Brass-balled, Bronx-born auteur Abel Ferrara is one of those two-fisted screen bards that always follows through on each sucker punch, his heart beating with Sam Fuller’s blood. His scorching morality plays and tainted-psyche humanizations are raw nerves exposed and chewed through, like a naked tornado called Hyde to Scorsese’s more calculated risk-taker Jekyll. However, what makes an Abel Ferrara film for me isn’t plot or casts of meaty, dilemma-torn characters. It’s in the gritty city itself, a filmmaking toybox for tones, textures, sounds, music and aesthetic. When Ferrara looks at New York City, he knows its tourist-trap beauty is bullshit and the lurid truth is in the blackened gum on the bottom of the postcard rack. He’s the director who would probably kick my pasty ass all the way to Chinatown if he heard this flowery praise.
Excluding his one-time-only skin flick, Fear City (1984) was Ferrara’s third feature, a gutter-noir thriller set in the armpit of pre-gentrified Times Square and seen almost exclusively at night. Ferrara didn’t perceive the skyscrapin’ billboards and excessive wattage as a sinfully exciting paradise like Las Vegas; rather, his menacing midtown purgatory is as literally dark as the after-hours sky. Shot so that buildings have no edge definition and color lies in the negative space of shadow, the ubiquitous neon of the ’80s is unusually used here as paint on a deep black canvas. (Check out the French DVD cover below for reference.)
As for its premise, Fear City would work on a double bill in one of the era’s 42nd Street grindhouse theaters. Said to be modeled after Ferrara and his long-time screenwriter Nicholas St. John, ex-boxer Matt “Matty” Rossi (Tom Berenger) and biz partner Nicky Parzeno (Jack Scalia) run the Starlite Talent Agency, basically a harem of on-call strippers. A bumpy credits-sequence ride through the streets postulates Times Square as nothing more than a one-stop peep show, in which we’re allowed our first glimpses (more like gawking glares) of a topless Loretta (Melanie Griffith) on the stage. Within the first ten minutes, you know of hell and decadence: gratuitious boobies, a stripper stabbed by a serial killer, a club-owner shakedown, and neck-licking lesbianism (the latter only appearing in the European cut, to be discussed later).
Tom Berenger stands in for Ferrara, Jack Scalia for Nicky St. John.
The narrative catalyst is indeed “The New York Knifer,” a nunchuck-wielding manifesto writer who may or may not be exclusively attacking Matty and Nicky’s girls. Could it be an operation staged by their competition, Goldstein? (Please tell me this guy’s a reference to Screw founder Al Goldstein.) Will Matty’s mob bosses in the downtown social clubs show any leniency as Starlite’s dry-erase board of scheduled working girls (not work safe) is gradually wiped cleaner? Can Matty conquer his sleepless agony over accidentally killing a guy in the ring and ruining his boxing career? Are he and Loretta meant to be together forever, or will they be undone by her smack-habit relapses at the first signs of duress? And brash homicide dick Al Wheeler (Billy Dee Williams, who may as well be brandishing a Colt 45 with Tarantino-giggly lines like “There’s nothing I hate more than guineas in Cadillacs”), will he ever stop busting Matty’s chops?
“Nobody’s clean,” says Billy Dee’s former vice cop, and he ain’t kidding in this setup. With the slasher at large, tensions and subplot boiling points run high and red, and Ferrara relishes this amped-up zone to muck with audience moralities. When the boys beat up an innocent architect at a strip joint because he’s spotted with an Xacto knife, the aftermath pays little penance: it was a mistake that could NOT be avoided. This and a shot of Matty tossing a gun into the East River (in view of the still-standing World Trade Center) reflect modern allusions after one wiseguy offers: “This bastard was meant to be caught, not prevented. You can never prevent terrorism.” Black-and-white readings be damned.
Even rooting for troubled Matty in his alleyway showdown with this karate killer, Ferrara’s Fear City refuses empowerment through the idea of an antihero. It loves, hates and understands its sleaze as a certainty that these characters may win minor victories, yet they’ll never escape the inevitable downward trajectory of their lives. It’s too schlocky with its physical training montages, redundant flashbacks and diseased entertainments to dare consider its depth, but it’s notably compassionate and naturalistic in its grim vivacity. Fear City is like a Cassavetes giallo set in 1984, not the year but an alternate universe of Orwellian terror. Except Big Brother was severely maimed in the first reel.
1.82GB | 1h 36m | 906×576 | mkv