A Snake in the Grass: Escape From New York and Noir Fusion

I like a good film noir as much as the next gal. Truly I do. Nothing I like better than spending the afternoon or evening at the theater (if I’m lucky) being surrounded by unreliable narrators, gorgeous and manipulative femmes fatale, and guys who were in the wrong place at the wrong time. However, I must admit that being a connoisseur, one of the other aspects that I also enjoy is watching the movies that film noir has spawned. I’m not talking about neo-noir (I would consider that to be still part of the “noir” arena, so to speak), nor am I thinking about films that just seem to have a bit of a noir “flavor” to them. I am particularly thinking about films that seem to have infused the noir sensibility and direct noir references into their text. I consider them to be in a category all to themselves- something I call Noir Fusion. Similar to the way that a fusion restaurant might pair up the foods of two different cultures on one plate, Noir Fusion does the same thing but with noir and “insert chosen film genre here.”

The film that I have chosen to illustrate this seemingly mutant category is John Carpenter’s Escape From New York.

As Raymond Durgnat first noted and Paul Schrader stated so succinctly, film noir is “not a genre…it is not defined, as are the western and gangster genres, by conventions of setting and conflict, but rather by the more subtle qualities of tone and mood.” (1) Escape From New York is an odd piece in that it is a genre film meant to evoke that certain tone and mood through the use of familiar conventions.

At first glance, Escape is an post-apocalyptic/sci-fi film, with some great action thrown in for good measure. And, as he remarks on the commentary track, John Carpenter intended to make something of an action film when he set out. However, due to the fact that the film did not end up getting made when it was originally written, Carpenter had to ruminate on what he could do with it for a little while, and thus…we got Escape From New York. It was a script that was on the shelf for 6 years. In that time, Carpenter was able to go from a cynical piece on how the country felt about Watergate, partially inspired by Deathwish, to a fleshed out piece that involved noir conventions in order to underscore the existential crises that Carpenter still wished to convey within the political narrative and character explorations.

“The rules are simple. Once you go in, you don’t come out.” -Rules of Manhattan Island Prison

Escape opens with a map of the “new” Manhattan, and a voice-over telling the audience the rules. Basically, the city is now in a state of complete containment. It is a jail, and there is an authoritarian government in control.

Carpenter has established that it is the future, but he has also established one of the main tenets of film noir: the feeling of being trapped in a situation that an individual can not get free from. It is clear from this opening that this is where the film will take place, and if that is the case…well, it is a prison. In this we have Carpenter making the first of many dual statements. It is physically confining, but it is also meant to underscore the concept that this is also a time where things are ideologically confining, especially since the prison is being run by what we will learn is a morally bankrupt system.

This is not the first time that this kind of prison as the base of operations has been used within film noir-related merchandise. If one recalls the film, Brute Force (1947), it also was used to convey a level of authoritarian and fascistic government sentiment, and certainly involved ethically questionable individuals running the prison itself (albeit in a very different narrative manner).

The prison is merely the tip of the iceberg, really. But the dual meaning of the space in which his characters exist gives us a good concept of what he is doing by combining film noir and sci-fi/post-apocalyptic films. It expands and enriches the environment in which we have to think about the narrative, politically, socially, and intellectually. To trap your characters in any sense will give you pause, but to add the extra genre is a nice bit o’ sauce! Does it detract from the “noir-ness”? Absolutely not. The rest of the elements that Carpenter provides give you the meat that complete the meal.

Support Your Local Anti-Hero

Robert G. Porfirio wrote, “[t]he word ‘hero’ never seems to fit the noir protagonist, for his world is devoid of the moral framework necessary to produce the traditional hero.” (2)  If that does not describe Snake Plissken (played to the hilt by Kurt Russell), I don’t know what does. The first time we meet him, we are told he is incredibly dangerous, and yet we come to find out he is also incredibly decorated with medals from battles/warfare. Then, as the list of his many accomplishments goes on, we are told of his criminal act: he robbed the Federal Bank. Our “hero” is also a criminal. Or is he?

John Carpenter said, when the film came out, that “There are no good guys in it, yet it’s totally entertaining!” (3) One of the things that we know and love about noir is that moral ambiguity is the name of the game, and the more ambiguous usually the more entertaining. So we have a guy with a war past. Hey, that’s nothing new! I’ve seen Bogey do that one! And he’s a criminal that I’m supposed to dig? Oh, man. I loved Richard Widmark in Pick-Up on South Street! Lay it on me, Carpenter. Whadya got in Snake that I can’t handle? Nothing. And that’s the beauty of it. Snake Plissken is the violent futuristic love-child of all of these men put together, and that’s what makes him ideal.

To a certain extent, he has a Mike Hammer-sensibility about him. He has a goal, and he’s not going to let anything or anyone stop him, using excessive violence as that is the way he  “gets things done.” And truly, his concern is only for his own preservation and getting the mission accomplished. He walks through the debauched hallways under the theater seeing horrific things going on but he has a one-track mind: get in, get the president, get out. But not for the good of the president or to help end the war. As he so concisely stated in the police commissioner’s office, “I don’t give a fuck about your war or your president.”

