Sunday, June 18, 2017

Night of the Juggler (1980)

Former cop Sean Boyd (James Brolin) has been working as a truck driver after losing his job for not ignoring corruption in the police’s ranks. One day, his little daughter Kathy (Abby Bluestone) is kidnapped right off the street.

The kidnapper, a more than half mad and pretty pathetic guy named Gus Soltic (Cliff Gorman) has confused Kathy with the daughter of a rich man, and nothing anyone says or does during the course of the film will persuade him he has grabbed the wrong girl.

Since Sean’s early attempts at saving his little girl involved a bit of car theft, and he’s bound to storm off and do something stupid, violent, and or dangerous, the main cop getting on the case, Lieutenant Tonelli (Richard S. Castellano), decides to book Sean for a bit to cool him off. Alas, during that Sean encounters one of the cops he once indicted. Sergeant Barnes (Dan Hedaya) isn’t just still a policeman, he also blames Sean for a broken marriage and two months of docked pay - a cop is apparently entitled to a bit of harmless corruption, after all – and he isn’t just absolutely disinterested in kidnapped little girls, but really looks for an opportunity to murder Sean. Sean manages to escape Barnes and custody, and starts to shout, punch, shoot and run his way to his daughter, hunted by the completely unhinged Barnes (Hedaya all bulging eyes and clenched teeth), while Tonelli, suffering under heavy political pressure, has to approach the case from the side of the rich guy whose daughter wasn’t kidnapped.

Night of the Juggler isn’t at all the kind of film you’d expect from its director Richard Butler. Sure, his extensive filmography does feature some crime stuff as part of his large TV work, but most of his cinema outings were Disney family comedies made in a time when Disney was still exclusively straight-laced and conservative. That’s not the sort of background you expect for the director of a crime and action film this heated, diving in the dark mood of late 70s, early 80s New York with this much vigour.

And make no mistake, this is a film as brilliant as it is underseen, not just as a gritty (even without the grimy VHS quality of the only print of the film that seems to be floating around) portrayal of New York’s underbelly at a very specific point in time, but also as a furious crime action movie of a tone I generally connect with Italian movies starring Maurizio Merli or Fabio Testi, an anger that is a bit clearer about the societal shapes it is angry at than it at first appears. Consequently, Night of the Juggler also uses the immense pull of its furious pace to portray the divisions of race and class devastating the city, the public disinterest that leaves people dead without good reason, the corruption and all-around violence, until nobody - black, white, rich, poor – looks all that innocent anymore. New York (and in movies, the city tends to be a stand-in for the whole of the USA more often than not) here isn’t just a grimy, brutal and unjust place, it has been that way so long that nobody actually expects from anyone else anything that isn’t brutal or unjust, so that what would normally be a quiet talk between people starts as a shouting match and escalates from there, people blowing up without their fuses even being lit. The only characters in the film willing to breathe and think and perhaps even do something kind are interestingly enough women, and rather explicitly women who very much realize in what a dangerous world they live.

While the film is showing all this mostly through action, it also finds it in itself to pop in with Sean’s daughter and Soltic from time to time. Soltic – as wonderfully portrayed by Cliff Gorman – turns out to be a rather more complicated character than you’d expect. Between racist, powerless rants, acts of murder and creepy attempts at projecting his mother onto Kathy with a certain suggestion of paedophilia, he’s also a quiet and sad man capable of actual kindness and compassion. The film knows and treats Soltic as dangerous and terrifying but it also understands that the most terrifying thing about him and people like him is that they didn’t start out as monsters, and perhaps never would have become what they are if the world treated them as more than whipping boys – all without excusing anything Soltic does.

Brolin walks – for most of the film limps, actually – through all this like a force of nature in a kind of performance I never would have believed the man capable of in this intensity, from time to time showing little gestures that still show him as a human being instead of a machine of anger and violence.

Alas, for some reason this brilliant film has not had any official DVD or BluRay releases whatsoever. Please, some boutique label, put this out, I want to throw my money at you.

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