The people ride in a hole in the ground,” sing the three horny, hopped-up sailors as they ecstatically catalog the city’s many marvels in “New York, New York,” the opening number of Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly’s On the Town (1949).
That hole, now 110 years old, receives a more expansive, warts-and-all tribute in BAMcinématek’s “Retro Metro” series, a program of 13 features and three shorts that highlight the joys and terrors of subterranean travel. Spanning 1928 through 1992, these movies reveal wildly vacillating feelings about the sprawling transit system — what Randy Kennedy calls “an object of pride and fascination, fear and loathing” in the introduction to his excellent 2004 book, Subwayland, a collection of his New York Times columns recounting his adventures underground.
Sometimes mass transit is imagined as the frothiest of fantasies, re-created on Hollywood soundstages. During the lavish “I Only Have Eyes for You” musical number in Ray Enright’s Dames (1934), a 1-line train is both an art deco beauty and the portal to one of choreographer Busby Berkeley’s more chimerical set pieces: The face of Ruby Keeler, who’s being serenaded by Dick Powell, replaces all of those in the subway ads inside their car, soon multiplying into a bazillion dancing Keeler heads. When the lovers reach the northern terminus, Powell carries his sleeping lady down the tracks, magically sidestepping the third rail. Though On the Town‘s “New York, New York” was famously filmed on location throughout the boroughs — shots include the trio of gobs, first-timers in the city, walking under elevated tracks and arriving on a subway platform just as a real train pulls in — the musical’s most elaborate paean to public transportation occurs during the “Miss Turnstiles Ballet,” pure MGM reverie.
Other titles in “Retro Metro” emphasize the subway’s most practical feature — conveyance — but focus on the outsize, near-mythic gulf between point A and point B. That’s especially the case when Brooklyn and Manhattan are concerned, as in Leslie Harris’s Just Another Girl on the I.R.T. (1992). The titular straphanger, smart and smart-mouthed Chantel (Ariyan A. Johnson), keeps up her GPA at a Crown Heights high school and dreams of escaping the projects. She hops the 2 train to get to her job at a Zabar’s-like gourmet emporium on the Upper West Side — whose residents seem to face no graver crisis than being unable to find brie with caraway seeds.
In the very first shot of John Badham’s Saturday Night Fever (1977), Manhattan looms like Emerald City across the East River, the camera soon traversing part of the Verrazano–Narrows Bridge and then cutting to a B train roaring past. Below the elevated tracks, Bay Ridge’s Tony Manero (John Travolta) peacocks down the street, the rumble of the subway overhead adding to the percussion of “Stayin’ Alive.” The entire life of the 19-year-old prince of the 2001 Odyssey disco is limited to deepest southwest Kings County, where Tony and his buddies get around solely by Cadillac Seville. Yet when he wants to abandon the parochial ways of the old neighborhood for good, Tony’s initiated into manhood — or the aspirational class — by riding the rails all night: The RR (as it was known then) train transports him to the Manhattan brownstone apartment of his dance partner and fellow Brooklyn emigrant Stephanie (Karen Lynn Gorney). Making an even longer trek are the leather-vested toughs in Walter Hill’s The Warriors (1979): The Coney Island gang must make a round trip from their beachfront turf in Brooklyn to the Bronx via the IND and the IRT, the progress of their below-ground voyage tracked by the frequent close-ups of Massimo Vignelli’s modernist, streamlined subway map, retired the same year that Hill’s movie was released.
Like nearly all those in service from the ’70s through the late ’80s, the subway cars in which Tony and the Warriors spend their respective wee-hour commutes are festooned with tags and other graffiti. This elaborate system of signs and symbols is admiringly explored in Tony Silver’s documentary Style Wars (1983). Occasionally interspersed with some square voiceover narration — “They call themselves writers, because that’s what they do” — this Koch-era chronicle features Hizzoner himself, railing against “quality-of-life offenses,” and the even more indignant Detective Bernie Jacobs. Although the film gives ample time to others who see the spray-painted letters and drawings as nothing but an urban scourge — particularly the formidable mother of then-teenage graffiti artist Skeme (“You have destroyed your room!”) — Style Wars clearly roots for the taggers and their cohort.
By the time Kennedy began writing, in 2000, his weekly “Tunnel Vision” column for the Times, the trains had long been scrubbed of all their florid markings. Another astute observation he makes about NYC mass transit in Subwayland, however, holds true for any year since 1904: “But like schoolchildren in detention, riders form a kind of unspoken bond while forced into each other’s company — call it the kinship of the mildly oppressed.” It’s precisely this element, beyond its commitment to exacting technical and location detail, that makes Joseph Sargent’s The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (1974) one of the best films about New York. In this masterful heist movie, a group of disparate Gotham cranks, weirdos, and hotheads, both below ground and above it, come together in the face of disaster: the inconceivable hijacking of a southbound 6 train. Made during the “Ford to City: Drop Dead” era, Pelham salutes the toughness and irascibility of not just the 17 passengers being held for $1 million in ransom money, but also the team of negotiators led by Walter Matthau’s grumpy transit cop. The qualities those fictional characters exhibited 40 years ago are still the trademark of nearly anyone with a MetroCard today.