King Of New York bowed to boos at the 1990 NYC Film Festival, its press conference kicking off with the question, “This film is an abomination. Why aren’t you giving the proceeds to some drug rehab programme?”
Of course, had Abel Ferrara cut a cheque it would have bounced, as his underappreciated gangster classic made less money in its entire theatrical run than a crack whore might turn in one trick-heavy night on Times Square.
There would have been symmetry though, to any charitable donation, given that bouffant-haired coke dealer Frank White (Christopher Walken) wants to save his city when he’s released from the big house: the cash he generates from dealing is meant to rescue a ghetto hospital from closure.
He sees himself as an urban Robin Hood, giving back to a city bled dry by criminals - both those from the street and in suits.
“From here on,” he tells a table of mobsters, “nothing goes down unless I’m involved. No blackjack, no dope deals, no nothing. A nickel bag gets sold in the park, I want in. You guys got fat while everybody starved on the street. It’s my turn.”
White turns, starts out. Arty, a cigar-chewing crook, calls after him. “You think you’re gonna live long enough to spend that money, you fucking hump?”
Bang! Bang! BANG! Bullets puncture the card player. “If any of you,” says White, “are tired of getting ripped off by guys like that…” Bang! Bang! “You come with me. I’m at the Plaza Hotel. You’re welcome. YOU’RE ALL WELCOME!”
Bang! Another bullet thumps into the corpse. White stalks out…
It’s a mesmeric scene, all the more remarkable because, as Ferrara recalls on his commentary, Walken said he wasn’t comfortable pointing a gun at another actor.
Hard to think what he’d have done if he had been comfortable… Hard to think of a better beat in Walken’s eclectic, electric filmography.
Hard to think of a better Ferrara film too, with his regular tropes all present but not all pervading; Catholic symbolism, yes, but not as soaked in communion blood as the picture he made next, the ragged, outrageous Bad Lieutenant.
While the Lieutenant knows he’s hell-bound, White is only dimly aware of the need for redemption. He justifies himself – “I never killed anybody that didn’t deserve it” – but guilt doesn’t keep him awake at night; prostitutes do.
He’s an undead dealer - a criminal vampire, sucking the lifeblood of the city and yet wondering why it looks so pale. And he wants to be mayor.
Ferrara admits on the commentary, recorded in 2004 for the US disc release we are belatedly receiving, that he’s only there because he’s been paid $5,000.
But as much of a hustler as he is – Scorsese without a studio safety net – he still comes across as intelligent and passionate, growling approval during one key death scene, “Now that’s how you fuckin’ die right there, bro.”
He’s also completely unfiltered: “Oh, mommy,” he drools, as Walken partakes in a subway sex scene. “Ah, man. And he’s getting paid for this!” It’s this lack of restraint which makes the film so great; no shot is too ostentatious, no performance too OTT.
There’s no holding back, no limits… Working with him is obviously quite an experience, as shown in Abel Ferrara: Not Guilty.
Part of the long-standing French documentary series Cinéma, De Notre Temps, this is essentially 80 minutes of just hanging out with Ferrara in New York.
If the intention was ever to get him to explore his work, it’s never realised. Instead, we traipse around town, talking to friends and associates, realising what a complex, out-of-control and quite frequently irritating bloke he can be. It’s all very French.
More engaging is the lo-fi talking-heads doc A Short Film About The Long Career Of Abel Ferrara. The director himself doesn’t participate and the doc is let down by a lack of clips to illustrate its points.
But long-standing Ferrara collaborators – including producer Mary Kane, editor Anthony Redman and DoP Ken Kelsch – are frank and affectionate.
Other extras include an interview with the producer, Augusto Caminito, a documentary on hip-hop godfather Schoolly D and cheap but entertaining TV doc Hollywood Superstars: Christopher Walken.
But the edition’s worth having for Ferrara’s chattrack alone: ogling his masterpiece through a film fanatic’s eyes, enjoying the neon-drenched carnage and proud of sticking to his guns right to the climax. “It doesn’t end with a bang, it ends with a whimper.”
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