Saturday, July 3, 2010

Cockfighter (1974)

From Cockfighter, Monte Hellman's best movie.
I was quite surprised a few months ago while leafing through the New York Times Sunday Arts section, to see that director Monte Hellman was not only still alive, but at age 78 has a new movie coming out (called Road To Nowhere, it hasn't been released yet, if it gets a theatrical release it will be a minor miracle).
Hellman's career consists of twenty films of varying quality, and I must admit, I don't quite get what many consider his masterpiece-- Two Lane Blacktop (1971), a fairly dull, counter culture road movie in the style of Easy Rider that follows Dennis Wilson and James Taylor around in some hopped up muscle cars (the cars are the best part of the film). But Hellman made one of my favorite movies of the 70's, a peculiar thing called Cockfighter, based on the novel by Charles Willeford (who also wrote the screenplay), whose plot line it follows closely. Starring the always great Warren Oates, with a supporting cast led by Harry Dean Stanton, Laurie Bird, and in lesser roles Ed Begely Jr., Troy Donahue, Richard B. Shull, and even a cameo by Willeford himself, Cockfighter is a genre film without a genre. The story revolves around a professional game cock fighter who has just lost everything including his car, trailer and birds, and has vowed not to speak until he wins the coveted award for best cockfighter (there really was such a thing, probably still is in Puetro Rico and the Philippines where cockfighting is still legal).
It is one of Oates best performances, and the film captures the hidden world of pro cockfighting circa '74 in all its gory, southern white trash glory. Like very few other movies (I can think of Payday and Walking Tall, both covered in recent posts), it capture the south at a strange and pivotal time, when things were going from redneck to suburbia fast. I was a teenager in Florida at the time, and I can attest to the accuracy of the characters. The world it shows is long gone, put to death by Federal legislation that banned all cockfighting (it was still legal in parts of Louisiana and Arizona until the late 90's). All the extras and bit players look like real people, not actors, the settings are real, even the bird fights look real (and probably were, it's hard to get chickens to act).
While I'm not advocating that the laws against blood sports like cockfighting be rescinded (although some of the mixed Martial Arts you see on TV are almost as bloody), you can loathe the subject matter and still enjoy this movie for what it is. A look at a piece of the underside of Americana long gone. Cockfighter really is a great, forgotten movie. It deals with a man and his personal code of honor, and about living with and up to that code. And about keeping your mouth shut. I'm not sure who the producers of this film envisioned as their audience, but it is a riveting film. I first saw it at a drive in when it came out in '74, and re-watching it on DVD all these years later, it really holds up, in fact, it seems to have improved with age. Oates was one of the most under rated actors of his generation, he never gave a bad performance, but Cockfighter was one of his low budget best. Harry Dean Stanton, as his nemesis is equally great, and also quite believable in his role (as an aside, I wish they didn't kill off his character in the HBO polygamist soap opera Big Love, he was perfect as the old time Mormon prophet). You can rent Cockfighter from Netflix or buy it on DVD. I think it's Monte Hellman's real masterpiece.
Addendum: Check out this documentary on Screamin' Lord Sutch with some very rare footage of Joe Meek over at thee Bedazzled blog. It was made in the early 60's and I'd never heard of it before. Also, check out Ben Vaughn's interview with Jerry Blavant-- the Geater with the Heater, legendary Philadelphia DJ, and probably the last of the great old time motor mouth jocks still on the air (50 years!).


The Chief said...

1974 was a high water mark for Warren Oates--"Cockfighter" and "Alfredo Garcia". He doesn't speak in the first and the second he keeps his eyes covered with shades for 3/4 of the movie--in other words, doesn't get to use two important tools for a movie actor--and he delivers the goods. Just got the Oates bio that came out last year and can't wait to tear into it. One of the undeniable greats & sorely missed in this world. At least Harry Dean and Rip Torn are still around and gen. the best things in gen. terrible movies that they grace.

