This week on TCM Underground: VIGILANTE (1983)

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When his wife and son are brutalized by thugs and a corrupt criminal justice system puts the perpetrators back on the street, a family man turns vigilante to find some measure of bloody justice.

Cast: Robert Forster (Eddie Marino), Fred Williamson (Nick), Woody Strode (Rake), Rutanya Alda (Vickie Marino), Don Blakely (Prago), Willie Colon (Rico), Carol Lynley (ADA Mary Fletcher), Richard Bright (Burke), Joseph Carberry (Ramon), Joe Spinell (Eisenberg), Vincent Beck (Judge Sinclair), Bo Rucker (Horace), Frank Pesce (Blueboy), Steve James (Patrolman Gibbons), Frank Gio (Patrolman Shore), Randy Jurgensen (Detective Russo),  Peter Savage (Mr. T), Dante Joseph (Scotty Marino), Henry Judd Baker (Quinn). Director: William Lustig. Screenplay: Richard Vetere. Cinematography: James Lemmo. Music: Jay Chattaway.

Color – 90 min.

Showtime: Saturday, January 24th 11:45pm PST/2:45am EST. 

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Before Quentin Tarantino had even dropped out of high school, William Lustig was channeling his love for movies – particularly the grimy, disreputable grindhouse fare upon which he would binge during trips to Manhattan’s Times Square – into a career in motion pictures. As a teenager, the Bronx-born, New Jersey-raised filmmaker (a nephew to boxer Jake LaMotta, subject of Martin Scorsese’s RAGING BULL) secured employment as a production assistant on such Manhattan-based Hollywood films as ACROSS 110TH STREET (1972), THE SEVEN-UPS (1973), and DEATH WISH (1974), working his way to the position of apprentice editor while educating himself in the craft of movie-making. Through his industry connections, Lustig drifted into adult films, at first handling direction of non-sexual scenes and later taking charge of THE VIOLATION OF CLAUDIA (1977) and HOT HONEY (1978) under the nom-de-porn “Billy Bagg.” It was his friendship with character actor Joe Spinell (a New York cabbie turned rep player for such New Hollywood auteurs as Francis Ford Coppola and Martin Scorsese) that led to a shot at legitimacy with MANIAC (1980), featuring Spinell in a rare starring role as a serial killer with a mother complex and a buttload of mannequins. Conceived as a violent policier pitting Spinell’s subway predator against a relentless cop (a role offered to Jason Miller, with whom Spinell had just appeared in THE NINTH CONFIGURATION), MANIAC went forward without the procedural angle, focusing instead on its unhinged anti-protagonist. Made for $48,000 in seed money, MANIAC earned millions, its success enraging critics and media watchdogs… among them Roger Ebert’s SNEAK PREVIEWS seatmate, Gene Siskel, who branded the film irredeemable while admitting he had bailed after the first thirty minutes.

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Lustig’s follow-up to MANIAC was meant to be a blue collar rethink of DEATH WISH, a revenge thriller in the mold of the Michael Winner original and the slew of like-minded action films, both domestic (John Flynn’s ROLLING THUNDER, Abel Ferrara’s MS. 45) and imported (Enzo Castellari’s STREET LAW, Marino Girolami’s ROMA VIOLENTA, aka VIOLENT CITY), that followed. Having delegated scripting duties on MANIAC to star Spinell and co-writer C. A. Rosenberg, Lustig was in need of a new collaborator, one whose voice could reflect a primary knowledge of working class life in the outer boroughs of New York City. He found such a voice in playwright Richard Vetere, a graduate of Columbia University whose play ROCKAWAY BOULEVARD had been produced by the Actor’s Studio and who had been praised by New York Times critic Michiko Kakutaini for his ability to mix the poetic with the colloquial. The nephew of NYPD cops, Vetere had grown up in a neighborhood in Queens bounded by truck lots and cemeteries and brought to what would ultimately be titled VIGILANTE (1983) a palpable sense of gritty vérité  limned with a sadness all too appropriate for the tale of an amiable tradesman who takes on the street gang responsible for destroying his family and the system that has turned his home into a war zone.

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Having made valuable connections within the Italian film industry (he labored without credit on the New York crew of Dario Argento’s 1980 supernatural horror film INFERNO), Lustig cast Blaxploitation icon Fred Williamson (then a big name in such European co-productions as Enzo Castellari’s THE INGLORIOUS BASTARDS and 1990: THE BRONX WARRIORS) and New York actor Tony Musante (whose American career had also shifted to the Continent) as blue collar buddies who form a vigilante gang to combat the influx of violent crime into their neighborhood. Negotiations with the notoriously prickly Musante eventually broke down over the actor’s insistence that the script’s ending be rewritten, a talking point on which Lustig refused to budge. With Musante bowing out of VIGILANTE at the outset of principal photography, the role was offered to Robert Forster, then making the transition from studio pictures to exploitation programmers. Shooting commenced in the winter of 1981, with Lustig rounding out his cast with such New York character actors as Spinell (in a bit as a sleazy defense lawyer), Richard Bright (Spinell’s GODFATHER and GODFATHER II castmate), and Bright’s wife Rutanya Alda (who had enjoyed a significant role in Michael Cimino’s THE DEER HUNTER), as well as, former Hollywood starlet Carol Lynley (as an ineffectual assistant district attorney), Woody Strode (as a sage jailhouse rat), and salsa maestro Willie Colón, in a change of pace role as the leader of the gang whose cruelty sets VIGILANTE in motion.

