10 Great “Accidental Documentaries” of New York City’s Sketchiest Era

Our favorite snapshots of the city, back when every day was an adventure.

Today, New York’s Film Forum begins a fabulous new retrospective series, “Ford to City: Drop Dead – New York in the 70s,” which draws its title from the notorious New York Daily News headline paraphrasing of President Gerald Ford’s response to the city’s 1975 request for federal funding assistance. The headline was a simplification of Ford’s stance, but it stuck, because it seemed such a succinct summary of how the rest of America viewed the city: a garbage-ridden hornet’s nest of crime, corruption, danger, and sin. And often, that’s how the city viewed itself – particularly in the cinema of the era, which seized on New York’s dramatic descent into urban decay, and captured it on celluloid forevermore. In that way, the films shot on location in NYC in the 1970s (a process, hilariously enough, that the city simplified at the end of the previous decade via the establishment of the Mayor’s Office of Film, Theatre, and Broadcasting — just in time to capture what a shit hole it’d become) have become relics of a very different New York: accidental documentaries of what the city once was. Here are ten films in the series that present the most striking contrasts.

Midnight Cowboy

One of the most iconic moments in all of New York cinema comes in John Schlesinger’s 1969 Best Picture winner (the only X-rated movie to ever win that honor), when Dustin Hoffman’s Bronx-bred Ratso Rizzo informs a dangerously close cabbie, “I’m walkin’ here!” It’s become a cliché of New York attitude, but nicely captures the defiance of city-dwellers in this period – and is one of many achingly accurate period touches in Cowboy, one of the first wide releases to capture the rot of the city in general and its once-glam Times Square district in particular.