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Pope of Greenwich Village, The
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by Jack Sommersby

"An Extraordinary Achievement"
5 stars

One of those underrated treasures that will hopefully be re-discovered in the years to come. It's that flat-out impressive and sinfully entertaining.

In the remarkable New York crime tale The Pope of Greenwich Village, Frank Sinatra's much-revered song "Summer Wind" plays over the opening credits as one Charlie Moran (Mickey Rourke) is shaving and getting dressed for his evening job as maitre d' of a reasonably-posh restaurant, and the way the director, Stuart Rosenberg, has shot it, we're immediately pulled in with its trancelike rhythm. Charlie is a good-looking guy who loves fancy clothes, and though he's going to be late for work for taking the utmost time in selecting just the right suit and shoes (his closet's chock-full of them) and adjusting his cufflinks and tie exactly right, he doesn't really care -- he's a longtime neighborhood guy who's been brought up to believe image is everything. When this dazzler walks out of his building and snaps his fingers to hail a cab, we have no doubt he's on absolute top of things. His third cousin Paulie (Eric Roberts) also works at the restaurant, as a waiter; when Charlie finds him in the men's room, he's sprucing up his appearance, too, dancing around to another Sinatra tune "New York New York" as he fixes his tight curls in the mirror. Where Charlie is refined and modest, Paulie is full of energy and moxie, and he's recklessly daring with no real regard for the consequences -- he's into charging for but excluding expensive entrees from the bills of the big-party tables he's working, and pocketing the unreported money for himself. Even though Charlie warns him the owner will be checking the waiters' dues that night, Paulie goes through with his scam, anyway; as a result, after closing time, Paulie, who's gotten caught, is fired along with Charlie, who the owner suspects was in on it. Out of work and with a load of unpaid bills, alimony, child support, and two shylocks he's borrowed from, Charlie's back is against the wall; and in addition, his live-in girlfriend Diane (Darryl Hannah), a dance instructor and Wasp from Maine who's helplessly attracted to Charlie's streetwise savvy and seductive machismo, has just announced that she's pregnant. Too proud to take an inferior, average-paying job, Charlie, wanting to buy an upstate inn/restaurant up for sale, allows himself, after some initial resistance, to be talked into participating in a small-time robbery of a trucking company's safe that Paulie's been tipped off to. Pauline himself has aspirations for a better life: he's taken out five-thousand dollars from a shylock to buy into a supposed can't-miss thoroughbred set to race in a couple of weeks and wants a lot of money to bet with. He's brought in an old-time safecracker named Barney (Kenneth MacMillan) as the third man for the job, and Barney, making a just-passable living as a clock repairman, wants something better for himself, too: with his myopic eyesight set to go in five years and with a twenty-five-year-old mentally-handicapped kid, he needs the money to take care of himself and his family for the rest of their lives.