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Lustig reveals himself to be more demure and canny with VIGILANTE than he had been with the unblinkingly horrific MANIAC, relying on misdirection to allude to brutality rather than push it upstage. The murder of a child is handled obliquely, if no less tragically, while the violation of Alda’s character (an uncommonly flinty victim, who lands not one but two good punches at Colón’s home invader before she is brought down) is evocatively framed behind hanging laundry. Elsewhere, Richard Vetere’s script works in echoes of New York true crime, with the failure of Forster’s neighbors to intervene in the attack on his family recalling the 1964 Kitty Genovese murder (and subsequent media storm, which spun the slaying of the Kew Gardens resident into urban myth) and the gang’s ambushing of two NYPD patrolmen (one played by future exploitation stalwart Steve James) echoing the 1972 East Village murders of rookie cops Rocco Laurie and Gregory Foster by members of the Black Liberation Army – a shocking development that Lustig punctuates with a cutaway to a car headlight, shattered by bullets, burning out. (Adding to the heady commingling of fact and fiction is the casting of former NYPD detective Randy Jurgensen, whose investigation into the murder of homosexual men in the 1960s was the inspiration for William Friedkin’s CRUISING.) End to end, Lustig reins VIGILANTE in from the galloping machismo common in revenge thrillers, keeping his avengers wholly human and afraid, quick to carry guns but normally disinclined to use them… until Forster’s aggrieved fledgling betters their example in the film’s explosive finale. Though Vetere provides Williamson with reams of quotable soundbytes as a street level life coach to the disenfranchised (“This is our Waterloo, baby. You want your city back? You got to take it!”), it is Forster who gets the film’s best line as his shattered family man reflects “When I was a kid I slept with the windows open. I wonder what happened to that.”

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Lustig had been disappointed by the theatrical look of MANIAC, which he had shot in 16mm and had blown up to 35mm for cinematic exhibition, resulting in an aesthetic ugliness that was compounded by angry curbside protests from feminist groups who found the film’s depiction of violence against women offensive. Shooting VIGILANTE in Cinemascope allowed the filmmaker to leaven the bleakness of the story with an Italianate richness, washing street scenes and interiors in vivid primary hues (a nod, perhaps, to Italian exploitation filmmaker Mario Bava, who had died in 1980) and using the wideness of the frame to communicate the vulnerability of his protagonists. (Lustig’s director of photography was James Lemmo, who squeezed the job in between work on Abel Ferrara’s MS. 45 and FEAR CITY.) Released in the fall of 1983, VIGILANTE enjoyed a robust return on its investment, performing particularly well (as intended) in Italy. (When Enzo Castellari’s STREET LAW was reissued in the United Kingdom on video cassette the title was changed to VIGILANTE II.) Paradoxically, Robert Forster spent several years thereafter playing villains (most memorably, an Arab terrorist in the Chuck Norris vehicle THE DELTA FORCE) yet it was this performance that inspired Quentin Tarantino to write for the actor a pivotal role in JACKIE BROWN (1997), which earned him a 1998 Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor.

Superfly

Coming up immediately after VIGILANTE is the Blaxploitation classic SUPERFLY (1972), directed by Gordon Parks, Jr., and produced by his old man, SHAFT (1971) director Gordon Parks. Though it might have been more thematically interesting to run another vigilante movie — say, 13 WEST STREET (1962), starring Alan Ladd as a milquetoast aerospace engineer who gets his ass handed to him by a gang o’punks but is persuaded to eschew vigilantism by social worker Rod Steiger — there is an interesting dichotomy in this double bill. In SUPERFLY, Ron O’Neal stars as a drug dealer trying to buy his way out of criminality by pushing cocaine; ten years later, VIGILANTE shows you the flip side of that particular twist in the tail of the American dream. Back to back, these films show you that there was a whole lot of ugly to see in New York City between 1972 and 1981; so often viewed through grindhouse goggles, New York really wasn’t very nice.

1 Response This week on TCM Underground: VIGILANTE (1983)
Posted By swac44 : February 1, 2015 2:09 pm

I’ve held off on watching Vigilante for far too long, considering Maniac was one of the very first movies I ever rented on VHS, back when you also had to rent the VCR since the machines were prohibitively expensive to own at the time. It was one of two movies, the other being M*A*S*H. Guess I just went straight for the M section, possibly looking for the Fritz Lang movie of the same name?

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