Monday, June 15, 2015


Bernard Chanticleer (Peter Kastner, at right) is 19, a virgin, lives with his well-off parents, and works as a page at the New York Public Library; wearing roller skates, he zips around retrieving material from the basement and sending it upstairs in a dumbwaiter. His buddy Raef (Tony Bill) is much slicker and more sociable, and is always giving Bernard advice about getting out of his rut. Bernard's mom (Geraldine Page) is a rather nightmarish overly-protective type, and his father (Rip Torn), who is a department head at the library, is both stern and also not quite living in the real world. Mom and Dad decide to let him live alone in Manhattan in a boarding house run by the eccentric Miss Thing (Julie Harris), who is instructed by Bernard's mom to keep a close eye on her son's comings and goings. His dad's secretary, the sweet Amy (Karen Black), has a crush on Bernard but he's oblivious; he only has eyes for the mysterious blond waif Barbara Darling (Elizabeth Hartman) whom he keeps seeing around the city. When he finds out she's an actress in a off-Broadway avant-garde play, he sends her a fan letter and she replies, initiating a relationship that, we can tell, won't last long, and it doesn't, culminating in an NYC street chase involving a Gutenberg Bible and a prosthetic leg.

This early Francis Ford Coppola film is mostly delightful, tricked out with some 60s style effects—hand-held camera, surreal subjective touches—that have dated but are not too irritating. At heart, it's a standard coming-of-age story and Kastner is perfect as the geeky bespectacled hero, who, in my eyes, is geekier when he takes his glasses off. Karen Black (at left) was, as far as I know, never again to play such a vanilla, mainstream role; she's young and lovely and totally right as the sweet girl who doesn't give up—though whether Bernard is worth the wait may be debatable as his character is far more acted-upon than active, and though he's likeable, his personality is left rather vague. Torn and Page are a little too caricatured, and Harris is your standard slightly nutty old maid, though I enjoyed the very handsome Tony Bill, and Elizabeth Hartman's take on the heartless breaker-of-hearts is just different enough to be refreshing. Also featured: Dolph Sweet as a cop who is sweet on Harris, Michael Dunn as an actor friend of Hartman's, and some footage from Coppola's earlier DEMENTIA 13 and Roger Corman's THE PIT AND THE PENDULUM.

One area in which the movie falls down a bit is in tone. It begins with lots of vaguely surreal touches, mostly dramatizing Bernard's inner daydreaming state. My favorite scene has him looking at racist graffiti that says, "N-----s go home"; he riffs on where home is, which is the heart, and on where the heart is (according to the Robert Burns poem, my heart's in the highlands) and sees the graffiti as "N-----s go to the Highlands," then imagines a merry band of African-Americans in kilts, dancing in Scotland. Yes, too much of this might have sunk the movie in leaden whimsy, but I could have used a little more. By the end, I suppose the point that is being made is that, in the climactic chase scene, his real life has actually become a bit surreal—though the last sequence of Bernard and Amy in a pretzel factory is just plain puzzling. If you don't have an aversion to 60s shenanigans, this is well worth a look. [TCM]

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