Rumble Fish ★★★½

#6 of 100 in my Top 100 Directors Challenge

Just a quick glance at the cast sets high expectations for this adaptation of the 1975 novel by S.E. Hinton. There's Matt Dillon as gang-banger wannabe Rusty James, and Mickey Rourke as his ultra-hip older brother nicknamed The Motorcycle Boy. Behind the lunch counter at Benny's Billiards is Tom Waits, and hanging out are all the usual suspects -- Nicholas Cage as the smooth guy Smokey, Chris Penn as the tough kid B.J. Jackson, and Vincent Spano as the four-eyed hanger-on Steve.

Playing Rusty's coming-of-age girlfriend Patty is Diane Lane, his alcoholic ex-lawyer father is none other than Dennis Hopper, and his turf rival Biff Wilcox is played by Glenn Withrow. There's even room for a bit of nepotism, with Sofia Coppola playing Patty's younger sister Donna, Gian-Carlo Coppola as cousin James, and author S.E. Hinton with a cameo as a hooker on the downtown Tulsa, Oklahoma strip. Throw in a slim and cool-looking Laurence Fishburne as the streetwise Midget, Diana Scarwid as junkie student teacher Cassandra, and William Smith as threatening Patterson the Cop, and you've got a line up that can't miss.

Director Francis Ford Coppola decided to experiment with this film. He borrowed concepts from a number of respected filmmakers to create something that resembles many prior productions, but it is by no means a Frankenstein monster. For example, he decided to give the movie a noir feel by shooting primarily in high-contrast black-and-white, and using color only for the Siamese fighting fish sequences and the climax. This also mirrors The Motorcycle Boy's claim of being color blind.

Coppola also integrated time-lapse photography similar to Godfrey Reggio's "Koyaanisqatsi," especially in cloud sequences, and used Robert Wiene's "The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari" as a "stylistic prototype," including the hallmarks of German expressionism, such as shadows, odd shooting angles, exaggerated compositions and plenty of smoke and fog. There are elements of French Nouvelle Vague, too.

As I watched this, I couldn't help but flash on all kinds of films. The romantic interests and gang violence made me think of "West Side Story," while the atmosphere of youthful alienation reminded me of "Rebel without a Cause." Also, seeing Tom Waits in B&W, I couldn't help but wonder if Jim Jarmusch got some of his ideas for "Down by Law" here.

Among the many themes treated in just 95 minutes are hero worship, alienation, gang culture, poor parenting and substance abuse. The story wanders somewhat, just like the characters do, having no fixed place to be or destination ahead ... drifting from action to action without much sense of purpose, and certainly without urgency. As experiments go, I think it's a successful one, but I hate to compare it to Coppola's best work, such as "Apocalypse Now" or "The Godfather." It's just not in that league.

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