ALPHABET CITY is a unique, stylish little 1984 crime drama directed by Amos Poe, a New York City legend best known for co-directing the 1976 punk documentary THE BLANK GENERATION. This one’s only about 70% story and 30% ambience, but I kind of loved that about it.
It stars Vincent Spano (already in OVER THE EDGE, THE BLACK STALLION RETURNS and RUMBLE FISH, but still very young) as Johnny, a hot shot drug dealer who zooms around in a white Trans-Am (25th Anniversary Daytona 500 Edition according to Wikipedia) lording over the small area of the East Village named after its Avenues A through D. His license plate says “CHUNGA,” and I don’t know what it means, but it’s also his password when he knocks on the door at the crackhouse.
Today his boss (Raymond Serra, the police chief in TEENAGE MUTANT NINJA TURTLES I and II), who is seen mostly as a mouth and a ring-wearing hand holding a phone, has ordered him to burn down a tenement building as part of a real estate scam. Trouble is it’s the one he grew up in, and his loopy mom (Zohra Lampert, the Jessica of LET’S SCARE JESSICA TO DEATH) and wild younger sister Sophia (Jami Gertz [RENEGADES] in the same year as SIXTEEN CANDLES) still live there. Sophia convinces Johnny not to go through with the arson, but that means the boss will send someone else to do it, and someone to kill him for his betrayal. So the top items on his to-do list tonight are
1. Get Mom and Sophia to leave the building
2. Go around and collect a bunch of money so he and his wife and baby can skip town. In that sense it’s a little like that Robert Forster movie WALKING THE EDGE which, like this one, was released on blu-ray by Fun City Editions. But the look and feel here is very different. Much hipper and murkier.
It mostly doesn’t feel like a race against time. It’s got that episodic, sometimes surreal feeling of a one-crazy-night movie. It’s only 85 minutes, but you feel like you experience the night with him. On the blu-ray commentary track, Poe says the producers thought it was an “urban action movie” but he thought it was BATTLE OF ALGIERS.
A big part of the appeal is a distinctly first-half-of-the-‘80s version of New York City cool. I don’t know for a fact but suspect very strongly that Nicolas Winding Refn loves this movie. Johnny wears a mesh shirt under a leather jacket with studded bracelets and boots with cuffs on them. He puts all this and a holster on in a RAMBO: FIRST BLOOD PART II style suiting-up montage when he leaves for work. Nothing is ever brightly lit (they didn’t have enough power for it, according to Spano in an interview) but there are lots of red and green lights coming through steam and smoke, and street lights and headlights reflecting on wet streets. And it’s all set to a synth pop soundtrack by Nile Rogers, who was working with Madonna, Duran Duran, INXS and Peter Gabriel in that era. On the commentary track, Poe says Rogers was working on Madonna’s album at the same time in a different studio. (That would be Like a Virgin.)
But there’s a humanity beneath the style and attitude, and it’s established in an opening scene that for me kind of makes the whole movie work. See, it starts with him rolling around in bed with a smokin hot naked woman. Suddenly they’re interrupted by the crying of a baby. And they both laugh. “Oh, Renee!” says the woman as she slides back into her panties, but she seems more amused than annoyed.
She’s his wife (or girlfriend, I’m not sure) Angie, played by Kate Vernon (PRETTY IN PINK, MALCOLM X, BLACKJACK), who gets an “introducing” credit because she’d only played “Cellmate” in CHAINED HEAT. We know she’s an artist from the paint stains on her sweatshirt-and-legwarmers based outfit. They live in a huge loft filled with her giant paintings, and I’m gonna assume she designed their cool living spaces, like the little square of retro kitchen with a corrugated metal wall, sort of hovering in the middle of the place like a film set built on a soundstage. She seems so cool. She seems like she probly knows Fab 5 Freddy.
They split duties taking care of baby Renee. Johnny lets her “help” with his workout, doing pull-ups with her strapped to his chest. When he says goodbye to Angie before leaving for work they look into each other’s eyes and seem so genuinely into each other.
The camera stays on her after he steps away and her face slowly melts into sadness. Despite some problems in their relationship they seem really in love. It’s unusual for a crime film to show us an anti-hero in a relationship that seems more healthy and fulfilling than not. Later there will be some fighting about his promises to quit the life, but he’s sincerely trying to do that. So it’s not the usual romanticization of being in dutch with the old lady.
