Lurid, finding a visual correlative for its absurd if not hysterical take on sibling love and rivalry — no, not The Godfather. Rumble Fish makes Rocco and His Brothers look as spare and uninhabited as a Bresson film. In the thirty-four years since its release, Francis Ford Coppola’s 1983 adaptation of the S.E. Hinton adolescent classic has survived its baffled reception; several critic friends claim it’s their favorite film. Makes sense: with Stephen H. Burum’s black and white photography and Stewart Copeland’s rumbling percussive score pumping up teenage kicks to Gone With the Wind-level melodrama, Rumble Fish and a multiplex audience don’t mix. Like Donnie Darko, My Own Private Idaho, and Harold and Maude it flourishes in solo screenings, an epic appreciated as a private, almost illicit pleasure.
In Bennys Billiards, a Tulsa pool hall, Rusty James (Matt Dillon) gets in fights and suffers exquisitely in the monochromatic light. His older brother, known only as The Motorcycle Boy, hangs offscreen for a while, gathering mystique like Orson Welles’ Harry Lime in The ThirdMan (Coppola gives Mickey Rourke his own suitably dramatic entrance). A few brawls later, the boys are ready for sodden homilies from their alcoholic father (Dennis Hopper, before Blue Velvet, blurring the lines between life and art).
Committed to a narrative treated with reverence but also, thanks to the histrionics of Copeland’s music and Burum’s camerawork, mistrusted, Coppola honors the secondhand kinks of Hinton’s novel, which owed more to the poses struck by beautiful youth in East of Eden, Los Olvidados, and The Blackboard Jungle than observed life. Rumble Fish is a better film than The Outsiders, during the shooting of which Coppola and Hinton were writing the screenplay for this project; it’s as if on the earlier film Coppola anticipated Spielberg’s approach to shooting The Color Purple by three years. Dillon and Diane Lane, who plays Rusty James’ girlfriend Patty, are at the peak of their early beauty. For Dillon, Rusty James was the culmination of several years’ worth of playing pouty-lipped toughs in undershirts; after Rumble Fish, The Outsiders, and another Hinton adaptation called Tex the previous year, he would land the role of the cabana boy on the make in The Flamingo Kid before coasting for the rest of the eighties, coming back only for 1989’s Drugstore Cowboy (after 1984’s Streets of Fire, another gonzo overproduction, Lane would have it worse).
Rumble Fish was not a hit, and, after the failure of 1984’s The Cotton Club, Coppola himself would flounder in journeyman projects. In fact, 2009’s fascinating curio Tetro aside, the early eighties was the last period when Coppola enjoyed the liberty to which the box office of Apocalypse Now and The Godfather films had entitled him. Rereleased in a typically sparkling Criterion edition, Rumble Fish holds up well.
Rumble Fish plays tonight at Coral Gables Art Cinema at 7 p.m. Miami Herald writer Rene Rodríguez will lead a post-screening Q&A