Combustible Celluloid
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With: Ken Wahl, John Friedrich, Karen Allen, Toni Kalem, Jim Youngs, Tony Ganios, Alan Rosenberg, Dolph Sweet, William Andrews, Erland van Lidth, Linda Manz, Michael Wright, Samm-Art Williams, Val Avery, Dion Albanese, Olympia Dukakis
Written by: Rose Kaufman, Philip Kaufman, based on a novel by Richard Price
Directed by: Philip Kaufman
MPAA Rating: R
Running Time: 117
Date: 07/04/1979

The Wanderers (1979)

4 Stars (out of 4)

Whistle Loud

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Philip Kaufman's The Wanderers (1979) has a little bit of everything. It has gang fights, a football game, strip poker, bodybuilders, gangsters, sex scenes, lessons from Abraham Lincoln, girls getting knocked up, a bachelor party, shaved heads, singing, art by Neal Adams, Marine recruiters, and cult actress Linda Manz. It even has scenes right out of a horror movie, with leering gang members emerging like poltergeists from out of a sinister fog (Kaufman had just finished scaring the bejeebers out of everyone with his great Invasion of the Body Snatchers).

Most of all, it's a beautifully-filmed and deeply touching portrait of a time and place, of freedoms and entrapments, all based on a novel by Richard Price. It was not enthusiastically received upon its release; nostalgia had been a hot thing in movies starting in 1973 with American Graffiti, and though its popularity probably helped get The Wanderers greenlit, by the time it was actually released, Happy Days was a hit on TV, and the trend was probably seen as having burnt itself out. Nevertheless, it's a darker vision than American Graffiti, and it can now be seen as a precursor to many other films.

It quickly developed cult status, and it still has a fervent following to this day. Kaufman and his beloved, late wife Rose wrote the screenplay, filled with tight, quotable, rocklike dialogue. Set in 1963 in the Bronx, the movie focuses on several members of the Wanderers street gang (how they raised enough money to buy matching gold jackets with fancy patches on the backs is never explained). Richie (Ken Wahl) seems to be the leader. We meet him attempting to persuade his girlfriend, Despie (Toni Kalem), to have sex with him, though they are in a living room chair and it doesn't look too comfortable or romantic.

Then we meet Turkey (Alan Rosenberg), who often cackles insanely, and who has decided to shave his head in hopes of joining a rival gang called the Baldies. The Baldies are led by a monstrous fellow named Terror (Erland van Lidth), who has a pint-sized girlfriend called Peewee (Manz). Wanderer Joey (John Friedrich) — who is small and scrappy and perhaps the soul of the movie — tries to talk Turkey out of it, but winds up angering the Baldies. They are rescued when a huge newcomer joins in ("Leave the kid alone"), takes out several Baldies, and stops the fight. This is the gentle, heavy-lidded Perry (Tony Ganios).

Eventually, the boys meet the unbelievably adorable Nina (Karen Allen, just two years before Raiders of the Lost Ark, which Kaufman co-wrote). Joey falls for her, but Nina only has eyes for the smooth, tall, handsome Richie. I could go on. It seems like there are a million subplots, and each one of them is painted with rich, subtle textures. It never feels like anything is rushed or crammed in. Information is doled out a little at a time, and it all adds up to a kind of perfect portrait of a time and place.

Yet Kaufman isn't terribly interested in realism. He unleashes his finest filmmaking skills here, especially in the film's use of music. Movie buffs will recognize many of these songs from later films, but will have to concede that Kaufman used them first, here, and to brilliant effect, especially the use of Ben E. King's "Stand by Me" to underline the November 22 death of JFK, and a use of Bob Dylan's "The Times They Are A-Changin'" to illustrate that Richie will not be changing along with them.

I mentioned before the use of horror filmmaking in some sequences, and it's great, chilling stuff, but the movie also frequently uses girders, bars, and other physical objects to surround the characters, showing that, despite their friendships and the power they may feel when they're together, they really have no place to go. That is, except for the hopeful ending, wherein two characters — Perry and Joey — find themselves alone in the world, cut off from parents and other friends. Indeed, Kaufman practically paints these characters as a surrogate father and son, with the diminutive Joey riding on Perry's back in one scene, and clutching a bottle while lying in a fetal position in another.

Early reviewers complained that all the disparate parts of the movie failed to add up to anything, but I found it to be monumentally satisfying and quite moving. In fact, this could explain the movie's cult status. These characters are continually trapped in this time and place, and every time we re-watch The Wanderers, there they are, again. They're moving around and yet stuck in time. Lots of things happen, but seemingly nothing important. Despite the haircuts and the language, it's an existential conundrum that each and everyone of us shares.

Kino Lorber released a deluxe 2-disc Blu-ray edition for 2017, containing both the 117-minute theatrical cut, and the 124-minute preview cut. Mr. Kaufman provides a commentary track for the former, and Columbia University Film Professor Annette Insdorf. It comes with two featurettes, one with Richard Price going back to the Bronx, and a Film Forum reunion. There are several Q&As, both video and audio, from recent screenings, plus trailers and introductions. This is an American classic, and sure to be one of the essential home video releases of the year.

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