It's hard to believe when you look at glossy, overblown borefests like Bram Stoker's Dracula, Jack and The Rainmaker that Francis Ford Coppola was an experimental and maverick film maker that did art films utilising innovative techniques both before and after the monster Hollywood success story that was The Godfather. Witness The Conversation and this film from 1983, Rumble Fish, widely acknowledged to be his most personal of films. It is also the second of the two films he adapted from the novels of S.E. Hinton, the first being The Outsiders, another tale of alienated youth.
Rumble Fish primarily centres on a teenager, Rusty James, played by a young Matt Dillon who is the leader of a gang of what I suppose you could call punks. They don't wear the same clothing styles but they hang about together generally getting up to no good. Though Rusty James attends school he has the vices of an older man such as drinking, smoking, womanising, and fighting and he receives very little in the way of guidance from any adults. His mother left when he was a young boy, and his father (Dennis Hopper) is a burnt out lawyer, and an alcoholic living on welfare. The only person Rusty looks up to is his older brother, referred to only as 'The Motorcycle Boy' (Mickey Rourke). The Motorcycle Boy was once a renowned gang leader back in a time when gangs were more organised and numerous, and his name still carries weight on 'the streets', something that Rusty wants to emulate. When The Motorcycle Boy returns back to town after an absence he is harassed by a policeman (William Smith) who despises him and all that he stands for. Thus the seeds of a tragedy are sown. Truth be told, it's a humdrum story with a plot that slowly meanders, going nowhere really. What makes the film shine is how the story is told. Filmed almost entirely in moody Black and White with the occasional dash of colour added for symbolic effect, Coppola lays down the intention to make a dreamy, atmospheric film right from the first frame, opening with time lapse photography of white clouds shooting through the sky, something that he will return to again throughout the film. Time and a sense of timelessness being central motifs to the core of the film. A sense of time trickling away and a sense of time as something precious is thrust to the fore not only with the visual motifs used by Coppola but with the brilliant percussive soundtrack by Stewart Copeland. In this film, ambience is everything. It's filmed in Tulsa but the timeframe is unclear, with the clothing being a mixture of fifties and eighties garb; and the buildings, streets and alleyways looking like all the ones you've ever seen in every noir film you've ever seen. It's a curious world where sharp angles, silhouettes and deep shadows distort your perception; and noises, loud and quiet, are pulled to the fore, out of context, giving the impression that Coppola is playing with your senses. Similarly the cinematography often utilises deep focus, long tracking shots, and strange compositions with the person talking often framed by an arm or a head in profile so you are forced to follow the action or dialogue by looking through or past something. It all gives you a feeling that you are immersed in something beyond you, something that you feel is askew, you can follow it all, but something is just out of reach. Then you realise that you are looking at the world not through the eyes of Rusty James but those of his brother, a man who is hard of hearing and colour-blind but has a sharp, unfettered mind. A man with a broken but acute sense of perception, as his father refers to it. and someone who has 'seen too much'. Mickey Rourke as the Motorcycle boy is exceptional, an enigmatic mumbler of wisdom that dresses like a beatnik instead of a Hells' Angel. It's definitely one of his best roles. Matt Dillon also does well as Rusty James (always referred to quite curiously by his full name, never just as Rusty), a confused and lost young man, slow witted and bullish. In support, Dennis Hopper gives one of his entertaining booze addled characters that he's so good at. William Smith is memorable as the sneering shades wearing cop, cold and driven, ready to strike when ever someone's guard is down. Many actors that would soon be famous pepper the film in early supporting roles like Diane Lane, Christopher Penn, Laurence Fishburne, Nicolas Cage and the musician Tom Waits. Diane Lane as Rusty James' girlfriend in particular is excellent, giving a performance that is sexy and sassy yet vulnerable and honest. An almost unrecognisable Vincent Spano appears, with blond hair and glasses, as Rusty's buddy Steve. This is a role that seems underwritten or an afterthought. Steve seemingly keeps a journal of his life and the people in it, but it only appears in a few scenes with very little mention. Normally a person like this would have a greater role in the film or be involved in the narrative in some way, maybe even the narrator. In this, he isn't. But when you watch the deleted scenes you see that Steve had a much greater role and has a deeper bond with Rusty than the superficial one portrayed here. He is perhaps the only real moral influence that Rusty has, and is the only one of the gang that isn't in awe of the motorcycle boy .
Rumble Fish is a true art film, pretentious and incredibly self indulgent but entertaining and arresting nonetheless. Such imagery and such style. One for lovers of cult films, and movies with a non narrative approach.
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