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Friday, 7 August 2015

Boardwalk (1979)

At long last this movie is available on DVD -- in the U.S. anyhow. I have often thought about this film since I first saw it back in the day, but it has proved elusive until now. It's not that it's a particular brilliant piece of work from writer-director Stephen Verona (who was only involved with five movies and this is his fourth), but it is an infinitely sad and moving viewing experience.

It is also decidedly politically incorrect by today's standards and would never have received a green light in our painfully polite milieu. Becky and David are a loving couple who have been married for forty-nine years, perfectly captured by Ruth Gordon and Lee Strasberg. Their once-genteel and largely Jewish neighbourhood in the shadow of Coney Island has deteriorated over the years as families have moved to the suburbs and more 'unacceptable' elements have moved in, bringing with them falling property values, a host of robberies, intimidation, and a pervasive sense of fear. The pleasure of elderly folk sitting on the boardwalk to gossip or read the daily news is fast disappearing as the young thugs strut menacingly towards them. The fact that these toughs are black with only one token white girl among them, with absolutely no redeeming qualities, is what would make this movie a 'no-no' today. These yahoos are completely hateful to the old-timers, claiming that Jews always have money hidden away, and the viewer can't help but hate them as well.

Becky and David have raised three children who help out at David's nearby cafeteria. Neither of their two sons are played by well-known actors (Joe Silver and Eddie Barth), but their daughter Florence is played by Janet Leigh, who is far too much of a skinny blonde shiksa for the role and something of a fish out of water. When the cafĂ© is fire-bombed by the gang, David decides that perhaps it is time to retire. Strasberg is best known as the moving spirit behind the Actors Studio in New York, but has appeared in the occasional film. He was Oscar-nominated for his role in "The Godfather, Part 2" and sparkled in "Going in Style (also 1979) with fellow oldies George Burns and Art Carney. Here he plays an indomitable spirit who refuses to be cowed by the black hoodlums and who will not contemplate abandoning his family home.

Gordon, an Oscar-winner for "Rosemary's Baby" has always been a distinctive character actress and is fondly remembered for "Harold and Maude" and the Eastwood monkey movies. In a long career as both an actress and writer, she has said that her part in this movie was one of her favourites and one of her best. Becky knows that she is dying from inoperable and painful cancer and all she prays for is to be able to celebrate her forthcoming 50th wedding anniversary. She does -- but only just -- leaving David to mourn her passing and to fill in his increasingly empty days.

The film is not entirely prejudiced against the black community, since a professional black couple buy the house next-door to David's -- much to daughter Florence's horror -- and her father recognizes that this is a step up from their own humble beginnings, much as emigrating to the U.S. was a positive step in his own life. As he tells the gang's leader, he escaped from prejudice and intolerance once and he is not prepared to be browbeaten into doing so again. While not exactly a vigilante movie, the gang's casual and vindictive trashing of David's synagogue and subsequently the elaborate model train layout in his home, does cause him to snap. The violence at the film's end is both unbelievable and in so many ways heart-breaking.

The movie is well-worth seeing for its two lead performances, but it is something of a cheapjack production with a largely unrecognizable and undistinguished cast. Of passing interest is that it includes brief performances (probably as a favour to Strasberg) from singer Lillian Roth -- her first screen appearance for 44 years -- and from song-writer Sammy Cahn.
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