Saturday, August 16, 2008

Boulevard Nights (1979, Michael Pressman) & Walk Proud (1979, Robert Collins)

"Everything happens on the boulevard--and the boulevard happens at night."

Style A

Style B

British Quad

Mexican lobby card

"He was tough enough for the streets...was he tough enough to leave them?"

U.S. One-Sheet

Movie tie-in version of the original novel by Evan Hunter (aka Ed McBain)

Robby Benson in full Chicano mode 

Ill-fated co-star Sarah Holcomb

After the Clairidge Theater in Montclair, NJ cut up the original theater into several smaller ones in the early 80s, they crafted a pretty cool (at least to my young eyes) wallpaper out of old one-sheets to adorn the theater walls.  For some reason, the only such one-sheet I remember now is the one for Walk Proud.  This wallpaper lasted into the mid-90s and I was sad when the inevitable redesign came.

It's not too surprising that of the five pictures in the "gang cycle" of 1979, Boulevard Nights and Walk Proud, would be least remembered.  The other three pictures were, of course, The Warriors, The Wanderers, and Over the Edge.  The latter three films are now regarded as cult classics--each has the official seal from cult movie guru Danny Peary--and are all available on DVD with special features of varying quality and extent.  Boulevard Nights and Walk Proud have yet to appear on DVD and Walk Proud has never appeared on any home video format in the U.S.  

Why the disparity?  Following violence in movie theaters showing The Warriors in February 1979, exhibitors were wary of screening other gang pictures.  Politicians and media wags, not to mention Curtis Sliwa's fledgling Guardian Angels, were up in arms about the so-called exploitative violence in these films.  Three young people (two in Southern California and one in Boston) were killed in incidents tied to screenings of The Warriors.  Boulevard Nights was met with violence and protests due to its depiction of Latino culture in San Francisco upon its March 1979 release.  Paramount responded by altering its ads for The Warriors, which were seen as irresponsible ("These are the armies of the night.  They could run New York City.") and placing full page ads with excerpts from Pauline Kael's sparkling New Yorker review.  The Warriors, on its way to becoming a big box office success, was stunted as the studio limited further expansion.  Universal pushed back and scaled down the release of Walk Proud and newly christened Orion shelved Over the Edge and The Wanderers received substantially less theatrical exposure due to the earlier violence and negative publicity associated with "gang pictures."

As for Walk Proud and Boulevard Nights, they remain most obscure due to the fact that both are conventional melodramas with minimal stylistic flourishes whereas the other three films are without question more cinematic in every sense of the word.  Walter Hill and Andrew Laszlo's day-glo New York visuals in The Warriors still dazzle; Philip Kaufman's Wanderers moves with ceaseless energy and skill between comedy, drama, and horror; Jonathan Kaplan's Over the Edge remains the best update of Rebel Without a Cause just in time for punk to hit the suburbs.  

Walk Proud and Boulevard Nights transfer familiar stories and themes to a heretofore underrepresented milieu--Chicano gang culture in Los Angeles.  That they do not entirely succeed is due, in large part, to the fact that both films were conceived and produced by white filmmakers and executives, and in the case of Walk Proud, a non-Latino actor (Robby Benson) plays the starring role of a young Chicano gang member.  Had the actor been a less familiar face than Benson, or someone with more street credibility, the results may have been more successful.  As it stands, the picture seems in a lot of ways like one in a line of Benson pictures from the time (One on One being the most prominent) in which a sensitive and delicate Robby, in this case under a layer of makeup, rises above obstacles and bullies and ends up in the arms of an adorable and wholesome young woman.  

In Walk Proud, Benson is Emiliano, a young member of the Aztecas, an East L.A. gang, who becomes torn between his gang loyalties and the growing love between he and wealthy, WASPy Sarah Lassiter (Sarah Holcomb).  Even though director Robert Collins presents the proceedings in a distinctly television style, the drama of Emiliano's struggle is well established and we get a strong sense of the politics of the gang and community and the gravity of his decision to cross over to the other side of the tracks. It helps that Benson and Holcomb acquit themselves nicely in their roles.  The other key roles are filled by Latino actors including Pepe Serna, Henry Darrow, and Trinidad Silva.  The movie is based on a novel by Evan Hunter who wrote the seminal juvenile delinquent novel, The Blackboard Jungle.

In his Times review, Vincent Canby contrasted Walk Proud and The Warriors and went as far as to say, "The movie's sentimental, realistic style has nothing whatsoever to do with the dreamlike, glossy cool affected by Walter Hill's notorious The Warriors. Yet Walk Proud may well be a far more revolutionary picture than the randomly pretty Hill film. In the way it documents the power plays of the Aztecas, the Chicano gang, as its members negotiate and then break treaties covering such things as safe passage through Santa Monica, it manages to suggest the self-generating absurdities built into all international relations conducted through power blocs."