The movie is about dreamers, and what's refreshing and easygoing about it is that the characters are modest dreamers -- they don't have too greedy a sights on Fifth Avenue penthouse apartments and Rolls Royces and the like (though they certainly wouldn't turn those things down if showered upon them, though they'd probably just wind up cashing those things in to afford the things they favor instead) -- and this helps us in responding and yielding to them. They're not abrasive blowhards who want stereotypical, grandiose things; they had lower-class upbringings, and to them they've unfairly been denied material pleasures because of that -- they're "due." (When Paulie's asked what he calls success, he answers, "Knowing how to spend it. I never ordered a brandy in my life that wasn't Cordon Blue. I took five-hundred dollars from shylocks to see Sinatra at the Garden, sat two seats away from Tony Bennett.") And this extends to the other characters as well. Like a veteran cop, Walter "Bunky" Ritter (Jack Kehoe), who's unofficially gone undercover secretly taping the neighborhood Village crime boss, Eddie "Bed Bug" Grant (Burt Young), who's in cahoots with a high-ranking lieutenant on the force. With just one year to go until he's got his twenty in, Bunky wants a comfortable retirement set-up in Arizona for both himself and his live-in mother (Geraldine Page) than his second-class pension can provide. As for Ms. Ritter, a crusty old gal who chain-smokes and downs highballs during the day, and who spent twenty years scrubbing floors and polishing china for rich people, she feels entitled to a better life, too, but is wary over Bunky's overconfidence in delivering what he's promising her -- she instinctively knows you rarely get something without eventually paying some kind of high non-monetary price. As can be predicted, the robbery doesn't go quite as planned, with an unforeseen death unintentionally resulting from a character unexpectedly showing up at it; and it's revealed shortly thereafter that the trucking company is owned by Eddie, who's made it a practice of having his goons taking out or mutilating a finger or appendage off the people who cross him. (We're not told of any details pertaining to this beforehand, and this is another of the film's pluses: it's uncommonly modest and restrained.) The second-half deals with the consequences that arise from this, but its not really the dominating factor. The story, thankfully, doesn't turn into a standardized thriller where the heroes are continually on the run from the bad guys; Charlie and Paulie are the very definition of quintessential Villagers who are so bound to their neighborhood that escaping to, say, Manhattan would be as nutty as trying to take permanent refuge on the moon. Charlie knows returning the money would be for moot -- Eddie, to uphold his reputation, would still be obligated to doing a "Bed Bug number" on them.

While it's obvious the screenwriter Vincent Patrick, who adapted from his own same-title novel, was inspired by Martin Scorsese's Mean Streets, the film is more entertaining and less self-consciously lurid. Rosenberg, whose career has had more in the way of misses (The Amityville Horror) than hits (Cool Hand Luke), has never been one for displaying technical virtuosity, and I can't say that even after twelve motion pictures he shows anything indicative of a distinct visual sense, but here he's able enough in getting across what's needed in fairly persuasive film language. The New York settings are wonderfully textured without being overly gritty (there's subdued beauty even on a rooftop on an overcast day where Charlie's taken his son to show him where his grandfather used to raise pigeons), and the sense of dailiness that encompasses the neighborhood is marvelous in its tactility (there's a wonderful wordless scene where Charlie and Paulie and their pals indulge in a game of stickball in an urban playground with a group of impatient teenagers, whose bat and ball they've taken, looking on). Because of Rosenberg's solidity, you never feel anything's being forced on you, that what you're witnessing is as true and natural as a gust of wind and a splash of water; there may not be anything of a through-line fluidly segueing one sequence to another (Patrick, if you've seen his two other filmed screenplays, Family Business and The Devil's Own, isn't the strongest in the area of narrative drive), but the semi-messiness of the construction is actually a benefit in that things don't come off as happening in too slick a manner. There are some corners of the characters' lives that aren't filled in, which is okay, because the film isn't a single character study but an array of multi-character depictions amid a well-etched urban backdrop; and if this sounds like a tendentious excuse, it's just that the character points that are there are so strong and defined we can easily imagine what those unfilled-in areas are like. (In Mean Streets, the characters were more posers and attitudes than flesh-and-blood creations you could genuinely relate to -- it was more about manner than matter, sensationalism over coherence.) The film isn't afraid of making its two heroes flawed and not the wisest guys on the block, which isn't to say they're stupid -- they simply weren't born with stellar acumens anymore than they were born into economic prosperity; they're perfectly fine existing in the limited world they inhabit, it's just that they want finer things to go along with that, even though they're purely incidental things when you get right down to it -- one feels Charlie wouldn't really be too happy raising a family in woodsy upstate; and no matter how many things Paulie could blow money on it'd never really be enough because it's not possessions he hungers for but merely the power to freely attain them on the slightest whim.

