The Film: Alphabet City (1984)

The Principals: Vincent Spano, Michael Winslow, Kate Vernon, Jami Gertz, Zohra Lampert, Raymond Serra, Kenny Marino, Daniel Jordano. Directed by Amos Poe.

The Premise: Over the course of one night, Johnny (Spano), a young drug lord on New York’s Lower East Side, finds himself fighting to escape his trade for the safety of his wife (Vernon) and infant daughter after the cops close in on his organization. Further, he’s ordered to burn down the apartment complex his mother (Lampert) and sister (Gertz) live in, which leaves Johnny scurrying to settle the score with his heartless employer (Serra).

Is It Good? Co-writer and director Amos Poe came from the burgeoning transgressive-art scene of the 1970’s and 80’s, where punk acts thrived at CBGB’s and filmmakers like Jim Jarmusch and Abel Ferrara came into their own as part of a movement known as “No Wave Cinema.” While Poe is a lesser-known name in this scene, his “underground” efforts led to “his first 35mm film,” according to his official website.

That film is Alphabet City, a little-seen indie from an era where independent film had not yet taken a substantial market share of mainstream cinema. Poe’s work is one hell of an introverted, stylish sleeper, a pastiche of filmmaker influences and Poe’s own background that paves the way for a unique, magnetic experience. The gritty, bleak, crime-infested streets of Martin Scorsese’s New York is accentuated by artistic touches Michael Mann would approve of—neon colors beaming from streetlights, police sirens and storefronts, projected back by the freshly-wet, puddle-ridden streets.

Poe takes his palpable influences and runs with the deed, further taking charge of the ever-growing omnipresence of MTV in the fashion, color palate and editing style. Blogger Gary Warnett wrote an essay on Drive on a concept he calls “neon noir,” a collection of bright-colored films “where occupations clash and situations engulf the protagonist,” usually accompanied by synth-heavy soundtracks. He cited Alphabet City as a film that falls squarely into the neon noir ideology, and the film certainly packs a punch in its portrayal of moral skepticism amidst urban angst.

The underrated Vincent Spano takes full charge of his fascinating performance as Johnny, a conflicted wayward who shares the same distrust of his craft as the kind of brooding protagonist Scorsese or Schrader would have crafted. In the opening moments of the film, Johnny’s love-making session with his wife is cut short by his crying baby, who needs their parents’ attention more. Johnny spends father-daughter time doing pull-ups with her strapped to him, and then gets out on the street.

Once Johnny leaves his studio apartment, he, along with the viewer, depart his bastion of normalcy onto the streets of Alphabet City. The streets are foggy. Dark fluorescents cake the urban environments, illuminating sirens or graffiti paint. New Wave music pulsates on the soundtrack, and Johnny’s brand-new white Trans Am sticks out like a sore thumb in a wasteland of the addicts and lower-class citizens his “business” has perpetuated. Clad in leather with his hair perfectly finessed and his rugged, unshaven looks exceeding that of what a drug dealer should be, Johnny stands for class in a world where class has nothing to do with image.

Overseeing Johnny’s nightly duties, we meet his best friend, the fast-talking, humorous dealer Lippy, played by Michael Winslow. Yes, the Michael Winslow from the Police Academy films, and yes, there are plenty of moments the film allows for him to break out his signature sound-effect creations. What I was shocked to see was how amiable and devoted Winslow is in his role, playing against the notion of being a demonized dope peddler but a welcome slice of comic relief in Johnny’s brooding world.

Tonight, however, is no ordinary night for Johnny. He’s been assigned to burn down an apartment complex in the neighborhood—the one that his mother and sister live in. He cares strongly for his family, and the relationship with his sister (played by a young Jami Gertz) is especially fascinating. Sophia works as an escort, insisting that she will stay youthful and fresh compared to the haggard, used-up colleagues she has.

Johnny wants no part in her career path and goes as far as to rough up her driver, effectively ending her career as a streetwalker. It shows a strangely sympathetic duality for Johnny, that his position as a drug dealer has not clouded not only his love for his family, but his moral outlook on other illicit rackets—especially one that he feels may be endangering a loved one.

As Johnny finds his empire compromised by the cops and further discovers that lower-level dealers have been dispatched to undermine him, our connection to Johnny only grows. Because he is a young father and has a beautiful wife—both of which he shows great affection for—we demand he escape this hell hole alive, and it is up to the film to oblige or sucker-punch us at the end of the tight, 85-minute running time. While the script beats are occasionally convoluted, there is no way in denying that Alphabet City is a fantastic artifact of a by-gone era and a satisfying redemption fantasy for an environment where redemption is an afterthought.

Is It Worth a Look? Absolutely. I only found out about this film a few months ago, and I’m entirely grateful to Gary Warnett’s blog post about exposing me to the riches of this small but extremely worthwhile film that should be considered essential viewing for any fan of Scorsese, Schrader or Mann.

Random Anecdotes: Appropriate given the music-video touches in Alphabet City, Amos Poe would direct several music videos after the film that range widely in genre from the 80s’ biggest hits (Animotion’s “Obsession”) to rap (Run DMC’s “You Talk Too Much”) to metal (Anthrax’s “Madhouse”).

Johnny’s unique white Pontiac Trans-Am was a 1983 limited edition—the 25th Anniversary Daytona 500 Edition, specifically. Only 2,500 cars were built.

Nile Rodgers—who composed the film’s score—was a founding member of the popular disco group Chic, best known for their hits “Le Freak” and “Good Times.” Rodgers produced several hit albums in the 80’s, including David Bowie’s Let’s Dance and Madonna’s Like a Virgin, and later went on to compose scores for films like Coming to America and Beverly Hills Cop III.

Alphabet City, the bureau of the Lower East Side of Manhattan, is given that name because of the unique designations of its streets: Avenues A, B, C, and D are the only streets with single letters in all of New York City.

Cinematic Soulmates: Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, American Gigolo, Thief, Light Sleeper, Drive (2011)