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American Cinematographer Magazine

Escape From New York (1981)
2.35:1 (16x9 Enhanced)
Dolby Digital 5.1
MGM Home Video, $29.98

The collaboration between director John Carpenter and cinematographer Dean Cundey, ASC is one of the great underrated partnerships in recent film history. This might seem like a bold claim, given that the union lasted for a short number of years and resulted in only five films, but the level of visual invention in those films and their enormous influence (particularly in the case of Halloween) cannot be denied. Carpenter and Cundey's cinematic universe is one in which every part of the widescreen frame is used for maximum expressiveness and emotional impact, with lighting, composition and camera movement coming together to tell the story.

The style and intelligence Cundey and Carpenter brought to their films are on glorious display in MGM's new special-edition DVD of Escape From New York. Though a few of the plot devices in this futuristic action film have aged rather poorly - the fact that the fate of the free world depends on a flimsy audiotape seems pretty unlikely - Carpenter's deft choreography of action and his fierce celebration of individualism are as passionate as ever.

At its core, the picture is a Western, and its dubious hero, Snake Plissken (played with a Clint Eastwood-like growl by Kurt Russell), is a variation on a quintessential Western archetype: the gunfighter without allegiances and without a home to call his own. The filmmakers update this classic figure with a deeply ironic, post-Watergate cynicism, and present a Darwinian world in which the island of Manhattan has been turned into a maximum-security prison.

This new high-definition transfer is a marked improvement over previous home-video incarnations of the picture and does full justice to Cundey's richly atmospheric cinematography. The film is comprised largely of night exteriors in urban locations, and Cundey rose to the challenge by utilizing Panavision's then-new high-speed lenses, as well as the Panaglide, which he had employed to legendary effect on Halloween. Cundey brilliantly takes advantage of the new technology with lengthy tracking shots lit by natural sources (particularly fires) to create a dark urban vision that's both terrifying and strangely beautiful.

Some of the DVD's supplements, including a deleted prologue and an entertaining audio commentary by Carpenter and Russell, will be familiar to those who own the laserdisc previously issued by New Line, but several new extras were produced specifically for this package. These include an entertaining documentary called Return to Escape From New York, which contains interviews with Carpenter, Cundey and production designer Joe Alves, among others. The documentary is filled with nifty anecdotes and has some instructive explanations by Alves and Cundey that convey how the filmmakers combined sets, locations and matte work to overcome budgetary restrictions. The relatively inexpensive production, which cost $5-7 million, used St. Louis to double for Manhattan, and Alves and Cundey's descriptions of how they matched the urban location work with footage shot in California and on soundstages is both amusing and enlightening.  

The menu on disc two promises three featurettes, but only Return to Escape From New York qualifies. The second "featurette" is a still-frame gallery depicting the creation of a Snake Plissken comic book, and the third is just a series of shots from the film cut together and accompanied by some new music. Far more informative is a new audio commentary by Alves and producer Debra Hill that provides further information on the movie's low-budget special effects (photographed by future director James Cameron), and explores how the filmmakers used camera movement, lighting, design and editing to compensate for their lack of financial resources. Three trailers and a gallery of production and publicity stills round out the package.

- Jim Hemphill

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© 2004 American Cinematographer.