After the excesses of Apocalypse Now
, director Francis Ford Coppola
made a series of smaller movies in the early eighties. Like its companion piece The Outsiders
, Rumble Fish
was adapted from a novel by S.E. Hinton
herself collaborated with Coppola
on the screenplay, and has a cameo in the film as a hooker
Released in 1983, the film is set in Tulsa, Oklahoma and is reminsicent of the juvenile delinquent films of the 1950s such as The Wild One and Rebel Without a Cause. This effect is enhanced as the film is shot almost entirely in black and white, except for the Rumble Fish that are the central metaphor of the movie. This reflects the colour blindness of The Motorcycle Boy, who claims that the fish are the only colours he can see.
The plot centres on two brothers, Rusty James, who yearns for the time of 'the gangs' and who idolises his older brother The Motorcycle Boy who has gained local notoriety as a former gang leader but has since left town. Rusty James gets in a rumble with a knife-wielding rival - which is a stunningly shot set-piece and a fine example of how light, sound and movement can be brought together to give a balletic elegance to a street fight - and is saved with a serious wound by his brothers return.
This is a wonderfully beautiful film, and such techniques as time lapse photography and use of deep focus lenses help to capture the haziness of Rusty James as he descends into a series of deliriums caused by both his wound and alcohol. The use of passing clouds and clocks as a visual motif highlight the feeling that time is running out for our protagonists, and the score (by ex-Police drummer Stewart Copeland) often imitates a ticking clock further underscores this.
The Motorcycle Boy has learned from his travels that his gang past is nothing to be proud of, he has an intelligence and self-awareness, that his dopey hot-headed sibling cannot yet comprehend however hard he tries to mimic him. But The Motorcyle Boy also has a slight derangedness, an "actueness of the senses" as his father recognises. It is this quality that leads to the tragic ending of the film, along with his obsession with freeing the fighting fish.
The fish are a metaphor for the gangs that teenagers are forming in response to the dead end hopelessness they feel in their life. The fish will attack each other in a tank, similarly gangs of youths will form and find reasons to fight. But when the fish get to the river they are given space and can live in peace, as the Motorcycle Boy discovered when he left town. The youths must widen their horizons from their home town and appreciate the wider world, this is the knowledge that The Motorcycle Boy tries to impart to his brother, and as the closing shot of the movie hints at, he does succeed.
This film is also notable for the amount of young actors in it who become major stars and the performances are of a high quality. This is Mickey Rourke's finest hour and after watching this it is heart-breaking to think of how his career imploded. Matt Dillon is also touching and sexy as the befuddled teen who thinks he knows a lot more then he does. The supporting cast is also excellent, particulary Vincent Spano as Rusty James's nerdy pal and Dennis Hopper as the ravaged alcoholic father who displays only tenderness to his sons.
This film was not a hit when it was released, some critics referred to it as Mumble Fish due to the sound quality being deliberately not 100%, though this is clearly another device to heighten the feeling of apartness and distance that the brothers experience. This is one of my favourite films, it has a sense of delicous melancholy and is visually breathtaking. In my opinion it is the last great movie that Francis Ford Coppola made.
Matt Dillon - Rusty James
Mickey Rourke - The Motorcycle Boy
Diane Lane - Patty
Dennis Hopper - Father
Diana Scarwid - Cassandra
Vincent Spano - Steve
Nicolas Cage - Smokey
Christopher Penn - B.J.
Larry Fishburne - Midget
William Smith - Patterson
Tom Waits - Benny