Notes From the Underground: Seven Rides On the Cinematic Subway (part 1)
Subways are organisms. They traverse the bowels of a city and carry hundreds of souls through dark subterranean corridors, occasionally stopping in artificially-lit stations which in themselves function as microcosms of their surrounding localities. City dwellers use the subway as a transitional reticle, a utilitarian mesh which passes them from one station to another; the subway or the subway ride is a spatial experience unique to city dwellers in which they are for a time trapped underground frequently with strangers or alone. Subways are often metaphors for distinct urban experiences, often employed as signifiers of alienation, violence or claustrophobia. The occasional subway cop notwithstanding, subway peregrination is a uniquely vulnerable experience—escape routes can be limited, the tunnels are dark, fellow passengers are seemingly in their own states of disaffectedness, and the very fact of being underground often plays into the phobias and fantasies associated with urban living. No matter how modern the trappings, the subterranean corridors of the subway are often forbidding places and in fiction each subway stop brings the potential for a new narrative turn, frequently in menacing directions. In the sense, subways are often settings for some of the best horror films and thrillers, or at least provide some of the most memorable moments in non-subway-centric films.
In celebration of the “release” of Ryuhei Kitamura/Clive Barker’s film Midnight Meat Train (2008), I’m taking a look at some of the more memorable cinematic moments set on subways or subway trains. Lionsgate’s shabby treatment of Meat Train aside, Kitamura’s film is a thrilling moment for subway shocker-aficionados like myself, and in some ways it’s the distillation of some of the best elements of cinematic subway scenes from the past few decades. It’s not exactly a horror classic, but it’s still a worthy and hair-raising addition to the index of truly great subway-bound thrillers.
Death Line (aka Raw Meat) (1972)
Gary Sherman’s Death Line transposes the Sawney Bean legend to Twentieth-century London, re-imagining the cannibalistic Scotsman as a shuffling freak hiding in the caverns behind the tunnels of the city’s tube system, randomly grabbing drunks and mini-skirted wenches waiting for after-hours trains. The gore quotient’s fairly high for the era and Sherman makes the subway an eerie Gothic subterranean haunt one step removed from the old dark houses of Hammer and Amicus.
It should be a lot of fun but Death Line’s a soporific pacing and pedestrian plot degenerates into something less than a serviceable B-movie. Donald Pleasance tears it up as the inspector sent to sniff out the missing subway travelers, however the cannibal-in-the-tunnels business isn’t nearly as scary as it should be.
Almost in spite of itself Sherman’s film allows its real star, London’s seedy subway, to shine in its decrepit splendor; the crumbling tiles and sooty walls of the tube stations in the film speak of more storied tales of decrepitude and despair than the one we’re actually watching. We don’t get nearly enough of its grubby beauty in the film’s monotonous trundling, but what we do see is unnerving and ominous, the gorgeous subterranean setting offering timorous shadings of a much better movie.
Death Wish (1974)
Michael Winner’s adaptation of Brian Garfield’s novel outlines the evolution (or deterioration, depending on your perspective) of a “bleeding heart liberal” (described in these very terms in the movie) architect played by Charles Bronson from an ordinary family man to a calculating vigilante after his wife and daughter are assaulted in their Manhattan apartment one afternoon. From there the protagonist goes on a side trip to Arizona (shown here as the bosom of gun-loving America and a cradle of good old Western values) and he earns his sacrament as a righteous pistol-toting male from a wealthy gun enthusiast. Returning to New York City Bronson’s character becomes a shadowy vigilante and folk hero who effectively cleans up a city poisoned by social permissiveness and liberal social policies.
By some elucidations, Death Wish was histrionically effective and jaw-droppingly simple in its social discourse; to 1974 audiences, the film was a reactionary extravaganza, an orgy of displaced rage engendered by the social turmoil of late 1960s urban life. Winner’s film was a massive hit and no wonder; on its face, the film’s distillation of society’s ills as simply and easily resolved by the barrel of a gun was catnip to a seriously freaked-out American hoi polloi which was still recovering from the tumultuous reconditeness of the post-Vietnam War era. A more hermeneutic reading of Death Wish suggests that the film’s enduring appeal might also be due to its vivid delineation of its tortured protagonist whose discomforting moral proximity to the criminals he pursues exemplifies the disturbing parallels between the civilized and the disordered, questions which still dog the American psyche today.
Death Wish contains a couple of brief but sublime action scenes on the subways which figure in the storyline as Bronson’s character more or less perfects his m.o.; he puts himself in harm’s way, acting like a potential victim and when the hoodlums are about to strike he deals a quick but satisfying death blow. Reactionary politics aside, Winner’s action sequences are breathtaking in their matter-of-fact alacrity and minimalist propulsion. The scene where Bronson dispatches the muggers in the subway car burnishes the trenchant image of his gun shooting the hoodlum through the newspaper, one of several visuals which elevates this film to its iconic status (alongside, of course, Dirty Harry (1972)) as a standard-bearer of vigilante narratives which is still referenced by urban revenge narratives to this day.
It may or may not have influenced real-life subway vigilante Bernard Goetz, but Death Wish still wields considerable power as a vision of pre-Guiliani Manhattan, an apocalyptically violent vision of urban blight which also exudes a strange and dissolute beauty uncontaminated by the corporate homogeneity which blankets Times Square today. This lost world of graffiti-pockmarked subway cars, seedy grindhouses and unsavory streetcorners is palpable in Death Wish, an inadvertent time capsule of this era whose poetry still registers in between the gunshots and sledgehammer-crude storytelling.
Next: The Warriors (1978), Maniac (1980)