The seventies were an amazing time for films; some of our most iconic stars started their careers in that decade as did some still very good directors. It was also a time when the movies captured the real grit that was New York City at the time.
Unrecognizable today, the city was dirty and dangerous; filled with drug pushers, prostitutes; garbage and piles of dog droppings everywhere; the murder rate was high, the city was bankrupt, and no one wanted to ride the subway. And the movies captured it beautifully, but none more so than The French Connection released in 1971.
Based on a true story of the New York City Police Department shutting down a notorious drug running operation straight from France to Forty Second Street. Gene Hackman’s brilliant performance as Popeye Doyle became the “cop” standard for films to come. It was filmed on the very streets we walked on every day and it was as real a depiction as could be.
It played at the Victoria theatre off Broadway on either 42nd or 43rd Street, and one day Dad decided he wanted to see it and asked if I wanted to see it too. Again, stunned that he wanted to include me I quickly said yes, thinking it was quite an “adult” film but I had always loved cop movies, especially New York cop movies, so I quickly said yes. Off we went, and both of us loved the movie; Dad was probably even more excited than I was as Popeye raced through the streets of the West Side, following a drug dealer in a requisitioned car, smashing into parked cars, avoiding killing innocent pedestrians (that baby stroller!), determined, not to be denied…a wonderfully paced scene that made movie history (maybe equaled only by Steve McQueen in Bullitt zooming through the streets of San Francisco). He was literally on the edge of the sticky theater seat, cheering on Hackman in his pursuit of the bad guy. It was fun to see. This was a guys movie and I was thrilled that I was seeing it with my Dad.
When the movie was over, we walked out into the wintery night; snow beginning to fall, and made our way back to the A train at the 42nd Street station. We grabbed a Nedicks from the stand and waited for the train on the dirty platform. After a few moments, Dad nudged me. I looked up at him and he pointed out someone with his chin. I looked where he was directing me, and there was a man, dressed in a camelhair coat, with a white goatee and distinctly European features, and I gasped…it was the guy from the film…the mastermind Frenchman!!! Here we were standing in a subway station just like the one in the famous scene where Popeye and the Frenchman step on and off the train before it pulls out of the station. And there, by some weird art imitating life or life imitating art ef was someone who could have stepped out of the film we had just seen. I looked back up to Dad who smiled at me and shrugged. The train whooshed into the station, the doors opened and Dad winked. I expected to follow his lead like I always did, and hold his hand as I stepped over the gap and onto the car. But Dad hesitated while others stepped onto the train car. I looked up to him questioningly and saw he was watching the man we had spotted. He was waiting for the man to get on first just like Popeye did in the movie. I caught on immediately and played along, nodding to him. We were the cops, watching our bad guy! I was elated! Dad conjuring up a real-life game at the spur of the moment! He took a step onto the train only to step back off again nodding to our man who was still on the platform. This was so cool! Of course, in a few moments, the well-dressed man stepped onto the train perfectly normally and I looked up to Dad, who nodded…ok, now we could get on. I laughed out loud, Dad grabbed my hand smiling. We were having fun, playing make-believe in the subway and I was speechless! This didn’t happen too often; hell it didn’t happen at all, but it did that cold afternoon uptown. We watched the man until he got off at 34th street and I almost expected Dad to follow him, but he just smiled at me again, and we continued on our way to 14th Street.
When we got home, we got the usual question from Mom: “So how was it?”
“Great!” we both said. Mom said, “You must have taken the train, you got home so quickly”. Dad said “Yea we did…it was cold”, and looked down at me and winked.
Too good. Too perfect. Our little games-playing secret. I was used to these games with Don; heck we were masters of blurring the line between reality and fantasy, but for Dad, of all people to play, heck to make up the game in the first place??
Besides loving that film for what it was: a near perfect realistic view of New York cops, it has always held an extra special place in my heart for making Dad feel and act like a kid again.
For that one brief moment on a dirty A train in the heart of the city, unbeknownst to the many people around us, a very special father was once again creating an indelible memory for his son.