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Tuesday, May 30, 2017

THE WANDERERS (1979)

Philip Kaufman’s coming-of-age pic (early ‘60s Bronx nostalgia from the Richard Price novel) may not live up to its cult rep, but is so entertaining you might not notice. One of those pics where latter-day critical standing is helped, rather than hurt, by a botched release and bad initial reviews, once it's been rediscovered as a hard-to-find collector’s item. (Clearance rights to its top-of-the-charts early ‘60s soundtrack must have been tough.) With a smash cast of near unknowns working on real locations, and heightened, not guyed, period detail calling just the right amount of attention to itself, the fairly free adaptation by Kaufman & wife Rose neatly juggles multiple ethnic gangs & crisscrossing storylines. Less successful are high school classes that are little more than set-ups for conflict and, surprisingly, much of the action stuff. The chases come off, but when fights break out, or a big football game turns riot, Kaufman swings big and misses. (Inexperienced actors? Budget limitations?) Still, he finds something special in charting the holdover cultural attitudes of a neighborhood left behind, slowing down for a few big moments-in-time episodes (JFK’s end; Bob Dylan’s beginning) which come across with unusual emotion & clarity. And how many films catch this much breakout talent in leading roles who all burned out before reaching their potential.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY/DOUBLE-BILL: Released a few months earlier, Walter Hill’s even more stylized high school gang film, THE WARRIORS, set in the near future with more of a musical feel to it, probably stole this film’s commercial thunder. But then, Kaufman’s pic really has less in common with that film (or BLACKBOARD JUNGLE/’55 or WEST SIDE STORY/’61), than it does with Federico Fellini’s indelible coming-of-age pic, I VITELLONI/’53, whose small-town characters are out of school, unwilling to grow up & pushing 30.

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