Charlie and Pauline are incorrigible as individuals, and irresistible as a coupling with their engaging rapport with one another. It's amusing seeing Charlie trying to knock some sense into Paulie, especially after the robbery when Charlie wisely advises they don't spend a dime of the money until the smoke clears, to which Paulie views as unacceptable -- at the very least he wants some new suits to strut around the neighborhood in to impress people, which, of course, would draw undue attention, but he brushes an inconvenient fact like this off. Pigheaded and inflexible, Paulie needs Charlie to slap and knock him upside the head to pound some common sense into him; when they get their engaging Punch-and-Judy rhythm going, you can see what's bound them together all these years. There are also sweet moments that sneak up on you, like when Paulie casually starts chomping down on a two-foot-long hero sandwich in the park, and Charlie, who can't hide his amusement, reaches over and affectionately pinches his cheek; and when Charlie nurses Paulie the morning after Paulie's thumb has been taken off by Eddie's crew, it's more understatedly poignant than if it were a girlfriend tending to him. Rourke and Roberts are a perfect match, and not just because their acting styles perfectly mesh with these diametric characters, but because they listen to each other and operate on the same internal wavelength -- they feel through their line readings with the utmost honesty, so you never sense artificiality in their speak (which is also due to Patrick's ear for believable dialogue); without their gregarious give-and-take, the film wouldn't have a center, not to mention a soul. Roberts takes a lot of chances in his extroverted interpretation, giving Paulie a live-wire vivaciousness that definitely grabs one's attention; and yet he has a natural thespian's knack for coloring outside the emotive line but stopping just short of leaping over it. Paulie has to be a little hard to take, otherwise the story wouldn't make much sense; Roberts fills the role in with as much detail as it can hold and vivifies it all with unapologetic aplomb. (There's a phenomenal scene where Paulie, overdosed on pain pills and apprehensively frazzled on Cloud nine, reprimands Charlie for causing Diane to leave him because he didn't slap her around, that he was too "nice," that's a wonder to behold because he miraculously manages to keep it under control.) By contrast, Rourke is contemplative and measured, and his willingness to play a less showy part is admirable. In his first starring role after dynamite supporting turns as the arsonist in Body Heat and the hairdresser/gambler in Diner, he demonstrates bountiful reserves of variety, natural charisma, control, style and, most of all, confidence that the camera will reach in and get the performance -- he has no problem with Roberts providing the flash because he knows the grounding aspect of the Charlie/Paulie relationship is just as necessary, and the nuance he provides it is more than commendable.

It's not just the two stars who make indelible impressions, though. MacMillan gives Barney just the right mixture of cynicism and regret. The character has no qualms in proclaiming himself an inadequate family man and a loser; having served jail time that threw his life out of whack, Barney is trying to make up for it with the robbery score even though he knows his wife wouldn't approve -- in a way, he's doing it just as much for his own peace of mind than for the good of his family. And yet MacMillan never resorts to begging for our sympathy like a foolish actor would: he gives us emotional pathos rather than bathos. (It's hard to believe this is the same actor who was so spectacularly over-the-top as the dastardly, disgustingly-mutated Baron Harkonnen in David Lynch's Dune the same year.) Diane isn't as well-rounded a part, but Hannah succeeds in giving it some substance and strength. Enraged upon finding out about the robbery, Diane gets right into Charlie's face and berates him for being "just a fucking inch away" from being a good person, that she was raised to believe it's criminals who are too weak because they refuse to make it honestly over time; and Hannah, who was so lovingly vulnerable as the mermaid in Splash, more than holds her own with Rourke -- you can believe Diane has it more together than Charlie; and that Charlie, despite his stubbornness, knows it, and is somewhat intimidated by it, too. (In an odd way, this makes them all the more right for each other, and all the more understandable that they can never be together, either.) As the caring Bunky, Kehoe, in just three scenes, conveys innate decency without going didactic on us; and as the mother, Page, in a mere two scenes, is nothing less than extraordinary -- when her Ms. Ritter battens down her hatches and tells two corrupt Internal Affairs officers to go to hell when trying to poke around in Bunky's things to find the tape recording they know exists, Page, who sits in a chair the entire time, laces her lines with a feistiness and venom that would make even a rattlesnake recoil. And as the mobster, Young, wonderfully underplaying, gives the man gravitas while exuding just the right amount of menace -- like Page, he spends most of the film not moving around much and persuasively projects more through power of inflection and phrase than physicality. Even in lesser roles, the rest of the cast members come through, particularly Tony Musante as Paulie's loosely-related uncle and part of Eddie's crew who tries but isn't able to prevent harm from coming to him, and John Finn as a disgruntled bartender fed up with a fat-assed beat cop coming in every day to use his toilet and drink his whiskey for free. It's safe to say Rosenberg absolutely loves actors and allows them the leeway to try things while working their characters out as they go along; by the same token, he also gives the impression of a director who knows how to keep it disciplined and help shape the performances so they don't uncouthly stick out.

