King of New York
Abel Ferrara’s career as a director took a while to really get going: a long apprenticeship in amateur filmmaking and porno during the 1970s; the early feature promises of The Driller Killer (1979) and Ms .45 (1981); an impressively stylised genre piece in China Girl (1987); plus some television work and a few slight, rather impersonal features (including Cat Chaser, 1989). The kinetic, dazzling, flamboyantly violent King of New York, however, took Ferrara to a new level of artistic achievement. As stunning today as it was on first release, it gives the impression, at every moment, of reinventing the crime-gangster genre, and even the cinema itself.
The strong team of director Ferrara and screenwriter Nicholas St John fashioned a remarkable series of urban dramas about law, crime, political power, multi-racialism and ambiguous heroism: Bad Lieutenant (1992) and The Funeral (1996) were among those to follow the breakthrough of King of New York. At the moment of its release, the middlebrow arthouses were unresponsive to this achievement; the film gradually became famous as a cult item on VHS, and in the closed chambers of cinema studies courses.
This is a less humanist reworking of the gangster genre than Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather series, or even Brian De Palma’s melancholic Carlito’s Way (1993). Christopher Walken is stunning as Frank White. He’s almost the Thin White Duke: pale, wiry, opaque, as translucent at moments as celluloid itself, “back from the dead” like Noodles/Robert De Niro in Once Upon A Time In America (1984) to regain his criminal empire. Ferrara even manages to place a clip from F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu (1922) in a Chinese mobster’s private cinematheque.
The story is not easy to follow, even after multiple viewings (first-time spectators, as I can attest from teaching it, are regularly befuddled). The moves and counter-moves are multiple, and they radiate from numerous centres: Frank and his inner sanctum; Frank and his wider social set (including his canny lawyer); the two cops who are blindly sworn to bringing Frank to justice (Victor Argo as Bishop and David Caruso – premonition of literally hundreds of TV cop episodes to come! – as Dennis); and the circle of rival gangs (Colombian, Italian and Chinese) that Frank sets out to destabilise or eliminate altogether. This bold approach to fragmented, mosaic narration influenced many in the ‘90s (such as Olivier Assayas) and beyond, but few have pushed it through with such cinematic force and inventiveness as Ferrara did here.
Jimmy Jump, the sharpest black assassin of the principal gang (Larry Fishburne, extraordinary), as he explains to us, refused to visit White in prison, not wanting to see the great man caged. But White’s itinerary is only an ever-expanding series of new cages: his base of operations, his beat, finally the vast city itself. White is a doomed man, the postmodern Mr Big figure fated to misrecognise the conditions of his own power – but at least the film gives him a classic envoi: “I don’t need forever!”
Ferrara and St John work some engaging, neat variations on the given themes and stock situations of the gangster genre at the end of ‘80s: White’s justification of how building an empire on drugs can square with his benevolent urban restoration; a rousing setpiece with singer Freddy Jackson that encapsulates the Godfather trilogy’s equation of show business, big business and criminal business; brilliant action showdowns in the rain, on a train, and in a gridlock of motor vehicles; and (as in New Jack City, 1991) gangster’s molls who, these days, double as crackshot bodyguards.
But King of New York both is and is not a genre piece. It deliberately obscures or minimises narrative articulations (absolutely no omniscient storytelling point-of-view here!) in order to immerse us in a richly atmospheric noir world – the expert use of cool blue tones, for instance, outdoes what Michael Mann had already pioneered in Manhunter (1986) and on television (Ferrara had previously directed episodes of Miami Vice and Crime Story for Mann). What matters more than plot or coherent character psychology here is the striking, expressionistic use of colour, rhythm, music (the film blazed a trail in its extensive and sympathetic use of hip hop), and a highly physical mode of acting performance.
Textual analysis can never be more ecstastically rewarded than by poring over the sequences of frames in King of New York, as many of its fans have done by now. The jagged, headlong sense of movement and action in space; the complete transformation of the mood and look of a scene from its start to its end; the slam-transitions between sequence-blocks – all of this is amazing, often copied but almost never equalled.
Although Ferrara’s thick, hyperrealist style was decisively influenced by Mann, his approach to this genre assignment is more akin to Monte Hellman (China 9, Liberty 37, 1978) or James B. Harris (Cop, 1987), emphasising minimalism, elision, ambiguity. Ferrara’s minute play with the formal tensions arising from spatial uncertainties and long-held close-ups suggests the kind of radical conjuncture that critics Antoine de Baecque and J. Hoberman have described in John Cassavetes’ crime films Gloria (1980) and The Killing of a Chinese Bookie (1976): the meeting of Carl Dreyer and the Quinn-Martin TV cop series of the ‘70s. There is both proximity in time and affinity in sensibility to Martin Scorsese at the moment of Goodfellas (1990), but Ferrara’s approach is, on all levels, ultimately more radical.
As in most deliberately bleached-out, attenuated reworkings of action formulae, King of New York presents itself as the flickering of a strange subjectivity: back from the dead for a fleeting moment, White gazes and moves and acts only as long as his body holds out and, the moment his consciousness is extinguished, the film too is gone, like a motor suddenly shut down. It is, in a different, more kinetic and nervy register, the mode of Once Upon a Time in America: mid-way between sentimental regret and the intimation of a crisis or apocalypse that is simultaneously both social and personal.
This peculiarly modern narrative form is, ultimately, the cinema’s way of offering a poetic eulogy for a lost ideal of screen masculinity. Rarely has the Twilight of a Gangster God been traced with the intensity and precision that Ferrara and St John bring to this film. Subsequently, Ferrara will take this form down from the heavens populated by special beings and chosen ones, and instead use it to narrate the decline and fall of far more mundane creatures stuck in the mire of crisis and malaise, gripped by a relentless death-drive powered by guilt for some Original Sin: a cop in Bad Lieutenant, a director and family man in Dangerous Game (1993), a philosophy-student-cum-vampire in The Addiction (1995) – right up to the point of The Blackout (1997), where the dark hole of the subjectivity of an actor (Matthew Modine), literally shrinking into an iris or getting chopped up by strobe lights, a truly cinematic apparatus, issues onto a strangely serene sea of fantasy hallucinations, wish-fulfillment scenarios, and other-worldly encounters with a lacerating, almost unbearable, but necessary truth.
And it is this path that Ferrara (now without St John) will doggedly follow along in his subsequent period of life-saving personal sobreity, building a new home and team in a new country (Italy) while ceaselessly coming to terms with the arising, toxic demons of his past.
© Adrian Martin 20 October 1991 / 28 June 1998 / June 2003 / June 2008