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“Wolfen” (1981): A Cool Look Back at NYC Transportation Infrastructure

The above apocalyptic-looking still is one of many shots of the South Bronx (circa 1980) from the opening montage to my favorite, New York City-set movie "Wolfen", an often forgotten film (even among horror buffs) about shape-shifters defending their land from greedy fat-cat developers. Though not a 5 star movie, it's a very solid tale with some incredible alfresco scenes providing a reference of just how much NYC has changed in the past 30 years.

Sure there's "The French Connection", "Manhattan", and "The Warriors", but if you love transportation, I'm promising you there's more NYC livable streets nostalgia in this film then any I've seen. Let me take you thru just a few of my favorite scenes.

Very early on a very rich couple are murdered in Battery Park. It's there we meet our protagonist Dewey (right, Albert Finney) a retired detective who is assigned the case. As the police do their work in Battery Park just soak up the scenery of lower Manhattan with the WTC towers and Hudson River making numerous appearances (and yes, that's Gregory Hines, left.)

A few scenes later Finney meets his new partner along the Hudson River for hot dogs and conversation. What makes this scene so incredible? See that elevated highway in the background? That's the former West Side Elevated Highway which partially collapsed in 1973.  It's amazing how little footage of it exists anywhere; it's the only movie I know in which it appears. (Note: "Gridlock Sam" Schwartz speaks much about it in this Streetfilm.)

Now we get into some truly sobering imagery. Sure there are old photos and news stories showing the urban decay of the South Bronx of the 1970s and 80s, but none of it has ever appeared in a pristine 35mm motion picture quite like this.  In "Wolfen" our investigators make multiple visits to the area to look into similar murders that have occurred there.

If you have ever ridden Transportation Alternatives' Tour de Bronx, you'd never know it passes thru some of these areas. Especially this intersection above - which thanks to some careful still-framing & zooming - I believe to be Charlotte Street & East 170th - nowdays a thriving community filled with single family homes. (See an overhead side-by-side comparison at the bottom of this article.) Really, every New Yorker should see this. It's pretty mind-blowing this ever happened to our city.

A few scenes later, some of the Wolfen shape-shifters make their way to the Brooklyn Bridge. From their heat-seeking POV we experience their dash over the pedestrian path as they encounter one of the seven sets of tower steps cyclists and pedestrians used to negotiate. Imagine having to walk your bike up and down all those stairs! Good news: soon after the film's release the steps were replaced with the ramps we have today.

In a scene that needs to be seen to believed - since it was somehow shot with a full camera crew atop the windy Manhattan Bridge - an impatient Albert Finney does an uneasy climb to the top to interview some bridge workers who may know something about the murders. Here the lower Manhattan skyline is on beautiful display including the WTC towers.

As he quizzes one of the men (a very young Edward James Olmos) you can see a lot of the Brooklyn waterfront & East River behind them. In this amazing still, on the left  you can see hundreds of cars parked where now the beautiful Brooklyn Bridge Park resides!  I am not aware of any film ever shooting at the top of one NYC bridge and yet this film does it twice (earlier they shoot atop of the Brooklyn Bridge as well.)

I really could go on and on but I think if you're still reading I may have convinced you to rent or watch "Wolfen" on Netflix. There's plenty of Central Park in the movie as well as Riverside Drive, Coney Island, the Central Park Zoo, and this climatic "wolves vs cops" scene above on Wall Street. Sometimes it's hard to recall what some parts of NYC looked like without security fencing, concrete bollards, and twenty-four hour sentries.

And finally as I promised above, here's an overhead view of the area of the South Bronx "Wolfen" was mostly filmed in. I was able to match up close enough visuals of 1980 vs 2012 (that's the elevated 5-subway train two blocks behind the church!) Double-click on it. Pretty cool, huh? And if you do get to watch "Wolfen" you'll see the shapeshifters would have been quite happy with this end result.

  • Andy Salkeld

    Hi Clarence - that's a great visual comparison ... I've posted your link onto this discussion page 
    http://www.facebook.com/Postpeakcartastic?ref=hl - The use of film & photography even when initially incidental is a great tool to illustrate change - Historic & potential ...
    Keep up the great work

  • Steven.

    Super movie, very evocative and sinister for the time.
    I recall my buddy/cop partner raving about it on patrol.

    My pal was killed in a gun battle later.

    Sticks in my mind.

  • Sara Halligan Garrison

    Great post and thanks for sharing! My grandfather, James Halligan, was the Key Construction Grip during the filming of Wolfen. I used to post some of my grandpa's behind-the-scenes photos from the movies he worked on to an old blog of mine... years ago I posted a pretty epic photo of my great-uncle Harold Kelly, who my grandpa had hired onto his crew, taking a piss off the Manhattan Bridge during a break in filming the scenes you mentioned:

    As legend has it, my grandfather and his crew lugged a cooler of beers up there along with the rest of their rigging gear, tools, etc... and shenanigans ensued. Harold indulged in a few beers too many, and apparently couldn't hold it in any longer! I'm sure he wasn't the only guy to relieve himself up there that day - just hope that no one drove by with their windows down at the wrong time.

    Harold and a few of the other guys also managed to climb inside one of the metal domes on top of the bridge and, in my grandfather's words, "smoked so much reefer it looked like the damn bridge had caught on fire!" It's a miracle they all made it back down in one piece!

  • http://www.streetfilms.org Clarence Eckerson Jr.

    Wow, this is an awesome story. Thank you so much for posting. I hadn't looked at back comments for a while! I absolutley love this film. And when I show it to people they agree.

  • Todd Edelman,Slow Factory

    About the "greedy fat cat developers" it seems like this film would make a good pair with "The People Under the Stairs".

    Aside from the devastation... you mention single family homes, security fencing, concrete bollards, and twenty-four hour sentries... how much of these formerly "bad" areas now have housing for middle class and poorer populations?

  • tap

    The area around the church was real but the church itself was not, It was built for the movie.

  • FrankiePaz

    Saw this in the theater when it was originally released...became on of my favorite films! Great commentary guys!

  • http://www.streetfilms.org/ Clarence Eckerson Jr.

    Yes, it's a damn great movie. It moves slowly but I miss those days.

  • AmericanDreamerRedux

    I seem to remember something about native americans reinhabiting the South Bronx in the movie too.....that they were pushed out of their lands to the point they return to the biggest city of America to reclaim a wasteland in that city

  • Nobodyreally

    The church was actually built as a set for the movie. Its location was in the lots occupied by 886 East 172nd Street (demolished in 1972) and 1480 Seabury Place, also demolished in the early 70s.

    A few of the rowhouses to the right of the "church" still exist on Minford Place, including two creepy victorians with aluminum siding. The brown building directly behind the church, was built in 1972 and is now the Children's Aid Society.

  • thesafesurfer

    ,,,the novel was even better.....which is hard to believe....

  • thesafesurfer

    .....the "housing for middle class and poorer populations" was torn down in the 1950's and 1960' when Urban Renewal torn them down to build the tower projects that are in ruins in the film....."greedy fat cat developers" came in when the crime ridden projects were abandoned....

  • thesafesurfer


    ....my wife works in the business and I was showing here the shot from on top of the bridge......she could not believe it wasn't somehow staged......chasing down our picture on the web sealded the deal.....