Willeford, too, is a good call. If you haven't read it "The Woman Chaser" is grimy sleaze.

Donna Lethal said...

Oh, I love this movie (and "Garcia) - Warren is fantastic.
I had the good fortune to spend a night at Musso's bar with Hellman after a showing of "Cockfighter" where he extolled his love of bar tequila and his hatred of Irwin Yeaworth (director of "The Blob.") I was on a date, but that didn't stop Hellman.

Pat Olds said...

Thanks for the Jerry Blavat interview. Found old clips of his Philly dance show on you tube. The kids on those shows reminded me of the West coast kids in Found Photo #48.

Paul said...

Great movie. Re the cockfights, yeah they were allegedly real - Corman, in his autobiography, recounts how Hellman finished the shoot, delivered the rough cut and neglected to include a single shot of a cockfight, so Roger and a second unit crew went out and shot all the vicious cutaways. Willeford is an extraordinary writer - his two autobiographies, I Was Looking for A Street and Something About A Soldier are hard to find but well worth the search.

Dull Tool Dim Bulb said...

Not many know it, but Willeford is one of the great American writers. He wrote a trio of novels about a down and out dick named Hoke who lived in a sleazy hotel in pre-glamorous Miami Beach. They are Truly Great.

The Hound said...

" He wrote a trio of novels about a down and out dick named Hoke who lived in a sleazy hotel in pre-glamorous Miami Beach. "

The Hoke Mosley books (one of which was turned into a film-- Miami Blues) were actually best sellers and saved Willeford from obscurity in the years before his death. He wrote a fourth in which Hoke murders his entire family then kills himself, it was rejected by the publisher however. Ican't remember the title. Rare record dealer Dick Blackburn used to sell xeroxed copies of the manuscript, which is where I read it, unfortunately I lent mine to someone and never got it back. Perhaps some day it will be published. Another on of his books-- The Woman Chaser was made into a film in 1999 with a cast of unknowns. The Burn Orange Heresey, his book about an avant garde artist is scheduled to be released on film in 2011. Willeford himself can be seen in bit parts as an actor in Cockfighter and a movie German about moonshiners called Thunder and Lightning w/David Carradine in which he appears as a bartender.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the tip about Grimhaven, the unpublished Hoke Mosley novel, you can find a pdf here:

Greg G said...

Cockfighter was filmed in and around Atlanta, so I was compelled to take an extensive look back at it on my local history website:

If you click on the "Gallery Of Cockfighter Pages" link & go to the bottom of the page, you will see some thumbnails of local newspaper articles that covered the shooting of the controversial film.

Gov. Carter (later, of course, Pres. Carter) not only attended the film's premiere, he also dropped by the set and told director Hellman that his family had been involved in cockfighting for generations.

The Hound said...

"If you click on the "Gallery Of Cockfighter Pages" link & go to the bottom of the page, you will see some thumbnails of local newspaper articles that covered the shooting of the controversial film. "

"A fowl film orgy", wow, thanks for the tip! Also, I forgot the film was also released as Born To Kill (I believe in its second run at the bottom of a drive in double feature).

avidmartinet said...

good call on cockfighter, probably my favorite hellman film and a fairly faithful willeford adaptation. i actually used to have the film options on burnt orange heresy and sideswipe a number of years back, but couldn't get them going and had to give 'em up. i'm not sure that heresy film is solid yet. willeford's the best. thompson may have had more wild sections of writing, but willeford wrote better books. (and big thanks to whoever posted the last mosely novel.) monte h was pretty famous as peckinpah's directorial executor when he was too wasted to get the job done. he also used to work for anchor bay home video, where he used to pick out and package old films for rerelease. we actually had the nyc premiere of china 9 liberty 37 at the thalia when i was booking it. peckinpah does a bit in the film with a little speech that could be taken as an acknowledgement of monte's work for him.

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