Mark Asch on Ms. 45
Patty, you know what your daddy said
Patty, he said, he said, he said
Well, sixty days ago she was such a lovely child
Now here she is with a gun in her hand
—Patti Smith, “Hey Joe”
There were 1,814 recorded murders in New York City in 1980, the year Abel Ferrara’s Ms. 45 was made, and 1,826 in 1981, the year it was released. These numbers were both all-time highs at the time, following a steep rise in murders through the 1960s and ’70s—a wave that briefly in the mid-’80s seemed to have crested before surging again to a peak of 2,245 in 1990, during the crack epidemic. Today the New York City murder rate is less than a third of what it was in 1980, and less than a quarter of what it was in 1990. As has been the case for longer than I’ve been alive, the New Yorkers most at risk of homicide are, by far, young Black men.
Yet it is hard to convince people that New York City, with a homicide rate of 5.5 per 100,000 people, is safer than it was in 1960—safer, especially, for all those who live in neighborhoods fortified by gentrification. Even the Times fearmongers about an urban crime wave and voter backlash—part of a relentless, reactive fixation on alleged urban lawlessness (flames fanned by conservative media following the George Floyd protests), whichfueled the election of a vibes-forward mayor who tells reporters, “No one wants to hear stats when they don’t feel safe” and whose solution to every problem is to throw more cops at it.
This bad-faith discourse trickles down to civilian social media, via both grandparent-baiting cable news and ostensibly liberal concern-trolling. A typical example is noteworthy for espousing a kind of miasma theory of crime: nothing bad has happened to the Cassandras of urban decline, but they are oppressed constantly by the fear that it might, and that’s just as bad as the thing itself. The danger of the city has simply infected them, like a rank steam rising up from a manhole cover, or the breath of a homeless person begging for change.
There also seems to be an inability to separate reality from fiction, considering the constant comparison of Gotham today to the on-screen Gotham of yesteryear. If New York in the 2020s is invariably said to resemble, say, Taxi Driver, rather than the actual New York of 1976, that’s because of the sway still held by New York cinema’s most iconic era—one sparked by the trifecta of white flight destroying the urban tax base and city services; John Lindsay’s formation of the Mayor's Office of Film, Theatre & Broadcasting in 1966; and an unshackled New Hollywood chasing the scent of the European New Waves to America’s most pungent corners. The legendary quality of films like Midnight Cowboy and The Warriors and Dog Day Afternoon and The Taking of Pelham 1-2-3 and Cruising and so on is evident from their reverberations through films that raised my generation—like, for instance, Home Alone 2 and Rumble in the Bronx, which used “quality of life” concerns like prostitution and graffiti to symbolize a by-then well-established atmosphere of crime, and made our parents terrified to send us off to college here even in the Bloomberg years.
Few films are more associated with ’70s New York City’s movement into myth than Ms. 45, Ferrara’s take on the rape-revenge genre. Made at the height-to-date of New York’s crisis of violence, it responds with a story steeped in simplistic moralism and frank bloodlust—it’s black and white and red all over, like the front page of Rupert Murdoch’s New York Post, that eternal foot soldier in the culture war. One of the film’s enduring images is of a dismembered corpse wrapped up in newspaper.
In the 1970s, part of Mayor Abe Beame’s plan to pull New York back from the brink of bankruptcy involved laying off thousands of police and corrections officers. In response, the city’s various cop unions descended on airports to hand out a pamphlet called “Welcome to Fear City,” its cover emblazoned with a skull, filled with advice for tourists such as:
Avoid public transportation. Subway crime is so high that the City recently had to close off the rear half of each train in the evening so that the passengers could huddle together and be better protected. It has been proved that increasing the number of Transit police officers will cause a reduction in subway crime, but the announced decreases in Transit patrol will have the opposite effect. Accordingly, you should never ride the subway for any reason whatsoever. In midtown Manhattan, you may, at only slight risk, ride the buses during daylight hours only.
This was extortionate dog-whistling even then, when the city’s crime rate was much higher, and it’s rhetorically hardly different from today, when the Long Island Republicans who ostensibly protect and serve us echo their favorite president’s contempt for a city they perceive as a “war zone.”
