Much of the following is derived from my review of the Region 1 DVD, from this site in 2005.
Tulsa, Oklahoma. Rusty-James (Matt Dillon) lives alone with his alcoholic father (Dennis Hopper) and idolises his absent older brother, known as The Motorcycle Boy (Mickey Rourke). Rusty-James’s life centres around school, his girlfriend Patty (Diane Lane) and fighting with his gang. Then one day, the Motorcyle Boy returns.
Rumble Fish was the second of Francis Ford Coppola’s two adaptations of novels by S.E. Hinton, following The Outsiders. (Rumble Fish is a very short novel, a novella really: the out-of-print British paperback runs all of 93 pages.) Hinton collaborated on the screenplay with Coppola; she makes a cameo appearance in the film as “Hooker on Strip”. Production started on Rumble Fishtwo weeks after The Outsiders wrapped, using much of the same crew and quite a few of the earlier film’s cast.
Although The Outsiders and Rumble Fish make up a linked pair of films, in style and approach they’re deliberately different, indeed opposites. The Outsiders was deliberately retro, 50s style, in its use of lush colours and that quintessentially 50s format, Scope. Rumble Fish is black and white (his first monochrome feature since his debut Dementia-13) and 1.85:1, the nearest Coppola could get to the old Academy Ratio. It is deliberately avant-garde – including some overt symbolism - and futuristic in feel. The intention, as Coppola said, was to create “an art movie” for young people. However, Rumble Fish was a box-office bomb, indicating that teens have no real interest in art movies, especially ones with such a character-based narrative as this one. The film’s R rating (18 certificate in the UK), due to pervasive strong language, a vicious gang fight and a lakeside party/orgy, certainly didn’t help this film reach its intended audience. It had a limited, arthouse release in the UK and certainly had its fans. Rumble Fish has something of a continuing cult following, but commercially it’s second only to One from the Heart as the biggest flop in Coppola’s career.
Looking back after twenty years, it’s clear that Coppola was in decline from his great achievements of the 1970s. He had much further to fall (Jack has to be one of the worst films ever made by a formerly great director) but the products of that decline – as the age of the auteur was over and the era of the blockbuster had taken its place and Coppola was not alone in struggling – are often fascinating to watch. Coppola throws everything into this one: time-lapse camerawork, Stewart Copeland’s percussion/electronic-dominated score, even a sequence where Rusty-James momentarily “dies” and has an out-of-body experience. The title comes from a species of Japanese fish who spend all their time fighting each other, a metaphor for Rusty-James and his gang who do likewise and never see any way out, or a better way of living. The film is in black and white, with only the fish in colour. The look and sound of the film is also metaphorical: the Motorcycle Boy is colour-blind and partially deaf, so his world is “like black and white TV with the sound down low”. Only towards the end, as Rusty-James moves away from his brother’s influence does the film go briefly into colour.
S.E. Hintons novels were sold and read to teenage boys, and appear on school reading lists to this day. (Much as J.K. Rowling had to do decades later, Hinton had to use her initials – which stand for Susan Eloise – instead of her full name to avoid boys being discouraged from reading her work by seeing a woman’s name on the cover.) Of the four film adaptations of her work, three have starred Matt Dillon: he’d made his Hinton debut in the 1982 film of Tex. (The fourth and so far last Hinton film was 1985’s That was Then…This is Now, starring and scripted by Emilio Estevez.) Always watchable, Dillon is probably the ideal actor for Hintonland: as he spends most of the film in a vest that shows off his impressive musculature, he’s as much pin-up for teenage girls as an identification point for the boys. This leads me to suspect that there’s a fair amount of female fantasy (not strictly speaking homoeroticism, though it can certainly be viewed that way) in these stories, which is even more overt in The Outsiders. However, Dillon is upstaged by Mickey Rourke, who brings considerable presence to the Motorcycle Boy. Rourke underplays, speaking most of his lines in a semi-whisper, but you can’t take your eyes off him. You can see why he became a star for much of the 1980s, before several bad decisions all but wrecked his career. Diane Lane looks the part but can’t do a great deal with a rather underwritten girlfriend role, and there’s a strong supporting cast. Sofia Coppola, billed as “Domino”, plays Diane Lane’s younger sister.
Rumble Fish is an extremely well-made film, with first-rate contributions from Copeland, DP Stephen Burum, production designer Dean Tavoularis and editor Barry Malkin. Several sequences are superbly staged and individual shots could be taken down and framed. If it failed to reach its intended audience, then it’s a fascinating failure.
I wrote the above over seven years ago and, watching the film again on Blu-ray, have no need to change it barring a few tweaks. At the time of original writing, Coppola seemed like a spent force, having, apart from his uncredited work on 2000's Supernova, fallen silent since The Rainmaker, a certainly competenet if faceless John Grisham from 1997. However, since then Coppola has reinvented himself with so far three modestly-budgeted, somewhat experimental, self-financed films - Youth Without Youth in 2007, Tetro in 2010 (which harked back to Rumble Fish in being majority black and white with some colour sequences) and 2012's Twixt, shot in 3D. So, in his mid-seventies, there's certainly life in the director yet.