Boulevard Nights was directed by Michael Pressman (The Great Texas Dynamite Chase, Those Lips Those Eyes, Some Kind of Hero) who now directs primarily for television, executive produced by actor turned filmmaker Tony Bill (My Bodyguard), and written by Japanese American writer-director Desmond Nakano (American Me, Last Exit to Brooklyn, White Man's Burden).  Its mostly Latino cast is headed by Richard Yniguez and Danny De La Paz as the brothers Avila, Raymond and Chuco.  Elder brother Raymond wants to get out of the barrio and open an auto repair shop.  Chuco, unfortunately, cannot rise above the gang lifestyle and heads down a potentially tragic path.  Canby was quite unforgiving in his review accusing the filmmakers of being slaves to its very "conventional narrative."  "When we watch [the characters] suffer and die in foolish pursuits, the movie is merely sightseeing."  He later states that director Pressman's decision to begin a scene with a shot of the sky is a sign of a director who's "not got very much on his mind."  Roger Ebert is more positive toward the film, first criticizing the radical action group who accosted him outside the theater with a flyer urging viewers to boycott The Warriors and Boulevard Nights on the charge that the films were part of a fascist conspiracy to "poison the minds of thousands."  As for the film, Ebert calls it an admirable anti-gang drama which nearly overcomes a "story structure borrowed from umpteen other Hollywood movies about coming of age in a ghetto."

While the two forgotten gang pictures of 1979 (how did so many studio bigwigs think this was a good idea?) are by no means stellar films, it would be nice to have them readily available for viewing on reputable, high quality DVDs.  Walk Proud has appeared on the Encore networks in recent years.  Boulevard Nights can be seen for free online.  Bootleg DVDs of varying quality can be found on eBay, ioffer, and other similar sites. 

As Boulevard Nights is a Warner Home Video title, I would expect any DVD to be a more than respectable OAR affair (to do justice to the photography by esteemed d.p. John Bailey), possibly including a theatrical trailer. Since Walk Proud is a Universal title, I am considerably less confident in the quality of the DVD because of the studio's spotty record with catalog releases, especially with regards to aspect ratio and soundtrack licensing (Walk Proud prominently features Elton John's "We All Fall in Love Sometimes").  However, Universal has lately been going to this well (read: marginal catalog titles of the 70s-80s) more often than Warner.

As for the poster designs of the two featured films, neither is very eye-popping, particularly when compared to the striking designs used for the other three gang pictures.  I can still remember seeing The Warriors poster in an old Rick's Movie Graphics catalog and deciding I had to see the movie and have the poster.  The poster sits framed above my desk and my wife can attest to my attachment to the film, which remains strong almost twenty years on.

Since I do have an affinity for young, mostly forgotten, actors of the 70s-80s, I must mention Walk Proud co-star Sarah Holcomb, most memorable to audiences from her humorous turns in Animal House (her debut as Clorette DePasto) and Caddyshack (Maggie O'Hooligan). She also appeared prominently in Richard Benner's Happy Birthday, Gemini.  But, that was all she wrote for her career in film.  Apparently, Sarah has struggled with drug problems and mental illness since that time and it's said that the 2004 film Stateside starring Rachel Leigh Cook is inspired by her ordeal.  Bobby at DERAILED describes a moving encounter he had with Ms. Holcomb nearly twenty years ago.


Unknown said...

Wow, I've never heard of either one of these obscure gems but they both sound intriguing. Great article!

Ned Merrill said...

Thanks for the positive comments, j.d.! I also appreciate the link from your site.

Both films are certainly worth seeking out if you are fond of coming-of-age films from this era. They are also historically significant because of their being part of the industry's brief and unique zen for anything gang-related.

Chris said...

Both Walk Proud and Boulevard Nights were shown on TCM tonight. Boulevard Nights IS available on DVD (I have it) and is high quality. Walk Proud is not yet available. I'd love to find even a bootleg copy of it.

Ned Merrill said...

Thanks for your note, Chris. I wish I had known about the BOULEVARD NIGHTS TCM screening before. Your DVD is a bootleg. This film has definitely NOT been legally released on DVD by Warner Home Video. It was, however, issued on VHS by WHV.

Anonymous said...

Hey Ned, I'm looking at the DVD right now, and it's released by 'theater@home'. The packaging is top notch, as good as any other, and the quality of the DVD itself is also great. Don't remember where I bought it though. Probably eBay.

VoyagerG said...

I really liked Walk Proud. It's interesting that Robby is always panned for playing the 'Chicano' role but people seem to forget that in the movie Emilio discovers he's only HALF Mexican, his father was a white guy with blue eyes. So I'd say that takes the stigma off. My uncle is full blooded Puerto Rican/Spanish and he has eyes as blue as Robby and a tan like Emilio, lol. Nice post about some real obscure stuff.

Chris said...

Happy to report that I now have a copy of Walk Proud on DVD. Turns out a friend of mine had it and burned me a copy. Pretty good copy too. Now I have both movies on DVD.