Francis Ford Coppola’s “Rumble Fish” (1983)

Notable Festivals: San Sebastian (OCIC Award, FIPRESCI Prize)

Inducted into the Criterion Collection: 2017

In 1983, director Francis Ford Coppola found himself in Tulsa, OK, and in the middle of a creative hot streak.  Midway into the production of THE OUTSIDERS (1983), Coppola approached the novel’s author S.E. Hinton, and asked if she had any other works he could adapt.  Hinton responded with Rumble Fish, an avant-garde, misunderstood novel that had failed to gain the kind of wide audience that The Outsiders did.  After Coppola read the book, he decided that not only was it going to be his next film, but that he’d film it back to back with THE OUTSIDERS, utilizing the same Tulsa locale and much of that film’s cast and crew.

Released later on in 1983, Coppola’s adaption was not met with the same kind of critical and financial success that THE OUTSIDERS enjoyed.  In fact, it sunk Coppola ever lower into debt and threw the existence of his independent studio, American Zoetrope, into jeopardy.  The film’s stylized, avant-garde aesthetic also turned off a lot of fans and critics, as it was so strikingly different from his previous work.  Like much of Coppola’s misunderstood work, however, it has gained a deep appreciation and a cult following in the years since its release.

RUMBLE FISH’s story isn’t immediately clear upon first viewing; indeed it strikes one as much more of an exercise in style-over-substance.  Set in an unnamed Midwestern industrial town in the 50’s or 60’s, the story revolves around a headstrong wanna-be hood, Rusty James (Matt Dillon), who spends his nights romancing the pretty, preppy Patty (Diane Lane), and engaging in wild rumbles with the town’s various miscreants.  One day, his older brother—known only as Motorcycle Boy (Mickey Rourke)—returns to town after a long excursion into California.  Rusty James wants nothing more than to be just like his older brother, but Motorcycle Boy is old enough to realize the error of his ways, and finds it a difficult task to discourage his brother from following in his footsteps before it’s too late.

What’s lacking in story is more than compensated for by the brawny, muscular performances from Coppola’s young cast.  Dillon, taking on the lead role right after his work in THE OUTSIDERS, channels a juvenile delinquent of a different breed as Rusty James.  His is an idealistic machismo, and he’s set on proving his worth as a man through violent brawls and burning through the town’s supply of women.  In one of his earliest starring roles, Dillon proves to be a veritable force of nature.

Mickey Rourke, looking trim and handsome in his pre-boxing/hamburger-face years, goes against expectations with his portrayal of Motorcycle Boy.  Rourke is sensitive, quiet, and observant.  He speaks softly, but can be absolutely ferocious when need be.   Motorcycle Boy is a deeply troubled character, haunted by unseen eternal demons that manifest themselves in colorblindness, occasional deafness, and bouts of withdrawn melancholy.  It’s a fine, pulpy performance that belies Rourke’s tough exterior.

The supporting cast is filled out with regular collaborators and faces new to the Coppola fold.  Diane Lane joins Dillon in hopping right from production on THE OUTSIDERS to play Patty, a teenage schoolgirl with a sultry, tempestuous temperament.  Two old friends from 1979’s APOCALPYSE NOW—Dennis Hopper and Laurence Fishburne—also join the fray.  Hopper plays Rourke and Dillon’s father, who’s a crazy-eyed, shambling drunk of a man—the kind of character Hopper can play in his sleep.  Fishburne, having physically filled out dramatically in the four years since APOCALYPSE NOW, is nearly unrecognizable as Midgit, a well-dressed confidante of Rusty James’, who may just be a figment of his imagination.

Then there’s Nicolas Cage and the late Chris Penn, in small roles that serve to challenge Rusty James’ self-proclaimed authority.   In keeping with Coppola’s tradition of casting family in his films, the bouffant-ed Cage (Coppola’s nephew) makes his film debut with RUMBLE FISH, and it appears he was just as loony and eccentric as he is now.  Furthermore, Coppola’s daughter, Sofia, appears in her own bit role as Patty’s kid sister.