The sheer luridness is instructive. Perception infects reality; the imagined sickness of the city infects the response to it, in the form of a paranoid, carceral approach to public safety, then as now. But the imagined Fear City, the on-screen New York of the White Flight years, is nevertheless a useful reference point for the modern era: so many of those films are hysterical fantasies of cleansing violence, apropos for New York circa 2022, which is governed by an ex-cop who (probably) still lives in the suburbs, who seems to be under the impression that the sight of cops with body armor and long guns makes anyone breathe easier on their morning commute, and who seeks to use the might of the state to deliver us from the potentially traumatizing sight of unhoused people. To varying degrees, the New York films of that earlier era either embodied or critiqued a scuzzy-voluptuous fear of the city: the dubious accounts of real-life over-the-top cops like The French Connection or The Super Cops; the retrograde frontier justice meted out in urban westerns like Coogan’s Bluff or Fort Apache, the Bronx; the ugly or antic vigilantism of Death Wish or Little Murders. And Ms. 45 in particular ranks close to the visionary, feverish, pathological Taxi Driver as a film that draws from, and semiconsciously hyperbolizes, the realities of a more dangerous era. It is both diagnosis and symptom of the city’s contagious soul-sickness.
Abel Ferrara’s film begins, like any good tabloid front page, by picking out the Perfect Victim: Thana, played by Zoë Tamerlis (later Zoë Lund), a young, innocent-looking, pretty, white girl. Thana works in the Garment District; she is mute, less sophisticated than the New Wave dresses she sews, and cowed by her flamboyant and handsy boss—a man with a shirt unbuttoned to mid-sternum who surely got into womenswear to make it with girls, a disco-era dinosaur like Wayne Diamond, whom the Safdies excavated for Uncut Gems. As Thana walks home from work, silently absorbing a gauntlet of catcalls (“Hey cutie, wanna sit on my face?”), Ferrara intercuts her commute with a burglar breaking into her apartment, building anticipation which he then preempts with his own cameo, playing the masked assailant who leaps out from behind a building, drags her into a back-alley, and rapes her. Even at this stage of his career, Ferrara had a sense of the sensationalistic. The opening minutes of Ms. 45 are titillating in their outlandish brutality; when Thana comes home, the burglar is still there, with a gun. You can practically see the Post front page: “BEAUTY RAPED TWICE.” But he drops his piece, and his guard, and Thana smashes his head in with a big apple paperweight.
After she dismembers his corpse in her bathtub, Thana sops up the blood with a Village Voice. Armed with a phallic equalizer, her second rapist’s .45, she stalks the city finding, and dispatching, creeps everywhere. After she drops a bag full of body parts beside a vacant lot, another street harasser picks it up as an excuse to chase her down, past the Basilica of St Patrick’s Old Cathedral and down the two narrow blocks of Jersey Street toward the current location of the Housing Works Bookstore Café, where she shoots him in a panic.
Thana is seen but not heard, but that doesn’t make her a mere visual object. Her voicelessness positions her as a potent symbol for the marginalized and makes her violence into a silent scream. In literal terms, muteness may be the reason she doesn’t call the cops after either of her rapes, though the NYPD’s complete and total irrelevance to the plot of a film featuring two rapes and upwards of a dozen murders has deeper resonances, especially given the uselessness of the justice system at prosecuting crimes against women—or, as we’ve lately seen, preventing mass shootings. For a mass shooter is what Thana becomes.
For that is what Thana becomes. Gradually she becomes both more deliberate and indiscriminate in her targets: a proto–Terry Richardson photographer who tries to pick her up at a Steak & Brew Burger; a street gang that encircles her at Bethesda Fountain when she intentionally wanders into Central Park after dark; a ludicrous low-budget “sheik” whose limo she gets into; a traveling salesman who talks her ear off about his ex-wife, first in a smoky barroom and then on Sutton Place, on the same bench overlooking the Queensboro Bridge where Woody Allen sat with Diane Keaton in Manhattan a year or two before. Meanwhile her victims become less and less deserving; in a preview of subway vigilante Bernie Goetz, she delivers a kill shot to a street tough she’s sought out and already maimed (“You don’t look so bad, here’s another”), and her trigger finger gets itchy even at the sight of a young man making out with his girlfriend in front of a Chinatown Baskin-Robbins.
