The 1980s were a wild time for the city of New York. For the duration of that decade, and beyond, it was the go-to place for those who wanted to make things happen. To live life. To realize their most wildest fantasies or make their most extravagant dreams come true. Unfortunately, some of those individuals were painfully unaware or downright oblivious to the dark underbelly of the city, and forgot to proceed with caution to certain places.
Places… like Alphabet City.
But in 1984, director Amos Poe (The Blank Generation) made a film titled as such, starring a young character actor by the name of Vincent Spano, which attempted to shed light on this unfavorable area of New York. Taking place over the course of one night, Spano plays Johnny, a young hustler and debt collector who operates within the confines of this area, named such due to it being located around Avenues A, B, C, and D, the only avenues in the Manhattan area to have single letter names.
While Johnny mostly enjoys the small amount of wealth and power this position provides, it comes with a heavy toll on his conscience. Now, he is tasked with burning down a tenement building so his employers can collect on the insurance money. The problem is, this building also houses his mother and sister. Unwilling to go through with the job, he decides to make a run for it, hopefully with his girlfriend and their newborn daughter in tow. Alas, this task is easier than it seems…
Alphabet City is an emotional and visual stunner of a film. Director Poe manages to convey a terrific story of choices and consequences while capturing the beauty of the darkest areas of the city. His portrayal of one of the deepest pits of New York in the 80s is rigorously engrossing, to say the least. One pivotal sequence, which shows a disturbingly large amount of addicts shuffling up the stairs of a dilapidated drug den in hopes of scoring their next fix is as hypnotic as it is saddening. Profoundly mesmerizing stuff.
Quite frankly, the entirety of the urban landscape of New York at that time has rarely looked this bewitching and captivating. Poe and his Director of Photography, virtuoso cinematographer Oliver Wood, paint such a vivid, enchanting vision of the decayed ruins of old New York. Perfectly bathed in neon colors, it all looks undeniably lovely.
But all that would be meaningless if the film lacked a strong lead, so it is with pleasure that I tell that the film is truly blessed with the presence of Vincent Spano as Johnny. Thoroughly reminding me of a manlier, more physically imposing Al Pacino, Spano is absolutely commanding in the lead. Able to convey strength, fear, arrogance, contempt, and sorrow with ease at the drop of a hat, Spano is the perfect leading man to carry this film.
And while Spano is mostly the whole show here, the supporting cast is also stellar. Solid turns from Michael Winslow as his drug addicted partner Lippy, Jami Gertz as his sister Sophia, Kate Vernon as his girlfriend and the mother of his child Angie, and Zohra Lampert as his mother. We also get early appearances from character actors Tom Wright as a chauffeur and Clifton Powell as Ramon, a worker in the drug den. Just fantastic all around.
The music is also a character in itself, with the soundtrack being provided by Chic co-founder Nile Rodgers, whose synth-pop soundtrack elevates the film to extremely exuberant levels.
So, with all these elements combined, this film should have become a bonafide classic of the genre. Unfortunately, the film received mixed reviews, with some dismissing it as a low rent Scarface wannabe, and it went mostly unseen, then quickly disappeared into obscurity.
Now, new distribution label Fun City Editions has put out an sumptuous blu-ray of the film, allowing it to be discovered by a new legion of fans eager to eat up this type of offering. Featuring a 2k restoration from its 35mm interpositive, a video essay by filmmaker Chris O’Neil, audio commentary by the director as well as writer Luc Sante, and an interview with Vincent Spano, this is a wonderful disc that is more than worthy of appearing in the collection of any true physical media collector (me being one myself), as well as a fantastic debut for Fun City Editions. I will definitely be looking foward to future releases from them.
So if you can, head over here and seek out Alphabet City, a moody neo-noir cult classic that is an exquisite time capsule of its period. I highly recommend it.