What’s immediately apparent about RUMBLE FISH’s artistic merits is its bracing visual style.  Filmed on 35mm black-and-white film stock (to emulate Motorcycle Boy’s color blindness), Coppola and returning Director of Photography Stephen H. Burum craft a look unlike anything in Coppola’s body of work.  Drawing equally from the handheld, verite aesthetic of the French New Wave and the high-key, stylized chiaroscuro of German Expressionism, Coppola’s neo-noir is a hallucinogenic blend of realism and fantasy.  Clouds scream past along the sky while characters look up at them in wonder—a trick achieved using timelapse photography to suggest that time is lost on the young, moving much faster than they might realize.  The monotone look highlights the raw, sweaty nature of Burum’s cinematography, which is peppered with bursts of striking color whenever the titular “rumble fish” make an onscreen appearance.

This striking dichotomy is evident in two scenes in particular: the violent rumble that introduces Motorcycle Boy, and a wild romp through a downtown pool hall.  The brawl sequence, choreographed by a professional dancer, is almost elegant in its ballet of blood, punctuated by flashes of lightning and daring feats of acrobatics.  It’s an incredibly expressionistic sequence that calls to mind the laboratory creation sequence from James Whale’s FRANKENSTEIN (1931), albeit on LSD.  The second sequence –more Cassavetes than Murnau– plays fast and loose with its camerawork in capturing the feel of a booze-soaked night on the town.  The sequence takes on the air of documentary, finding fleeting moments of unscripted interaction and revelry that could never be truly replicated with traditional methods.

Music, provided by composer Stewart Copeland, is equally as baroque and avant-garde.  It perverts the sound and conceits of rock-and-roll music into a fevered cavalcade of percussion that ramps up our anxiety, much like how the restless Rusty James must feel en route to a brawl.

This bizarre blend of picture and sound alienated a lot of people when RUMBLE FISH was released.  Many claimed that Coppola had gone too far in his attempts to deconstruct the art form and reassemble it in his own vision.  I can certainly see that argument, but I view the look as a shot in the arm for the medium during a period of time that saw a relatively flat, bland aesthetic become the commercial standard-bearer.  I know that I’m not alone in that assessment—its influences can be seen in a wide variety of subsequent works by then-burgeoning directors, most notably in Gus Vant Sant’s breakout debut, MALA NOCHE (1986).

There are a few other curious elements that peg RUMBLE FISH as distinctly Coppola’s.  There’s the aforementioned use of family members in the cast (and recruiting of sons Gian-Carlo and Roman in producing roles), but there’s also his copious use of smoke during expressionistic sequences, and a highly experimental sound design that calls to mind the inner psychedelics of APOCALYPSE NOW.

RUMBLE FISH also sees Coppola’s continuation of a unique preproduction process that he dubbed Electric Cinema, where he used green-screen technology to shoot his rehearsals against photographs or rough sketches of the location to create a full version of the film on video before production even began.  Is it a needlessly complex process?  Maybe.  Especially in a time where video often  equals the quality of film, the idea might now seem quaint and extraneous, but the benefits of an involving rehearsal process is really apparent in RUMBLE FISH’S final product.

I think there’s something to be said in the fact that, even after all the critical trashing and financial disappointment, RUMBLE FISH is in Coppola’s top five favorite films of his own.  Time has divorced the film from its overshadowing companion piece and given it an identity all its own.  It’s not for everyone, to be sure, and even those who give it a shot will find it an acquired taste at first.  At the end of the day, the film is an instance of a supremely gifted director using his substantial resources to carry out his full vision, without any regard for how eccentric it might appear.  In that regard, RUMBLE FISH is a piece of pure, unadulterated pop art by a strong-willed director who refuses to become complacent.

RUMBLE FISH is currently available on high definition Blu Ray via the Criterion Collection.



Produced by: Francis Ford Coppola, Gian-Carlo Coppola, Roman Coppola, Doug Claybourne, Fred Roos

Written by: Francis Ford Coppola, S.E. Hinton

Director of Photography: Stephen H. Burum

Production Designer: Dean Tavoularis

Editor: Barry Malkin

Music: Stewart Copeland