The Pope of Greenwich Village isn't the kind of picture a lot of people are likely to flock to see. One, the cast isn't made up of huge box-office draws; two, the basic story premise is old-hat; and three, it's largely dependent on characters as opposed to contrivances. (Of course, just because it's character-oriented doesn't automatically mean it's worthy of respect -- most of Harold Pinter's are, and his overdeliberate, mummified work bores me blind.) But its effortless blending of humor and drama is exemplary, which is a quality many Big Apple crime tales attempt and fail at because its makers have little know-how in the area of proper proportioning -- they think one has to eventually overshadow the other in that they're afraid of concocting something that won't be the easiest to pull off; and the studio execs they work for are afraid of a product that may not be the easiest to promote and market for mainstream viewers. Straddling the fence in shifting and balancing tones isn't an accomplishment to be taken lightly, and it certainly isn't something to be taken on if the director isn't up to the task. The previously-iffy Rosenberg wouldn't have been my first choice for it (the horrid The Amityville Horror had a presumably easy tone to go with, and wound up, through zenith-level ineptitude, to have very little of a consistent tone at all), and it's a pleasure to admit the wrongness in that assumption. Paulie getting winning revenge against a cop who's inappropriately towed his car by lacing his drink with some horse laxative has a perfectly framed climax (Rosenberg cuts away when most directors would've overstayed its welcome), and a sequence at a racetrack where Paulie, still smarting from his recent four-fingered hand, is agitated and nervous over his horse running (he can't even read the racing-form right in his hypersensitized state) has a gleeful brio that's enough for ten all-out comedies. Then when the proceedings do a one-eighty on us when Paulie, after being fingered for the robbery, is cornered by Eddie's guys and the slow realization that he's about to be made a cripple becomes crystal clear, is harrowing; and in another example of sound instinct, Rosenberg doesn't show the actual amputation -- a loud car horn in the next scene blares over Paulie's screaming right before it becomes too unbearable. As for the finale, it comes as a surprise, too -- the building up to it leads us to believe it's going to conclude in a standardized way; instead, it's both horrifying and hilarious, and comes right out of left field. (Plausibility be damned: it works, that's all that matters.) Oh, there are a couple of plot holes that have been allowed to skate through (for instance, why the goons aren't able to quickly get to Charlie as they are to Paulie after they know about him is questionable), but by and large I can't think of many ways the film could be bettered. It doesn't have the makings of a masterpiece, but when the closing credits start to roll you certainly know you've seen something. If there's anything deserving of the term "mini-classic," The Pope of Greenwich Village surely is it.

Luckily, the good folks at Scream Factory have given this a pleasing Blu-Ray transfer, which is a huge improvement over the non-anamorphic DVD.

link directly to this review at http://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=23122&reviewer=327
originally posted: 10/30/11 19:03:03
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User Comments

4/11/14 Paula Betencourt MGM can take this crappy insulting DVD and shove it.!!!!! 1 stars
9/19/13 Dan One of the best 4 stars
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  22-Jun-1984 (R)
  DVD: 08-May-2001



Directed by
  Stuart Rosenberg

Written by
  Vincent Patrick

  Mickey Rourke
  Eric Roberts
  Daryl Hannah
  Burt Young
  Geraldine Page

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