Barely seen its brief 1979 theatrical release, Stephen Verona’s feature film offers a glum view of a chapter of New York City history that many people would prefer not to acknowledge: the rapid decline of once-vibrant neighborhoods and the flight of predominantly white residents in response to rising violence created by a predominantly nonwhite criminal element.
It is a depressing central story, but it wobbles by throwing in a surplus of soap opera subplots that create a messy melodrama. While the struggle facing cafeteria owner David Rosen (Lee Strasberg) and his cancer patient-wife Becky (Ruth Gordon) carry significant value – his business is dying due to the defection of longtime Jewish customers while her at-home piano lesson business ends because parents fear the level of crime in the neighborhood – the film burdens their story with inane subplots about their daughter (Janet Leigh) pursuing a loveless second marriage with a vinyl flooring salesman and their supposedly iconoclastic grandson (Michael Ayr) pursuing a pipe dream rock music career.
The film’s strength comes in its ensemble – Strasberg and Gordon rise above their quotidian material, while the stylish Leigh (who is, admittedly, no one’s idea of your typical Brooklyn-Jewish cafeteria bookkeeper) manages to give an unexpected degree of warmth to her badly written character. If one looks closely, there are wonderful small appearances by veteran character actor Joe Silver and 1920s singer Lillian Roth.
Alas, Verona – who is best known for directing the 1973 feature “The Lords of Flatbush,” starring then-unknowns Sylvester Stallone and Henry Winkler – is at a loss in regard to the ethnic and racial elements of the story. While he has no problem depicting his broadly defined Jewish characters as if they wandered out of a kinescope of “The Goldbergs,” his neighborhood-wrecking street gang is a carefully integrated mix of photogenic youths, including “Days of Heaven” star Linda Manz as a tomboy gang sidekick. Only in the movies could EEOC-worthy quotas be used to populate hoodlum enterprises.