As Porfirio has noted, Snake’s lone-wolf methodology is also very innate to the noir world. He notes, “to a large degree every noir hero is an alienated man…the noir hero is most often ‘a stranger in a hostile world,” (4) and Snake’s world could not be anymore hostile if it tried. As he says to Hauk, the police commissioner, as he’s getting into the plane to descend into Manhattan Island Prison, “You mean I can’t count on you? Good.” No beat. No waiting for Hauk to answer. Nothing. It wasn’t even a question. This is Snake, and this is how he rolls.

In Escape from New York, we find a wonderfully strong noir protagonist in Snake Plissken. He’s as tough and hard-boiled as they come. His criminal identity has been well-established but only by men who are essentially criminals themselves, just of a different kind. Snake’s moral code is just as strong as his ability to get out of the situations he is put into, once again underscoring the topsy-turvy world that he has been, without choice, thrown into. Placing a character like Snake into a sci-fi/post-apocalyptic film such as this gives it just the right anti-hero to show off the upside down and crazy world that surrounds him. It may not be the darkened alleys of Los Angeles or the docks of San Francisco in the ’40’s, but he’s the right character to play tourguide to a very analogous futuristic world.

“A man should remember his past.”- Snake Plissken

Within the entirety of Escape From New York, there is one scene that could have been lifted straight from a noir script. Snake goes to meet up with “The Brain” (Harry Dean Stanton) to find out where the president is, because, as Cabbie (Ernest Borgnine) says, “The Brain would know!”

Upon entering his domain, Snake takes one look at him and calls him by his real name, Harold. As it turns out, “The Brain” is the reason that Snake is now in prison. He double-crossed him, left without him on the bank-job that they were doing, and Snake was the one that got caught while Harold got away. The speech in this scene is different from the speech used in any other scene in the film.

Not only does Snake continually refer to Maggie (Adrienne Barbeau) as “baby” in the most tough guy way possible, he keeps using all the same old-timey speech that Cabbie was using. While Cabbie has informed us that he has been driving a cab for 30 years, and it would make sense for a man of his age to use that lingo, it is a little odd for Snake to be having this kind of conversation with the exception that it needed to stand out.  As Snake growls, “A man should remember his past,” a comment that, in this scene, has even more worth. He has a past with Brain; a criminal past. And Brain double-crossed him. He’s not going to let him forget it, or let his “squeeze” get in the way. This storyline sounds different from a film noir how?

This scene works in tandem with the other more technically referential aspects of Escape to give the film a sense of history. While the film may be set in the future, it is not a film that comes without a past. And it does not want you to forget that. The smaller aspects include the tapes playing old ’40’s music in Cabbie’s cab or the classic movie theater that Snake enters when he gets to town. However, the more direct references are pretty blatant.

Before Snake gets set out to go, they inject him with capsules in his neck and give him a clock to wear around his wrist. At first they tell him that the time reflected on that watch is how long he has to get the president back. But, being the guy he is, Snake bristles and snarls, “What did you inject me with?” At that point, Hauk informs him that, not only is that clock for the president, it is for him. If he does not return to the base point within that allotted span of time, those capsules will basically kill him. If we do our noir math, there’s another little film based on time called D.O.A (1950), in which Edmond O’Brien has been poisoned and has precious little time left to find his killer. Sure, the plot is different, but the idea is still present. It is another case of “you have limited time to do what you have to do.”  The reference is quite clear and emphasizes the initial idea of being trapped within someone else’s “game,” as it were, once again.

The other picture that is referenced is one that would make a great deal of sense in a post-apocalyptic film: Kiss Me Deadly (1955). In Escape, the president is carrying around a briefcase that he has handcuffed to his arm. One of the reasons that Snake has to go in there to get him is to get that briefcase and what is inside. What is inside? Very important information regarding nuclear fusion. In Kiss Me Deadly, the “great whatsit” ends up centering around a case as well, which ends up containing some very, um, interesting nuclear information.

While these referential bits may seem accidental or even inconsequential, they still amount to the same thing: a noir stylistic that was deeply braided into an otherwise post-apocalyptic diegesis. The fusion is there.

In a film where almost the entire thing takes place at night, with continually wet streets, and an urban landscape teeming with criminals, one would be hard-pressed to not find some comparison to film noir.  The fact that it is sci-fi/post-apocalyptic seems almost accidental in that sense.  But it is not.  Escape is simply a combination. It is a visual and narrative fusion of the properties and stylistics of film noir within the diegetic structure of a sci-fi/post-apocalypse film. The noir spice brought out the gloomy and sinister features of the film and made the story and the characters in it seems even more threatening. Snake would not have seemed as hardcore or as attractive if he didn’t have the pulp fiction persona he did. The area would not have seemed as frightening or awful if you weren’t ultimately aware that you were trapped inside it. Noir fusion has produced a multiplicity of films, I’m sure, but of the ones that I have seen, this is one of the most triumphant.

(1) Schrader, Paul. “Notes on Film Noir.” Film Noir Reader. Vol. 1. Edited by Alain Silver & James Ursini. Limelight Editions, 1998. 53-63.

(2) Porfirio, Robert G. “No Way Out: Existential Motifs in the Film Noir.” Film Noir Reader. Vol. 1. Edited by Alain Silver & James Ursini. Limelight Editions, 1998. 77-93.

(3) ^ Maronie, Samuel J. (May 1981). “From Forbidden Planet to Escape from New York: A candid conversation with SFX & production designer Joe Alves”. Starlog. http://www.theofficialjohncarpenter.com/pages/press/starlog8105.html. Retrieved 2011-02-17.

(4) Porfirio, ibid.