American screenwriter and director Amos Poe belonged to a decade-long underground movement of the late seventies and early eighties that originated in New York’s Lower East Side. Its name: No Wave Cinema. Its objective: the dismissal of traditional filmmaking processes in favor of low-budget filming techniques that rely on improvisation, while highlighting mood and tone. After directing movies such as The Foreigner (1978) and Subway Riders (1981), Poe went on to make Alphabet City (1984), a crime drama shot over twenty-four nights on the streets of New York. The director even wanted to make the film in black and white, intending for it to be "The Battle of Algiers (1966) in the Lower East Side", but the producers did not share his sentiment and vision, so it ended up being shot in full color instead. With a screenplay written by Poe himself, as well as Gregory K. Heller and Robert Seidman, the movie owes its title to the name of a neighborhood in Manhattan’s East Village, where the avenues are called A, B, C and D.
And in Poe’s film, the King of Alphabet City is Johnny (played by Vincent Spano), a nineteen-year-old Italian-American who works for mob boss Gino (Raymond Serra). Whether it be running drug deals and rackets or collecting debt, Johnny is the king of organized crime in his neighborhood. But upon being tasked with burning down a building his mother (film and stage actress Zohra Lampert) and fifteen-year-old sister (Jami Gertz) live in, Johnny realizes that he wants out. After trying to get his family to relocate and deciding he does not want to be responsible for the arson, our protagonist sets out on an adventure of stacking up on cash, while at the same time trying to protect his artistic girlfriend Angie (Kate Vernon) and their newborn from Gino’s henchmen. But his initial plan proves to be much more difficult than he bargained for, with his drug operation going down the toilet and the men he tries to collect from being unwilling to pay up. So just as No Wave Cinema auteurs tended to improvise, the same could be said for Johnny, whose night ends up being a seemingly never-ending series of unforeseen mishaps he needs to turn around in his favor if he wants to make it out of Alphabet City alive.
Just like films such as Scorsese’s After Hours (1985) or George Lucas’ American Graffiti (1973) take place over the course of one night, Poe’s Alphabet City cleverly uses the same formula. And while Scorsese’s screwball comedy centers around a dissatisfied computer word processor unsuccessfully trying to get out of SoHo, whereas Lucas’ coming-of-age gem depicts the nocturnal adventures of a couple of teenagers, Poe’s film utilizes a single night in the life of its criminal protagonist to give us a glimpse of Manhattan’s seedy underbelly. What makes the stakes infinitely higher is the notion that this is not just a run-of-the-mill night for Johnny, but arguably the last one he is intent on spending in that area, doing what he does best.
As far as we are concerned, the barely-grown man is exceptionally skilled at his job, which makes his decision to leave behind the only life he has ever known that much more of a gamble. And yet, it is a gamble he is willing to take because a boundary of his was ultimately crossed. Gino’s order to burn down the building his mother and sister lived in proved to be the straw that broke the camel’s back, giving him the willpower needed for one such dangerous, life-altering decision, the details of which he had had no time to work out. And now, all the street smarts that enabled Johnny to excel in his line of work, are there for him to utilize if he wishes to get out of it. The clock is ticking, meaning that the path he set out on is something he needs to commit to one hundred percent because it is quite literally a matter of life or death. And commit to it he does. Whether he was able to truly change inwardly in the blink of an eye, something his girlfriend proposes he is incapable of doing when he lays out his plan, is not a topic Alphabet City has either the time or the intention to explore. In the context of the film’s time frame, that question is rather a luxury the protagonist will have a chance to answer, but only if and when he gets himself and his new family out of harm’s way.
And as Johnny travels from one location to the next, we tag along for the ride with the utmost curiosity. Because aesthetically speaking, we are in for a treat. British cinematographer Oliver Wood (who would go on to shoot fifty-three episodes of Miami Vice, as well as all three Bourne movies) enables us to fully immerse ourselves in what is happening onscreen—thanks to his fascination with neon hues and his creative usage of camera angles such as the Dutch tilt or overhead shots, we get sucked into the both strangely seductive and highly appalling microcosm whose inhabitants abide by an entirely different set of rules.
Although Alphabet City was not much of a hit when it was first released, it nevertheless became a cult classic, praised for its highly stylized aesthetic and the acting performances of the aforementioned Spano, Gertz and Michael Winslow (all seven Police Academy movies) in the role of Johnny’s dealer friend Lippy, as well as revered for capturing a time period in New York’s history that has long gone. It is now available on Blu-ray as part of Fun City Editions, Vinegar Syndrome’s new partner label, Taking its name from the ironic moniker for late 1960s and '70s New York, Fun City Editions is a new boutique label focused on reissues of maverick repertory cinema and music that can best be described as works that exist "outside of their time." Spanning an array of genres, artists and countries, but with a unifying focus on forgotten and overlooked treasures, each Fun City release, be it a Blu-ray or vinyl LP, will present new restorations and comprehensive extras which contextualize and illuminate the artistic and historic value of the piece. Vinegar Syndrome will produce and supervise every restoration presented by Fun City Editions, which will also include extensive extras meant to examine and highlight each film’s value and significance.