She might not know much about what he does out there. She has not yet met his partner and friend Lippy, played by Michael Winslow before POLICE ACADEMY came out. He’s supposed to be “watching the store,” a.k.a. the crackhouse, but he jokes that he just sells it so he doesn’t have to pay for it. It’s interesting to see Winslow in this role, hidden behind sunglasses, hood pulled up with a Rocksteady hat over it and headphones over that, channeling his normal manic energy into junkie tics. There are blips of his need to do funny voices and sounds (Johnny is unimpressed with Lippy’s imaginary machine gun routine as they watch cops raid “the store” from a window above), but mostly he plays this like a proto-Chris Tucker. He’s pretty good.
I like the surreal haziness of the crackhouse. When the camera enters the room it takes a bit for your eyes to adjust enough to notice all the people sitting around. They’re counting money surrounded by candles in a room where, if this was a horror movie, I assume a voodoo ritual would take place. There’s a big guard who checks people’s arms for track marks to make sure they’re really junkies. And the playwright Miguel Piñero (THE JERICHO MILE, BREATHLESS) is there.
Since Johnny really needs his sister to help get their mom out of the building, he stops her from leaving for an escort gig in a limo full of party girls. The limo driver (Tom Wright, aka Charles from MARKED FOR DEATH) pulls out a rifle, but Johnny disarms him and carries his sister back into the building over his shoulder, to the applause of all the neighbors who presumably came out onto the fire escapes after they heard the gun shot. I think they just appreciate the entertainment, they don’t even know he’s doing this to save their homes.
One of my absolute favorite things in the movie is when Johnny calls Angie to check on her. She’s been asleep on the couch and she’s obviously lonely with him gone all day, but happy to hear from him, and asks him to pick up some disposable diapers. He’s just been on the phone with a mob boss being threatened, but the next scene is him showing up at the loft with a big thing of Huggies. He may have ulterior motives, because this is the scene where he tells her they need to leave town, but I truly believe this is a guy who stops to buy and drop off diapers for his wife in the middle of a bunch of dangerous dealings. After all, he does have baby shoes hanging from his rear view mirror, sullying an otherwise undiluted image of toughness.
Poe (Amos, not Edgar Allen) wrote the movie, with a story credit to Gregory K. Heller (whose only other credit is the American version of Jean Rollin’s THE LIVING DEAD GIRL) and additional dialogue by Robert Seidman (who got the same credit on NIGHTMARE WEEKEND). But the joy of this one is not so much the plot as the little moments and details. So many scenes have just a subtle little thing that seems unplanned. I like when Johnny goes to see his mom and stops to pick up a knocked over garbage can on the sidewalk and put it in the right place. I also like when he’s fighting with Juani (Daniel Jordano, “Punk at Newscopter [uncredited], DEATH WISH 3) and he picks up a garbage can, dumps the garbage on him, hits him with the can, picks him up and dumps him in another can, which he then knocks over. In the aforementioned interview, Spano explains that the two were lifelong friends who liked to play fight, and they entirely improvised that one.
I love the random oddballs: the breakdancers in front of La Tropicana, the hipster in the ROAD WARRIOR t-shirt warming his hands over a barrel (maybe some famous person cameo), the hooker wearing a shiny white jacket that says “Rock ’n roll” on the back and white legwarmers over black spandex, with an animal tail in her hair, Davy Crockett style (sort of). And there are so many strange moments, like when he goes to see the dude in the all white outfit with the pet snake in his office (Kenny Marino, PRINCE OF THE CITY, EXTERMINATOR 2, DEATH WISH 3) and shoots him in the dick with a tiny gun. My favorite is when he breaks into a condemned building, clears a rat out of an old refrigerator so he can move it to get to a money stash in the wall behind it, and then he puts some of the money in front of the rat and says, “Get yourself some cheese. Knock yourself out.”
Thank you to Charles (@The8thCurse on Twitter) for convincing me to watch this one some months back. It’s on Amazon Prime so I watched the opening scene and was so sold I decided to hold off and blind buy the blu ray through a Vinegar Syndrome partner labels sale that was going on at the time. And I think I made the right decision.
I also tried watching Poe’s 1981 film SUBWAY RIDERS, which IMDb describes like this: “A Psychotic saxophone player (played both by Amos Poe and John Lurie) lures victims to deserted spots with his music and then guns them down.” Unfortunately it was very rambling and eventless and unlike this one it’s just on a DVD with a sub-bootleg quality transfer (scan lines all over blurry video) so I bailed before I even got much saxophone.
P.S. There’s a big tough guy working security at the crackhouse who wears a beret and a ninja t-shirt like the one at the right here. I know I’ve seen the design before but all I could find about it was a place trying to sell a vintage one for $200, saying that the guitarist for SSD used to wear one. If anyone knows the origin of the design or where to get a reprint I’d love to know.
P.P.S. Also directed by Amos Poe: