Barfly

(1987)

by D. B. Bates, Editor-in-Chief

From 1979-1993, the Cannon Group — headed by Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus — released a string of surprisingly successful low-budget films. They made stars of Chuck Norris and Jean-Claude Van Damme, they lured bigger stars like Sylvester Stallone and Charles Bronson into their company, and they glommed onto huge franchise properties like Masters of the Universe, Superman, and Spider-Man. Despite the financial success of the films, the company almost always ran at a loss, and Cannon’s insistence on the lowest possible budget yielded bizarre but uniquely charming films. The goal of Cannon Corner is to pay homage to these films.

According to Cannon lore, the production company’s only bona fide masterpiece almost didn’t happen. First, screenwriter Charles Bukowski insisted that his friend, relatively unknown French TV director Barbet Schroeder, direct the film. Then, Cannon ran into financial trouble, and since they had expensive commitments to other films, they removed Barfly from their production slate. Schroeder showed up at Cannon’s production offices with a Black and Decker portable saw, threatening to cut off a finger unless Cannon reconsidered. Cannon did, but even still, the film was only made once Francis Ford Coppola and his producing partner, Fred Roos, contributed to financing the film.

It’s a good thing everything came together, because for many people — myself included — Barfly is an entry point to Bukowski’s work. Much of Bukowski’s work chronicles the travails of Henry Chinaski, a thinly veiled fictional version of Bukowski. I’m generally not a fan of the “autobiography with names changed to protect the innocent” genre of fiction, but Bukowski’s prose is so strong and unsentimental, it’s easy to become a voyeur into Chinaski’s horrendously unpleasant life.

The film is no different. In arguably his best performance, Mickey Rourke plays Chinaski, the titular barfly, as a man made fearless by his contempt for humanity. He hates everyone and everything surrounding him and lives a life of routine that involves drinking at the same bar every night, running afoul of the same loutish bartender (Frank Stallone as Eddie), and ending up either getting his ass kicked or kicking ass, night after night. Then, one night, Wanda Wilcox (Faye Dunaway) enters the bar and Chinaski’s life, and the movie heads into a strange direction that turns it into the most depraved romantic comedy ever made.

You see, Chinaski and Wanda spend time together, drinking and making love at various bars and flophouses, until Chinaski sells a story to Tully Sorenson (Alice Krige), who’s impressed by his raw, poetic style and even more impressed when she discovers Chinaski lives his art. The blossoming relationship with Tully makes Wanda understandably jealous, so she gets even in a way she knows will crush Chinaski’s spirits — she falls into the arms of Eddie, who himself is jealous when Chinaski arrives at the old bar like the cock of the walk, spending the $500 Tully paid him on booze for himself and the other barflies.

It’s a small story focused on only a handful of characters, but Schroeder was absolutely the right choice to direct. Working with Dutch cinematographer Robby Müller (probably best known for shooting most of Jim Jarmusch’s films), Schroeder — like Bukowski’s writing — finds the beauty and poetry in the dive bars where much of the film’s action takes place. Every moment set in or around a bar looks like an Edward Hopper painting, giving otherwise dingy locales such glamor that would drive even the world’s biggest teetotaler to start drinking, just to be a part of it. Tully’s mansion looks charmless and unappealing in comparison, which I imagine is an intentional choice on Schroeder’s part (it’s possible that it’s all a happy accident).

Then there’s Rourke, who you have to remember was at this time known as much for his matinee-idol good looks as his acting. So was Dunaway, so it was relatively surprising (and still is, despite the plastic surgery that has turned both actors into frightening shadows of their former selves) to see them so dressed-down here. Schroeder gives a beauty to the physical locales, but he makes the people as ugly as possible. Adopting an indescribably unattractive voice (allegedly modeled after Bukowski himself), unwashed hair, stained clothes, and five o’clock shadow, Rourke embodies Henry Chinaski. Acting against him, Dunaway raises her already-good game and turns in another de-glamorized performance as Wanda. The two spend much of the movie together, and much of that time they spend saying and doing horrible things to one another. This adds to the bleak, bizarre comedy of their mutual jealousy. Like typical alcoholics, they’re selfish and abusive when they want to be, and needy and apologetic when they need to be. The treatment of the characters is impressively well-observed by Bukowski and well-acted by the two leads.

Sadly, a longtime dispute over who actually owns Barfly (American Zoetrope, Warner Brothers, or MGM?) has caused it to fall out of print. If you ever get the chance to see it, you won’t regret it. Of the “legitimate” films in Cannon’s canon, this one is easily the best (even better than Runaway Train, despite its three Oscar nominations).

D. B. Bates is a freelance script reader and writer.

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