Rumble Fish receives a UK Blu-ray release from Masters of Cinema, as part of a licensing deal with Universal. The disc is encoded for Region B only.
The transfer is in the correct ratio of 1.85:1. I saw this film twice in cinemas in the mid 1980s and the hard-contrast look is what I remember seeing then. Unlike many latterday monochrome films, it was actually shot on black and white 35mm stock. The colour footage is in fact better integrated into the feature than it was in the theatrical prints, as for those colour film had to be spliced into the black and white, causing an obvious visual shift. (The same was true of the 35mm prints of Schindler's List.) In this DVD, there is less of an obvious change of texture. That said, there is noticeable grain in these shots, as they were achieved by shooting in colour with the fish tank placed in front of the black and white material projected on to a screen. Grain in general is natural and filmlike.
The soundtrack features the original Dolby Stereo (2.0 with matrixed surround) and a Dolby Digital 5.1 remix, both as DTS-HD Master Audio. Dialogue is clear enough (with some reservations I’ll come to in a moment) and the surrounds are well-used for ambient sounds and the music score, with the 5.1 version opening up the soundstage more and being a little crisper. However, as said above, the film’s look and sound takes its cue from the Motorcycle Boy’s perceptions: “like black and white TV with the sound turned low”. This meant that the dialogue was mixed rather lower than normal (and Dillon’s and Rourke’s Methodisms didn’t especially help), and the film increases in volume towards the end as Rusty-James moves away from his brother’s influence, a change also indicated by the burst of colour late on. This 5.1 remix levels the volume out, so that it needs to be played no louder than most other DVDs. However, as I say, it’s likely that few will notice. In both mixes but particularly the 5.1, the subwoofer picks up some significant low end, particularly when Copeland's bass and snare drums kick in. You can also listen to an isolated music and effects track,
The first extra is a commentary by Coppola. He makes it clear from the outset that this film is a personal favourite of his, and his enthusiastic commentary is easy to listen to. He discusses the origins of the project and the use of symbolism (clocks in every scene and ticking on the soundtrack, indicating that Rusty-James’s time is running out). He gives credit to his collaborators for their contributions, and describes the freedom he felt to experiment – and the opportunity to make a black and white film. His proud-Dad routine every time he mentions Sofia Coppola may become irksome, but this is otherwise an excellent commentary.
“On Location in Tulsa: The Making of Rumble Fish” (11:41) is a featurette mixing new interview footage (including the rarely-interviewed Hinton) with contemporary on-set material. The results are certainly interesting, especially for anyone interested in the technical aspects of the film: Coppola describes his pioneering use of electronics and Stephen Burum talks about how he mixed colour with black and white in the film.
“Rumble Fish: The Percussion-Based Score (11:54) focuses on the film’s use of music. Coppola tried to compose the music himself, but it was his son Gio who suggested Stewart Copeland, then a member of The Police. Copeland and sound designer/mixer Richard Beggs sit in front of a console and demonstrate the make-up of the track.
Next up are a set of deleted scenes, each selectable individually from a menu, with a “play all” function. They are: “Motorcycle Boy Isn’t Coming Back” (1:54), “Hey Steve, Is Your Mother Dying?” (2:18), “Stealing Hubcaps with Steve” (6:37), “Feelings and Ideas Book” (1:38), “Take the Chapter on Rusty James and Write the End” (5:21), “Cassandra Was the Princess of Troy” (1:34). The last-named spells out, for those not up to speed on Greek Mythology, the allusions which are already in the movie. These deleted scenes indicate that a lot of Vincent Spano’s role ended up on the cutting room floor. Apparently Heather Langenkamp (star of A Nightmare on Elm Street) was cut out of the film – if that’s true, I didn’t spot her here. These scenes are presented rom a video source, with tracking errors and artefacts galore.
Finally, there’s the green-label - all audiences- trailer (2:20) which does a decent job of trying to sell a very difficult commercial prospect.
Missing from the on-disc extras, compared to the Region 1 DVD, is the video of Stan Ridgeway’s song “Don’t Box Me In” , a song which plays over the end credits.
As always, Masters of Cinema have provided a booklet, forty pages (including covers) on this occasion. Along with the usual credits and transfer notes, it reprints a 1983 Film Comment interview with Coppola by David Thomson and Lucy Gray. This, which calls Rumble Fish Coppola's best film, shows that it had significant critical and cult support from the beginning, its commercial fate notwithstanding. Coppola is interviewed at a busy time in his career, in between the failure of One from the Heart and the troubled – and expensive – production of The Cotton Club. There's a hint at future travails in the passing mention that Coppola owned the rights to Jack Kerouac's On the Road, which Coppola intended to shoot in 16mm black and white but which ended up a colour and Scope reality in 2012, directed by Walter Salles and Coppola on board as executive producer. It's a fascinating interview, making clear that Rumble Fish was a very personal project, and approached by him as a kind of reward for making The Outsiders first. Also in the booklet are the original production notes for Rumble Fish.