tessitore,” focuses most of the time on Officers Murphy and Corelli, especially on Murphy’s uneasy relationship with the new precinct chief, who makes the near-fatal mistake of going by the book. However, the film doesn’t hesitate to pull back from the affairs of Murphy and Corelli to show us vignettes of life that are forever out of the reach of the two officers.

The split vision does not make for a neat screenplay, but it broadens the film’s impact to a considerable degree, particularly by suggesting that what’s happening in this community is inevitable – nothing less, really, than the collapse of civilization and the beginning of the new Dark Ages.

At the same time, however, this split vision makes more relevant criticism about, among other things, the film’s alleged racism. If the film has the freedom to look into the spaced-out activities of the murderous Charlotte, might it not also have the freedom to suggest that the black police officers with whom Murphy and Corelli work are more than just dress extras? When a film considers the theme of civilization’s decline, it has obligations that a simple chase movie doesn’t.

Mr. Newman gives his best performance since ”Slapshot.” At this point, it’s impossible to tell exactly where the public personality stops and the acting starts, but however he works, he is terrific – skeptical, ironic, self-deprecating and, frequently, just exhausted. Rachel Ticotin, a beautiful young actress new to films, has the break of her career as the Puerto Rican nurse with whom Murphy falls in love, only to lose under circumstances that are not untypical of the locale. She and Mr. Newman work beautifully together. As Mr. Newman’s comparatively callow partner, Mr. Wahl is also fine, suggesting a new Richard Gere, but an actor whose interests go beyond the self.

Edward Asner has the thankless role of the by-the-book cop; Pam Grier, the leading lady of such mid-70’s exploitation films as ”Coffy” and ”Scream, Blackula, Scream,” plays the wayward Charlotte, and Kathleen Beller appears briefly as Officer Corelli’s fiancee. Miguel Pinero, the playwright (”Short Eyes”), has a couple of short but riveting scenes as a Spanish-speaking drug dealer.

”Fort Apache, the Bronx” is an odd-shaped movie. There are unfortunate ellipses in the way it sees life in the South Bronx, unfortunate lines of dialogue and unfortunate sequences (the babydelivery scene). But it’s also entertaining and very moving, which is not something you can say of most movies about the decline and fall of civilizations.

In Hostile Territory

FORT APACHE, THE BRONX, directed by Daniel Petrie; written by Heywood Gould; photographed by John Alcott; film editor, Rita Roland; music by Jonathan Tunick; produced by Martin Richards and Tom Fiorello; released by 20th Century-Fox. At the Gemini, Second Avenue and 64th Street; Criterion, Broadway and 45th Street; Orpheum, Third Avenue and 86th Street, and other theaters. Running time: 125 minutes. This film is rated R.

Murphy . . . . . Paul Newman
Connolly . . . . . Edward Asner
Corelli . . . . . Ken Wahl
Morgan . . . . . Danny Aiello
Isabella . . . . . Rachel Ticotin
Charlotte . . . . . Kathleen Beller
Jumper/Detective . . . . . Tito Goyo
Hernando . . . . . Miguel Pinero
Jose . . . . . Jaime Tirelli
Track Star . . . . . Lance William
Guecia Pimp . . . . . Ronnie Clanton
Dacey . . . . . Clifford David
Dugan . . . . . Sully Boyar
Heffernan . . . . . Michael Higgins
Pantuzzi . . . . . Rik Colitti
Applebaum . . . . . Irving Metzman

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