Ferrara’s film is sloppy, abrupt, and comic—Thana’s fridge is full of black Hefty bags full of body parts, every supporting character is a mile-wide Noo Yawk type, and the blood is bright red paint. Not every shot is entirely in focus, sound is unsynchronized, and the constant gratuitous violence, despite its inherent subdermal seediness, is staged in rudimentary shot–reverse shot like a silent movie. Zoë Tamerlis’s performance also makes Ms. 45 feel like a silent movie, for reasons that go deeper than just her lack of dialogue. She’s expressive in a broad, pure, projecting-from-the-proscenium tradition: her eyes widen in shock; her forehead crinkles in concern; her mouth is pouty, or sultry, but always transparent.
Thana’s emotive facial features, particularly her very heavy eyebrows, are accentuated by stagey makeup that progresses in its boldness along with her body count—and her outfits. Practically every kill is preceded by a wardrobe reveal, with Thana’s clothes becoming more daring, Ferrara incidentally letting you see a more mannish shoulder silhouette, a slit skirt, knee-high boots, leather gloves, a cape. Her outfits—from the conservative, in-no-way-“asking for it” baggy skirt suit she wears when she’s assaulted at the outset of the film, all the way to the sexy nun outfit, complete with thigh-highs and garter belt, she wears for her climactic Halloween party massacre—are black and white, offset with splashes of bright giallo red to match both the fake blood and Thana’s sexy-in-quotation-marks lipstick. (What’s black and white and red all over?)
The irredeemable grubbiness of the film, its sense of contagion, comes through both because we see Thana’s innocence corrupted, and because it indicts the viewer. Tamerlis, barely 18 when the film was shot, is both very beautiful and alarmingly young-looking. Her gestures, whether stabbing a gun towards her mirrored reflection like a pubescent Travis Bickle, or simply moving clumsily around in her apartment, are stuttering, imprecise, like a kid playing make believe. When Thana opens the kitchen window to access her fire escape, you can tell that Tamerlis has never performed this action before in her life. At times, coming home from killing someone, in the flat light of her apartment, Thana looks like an underage girl who’s put on a lot of makeup and tried to get into clubs, the kind you see on the trains in from New Jersey at 9 o’clock a Friday night, or drunk at the pizza places around Penn Station at 3 o’clock Saturday morning. Where are Thana’s parents? Where did she come from? She looks too young to be living and working on her own—she could be a teen runaway, fleeing the safety of suburbia to find freedom or worse. The fear of losing a child, particularly to The City, was a potent pop-culture trope after Manson and Patty Hearst; Ms. 45 offers a New York variation on the runaway daughter, putting it in a lineage with Milos Forman’s Taking Off, which kidded the genre with culture-clash comedy, and even with Taxi Driver, whose Iris and Travis are combined in the figure of Thana.
Thana’s painted face looks more mature, more striking, out on the streets after dark; with her hair haloed by streetlamps, she’s a haunting presence foreshadowing Tamerlis’s life at the margins of New York’s bohemian demimonde. She would occasionally surface on film in subsequent years, cowriting Ferrara’s Bad Lieutenant and cameoing in it as a far-gone junkie—as she was—before dying in Paris in 1999, at age 37, from heart failure induced by heavy cocaine use.
Ms. 45 is a pulpy film but also a study of repulsion, and its ending makes clear that Thana’s straight inversion of gendered aggression is a dead end. Thana’s violence, her sickness, blinds her until it’s too late to any possibility of solidarity—of sisterhood. When Thana finally speaks, in the film’s final moments, it suggests a road not taken—not taken then, and not taken now. One of the final thanks in Ms. 45’s end credits is to the Guardian Angels, the vigilante group who during the Fear City years patrolled the subway in packs, looking for civilians to protect or petty criminals to rough up, and made tabloid headlines with fanciful stories of kidnappings and rapes thwarted. They wore berets, like Thana, and red satin baseball jackets the color of her lips. The founder of the Guardian Angels, Curtis Sliwa, eventually transitioned into becoming a Z-grade only-in-New-York celebrity, a talk-radio staple, like Donald Trump should have stayed, before eventually becoming the Republican nominee for Mayor in 2021. During the campaign, he and Eric Adams agreed that New Yorkers wanted to see more cops on the subway.