King of the Gypsies Review

Frank Pierson's King of the Gypsies is an odd, relatively obscure attempt to piggyback the enormous success of the first two Godfather films. Where's it been the last thirty years? No idea, but with a cast full of excellent actors (not necessarily giving excellent performances) and a narrative that's intriguingly messy, its DVD release is now welcomed without hesitation.

Pierson, whose Dog Day Afternoon script won him an Oscar three years earlier, had just written and directed the 1976 Streisand-Kristofferson update of A Star Is Born. His next project would be King of the Gypsies for Paramount, which hired him to adapt and direct a film based on the nonfiction book of the same name by Peter Maas, author of Serpico and The Valachi Papers. So far, so good, but for reasons I'm not aware of, the story was changed to fiction while still retaining much of the basic plot found in Maas' book. The film gives no indication that anything in it is based on fact. One would think Pierson would be right at home in blurring fact and fiction since both Dog Day Afternoon and A Star Is Born have roots in actual events. Alas, no. Whether it was the studio or the Godfather movies or the weight of Maas' book, something didn't take with the film version.

Its main problems are glaring unevenness and a story that's played out with trite absurdity. The beginning is promising enough, with vague shades of the jubilant wedding sequences from The Godfather or The Deer Hunter. It's just another day in the life of those wacky Gypsies, the picture seems to suggest. Indeed, some of the "Gypsies as discriminated minority" bunk is laid on excessively thick throughout the film. One of the most known of other Gypsy-centric outings, Nicholas Ray's Hot Blood, isn't exactly a masterpiece but even it seems less silly in this regard. There's certainly an ignorance fueled by misconception about Gypsy culture in society, but the irony here is that stereotypes abound just as we're semi-preached to about the obstacles they have to overcome. Regardless of truth, it seems doubtful that Gypsies would be pleased with being portrayed as diamond-stealing sham fortune tellers or insurance fraud leeches. And that's not even mentioning Sterling Hayden's Godfather-like title character, who violently gets what he wants from the entire Gypsy community in return for some nondescript protection/benefit.

His wielding of power is where we come in. King Zharko's (Hayden) "people" snatch up a little girl as wife material for his young son. A cut reveals the son, Groffo, has become Judd Hirsch and his wife Rose is now Susan Sarandon. They too have a son, Dave, and a younger daughter, Tita. The base is New York City. Groffo is revealed to have a drinking problem and a propensity for beating his family (thanks again from the Gypsies). Rose uses Dave to aide in her grifting, including a disgusting scene of diamond defecation. The children gradually age, and forty minutes in, the film's star Eric Roberts finally appears as the older version of Dave, joining Brooke Shields as Tita. This was Roberts' film debut and though he's a different actor here than the current guy who's become somewhat of a harbinger of cinematic trash, he still overdoes it. Eric Roberts is neither commanding nor believable enough to successfully carry the film. On his shoulders, it crumbles. It's not a bad performance, in contrast to the usually reliable Hirsch who's given a one-dimensional, nonsensical character and acts similarly, but it's also not the strong one the film requires to make up for its other shortcomings.

Whereas those opening forty minutes, without Roberts, deal more with the designated experience of Gypsies in America, the film turns its focus entirely to his character after he appears on screen. The story shifts from a general look at the Gypsy subculture, with Hayden's King front and centre, to the struggle of Dave to escape his apparent destiny to become the next King. With this choice, the film creeps into less interesting, formulaic territory. The Gypsy angle now hardly matters because it's been replaced by Dave's too familiar problems, widening the net to the film's detriment. Hirsch's character becomes increasingly ridiculous and Hayden's largely disappears until he re-enters for a death bed scene. This is especially disappointing since the latter actor is given top star billing, even if he's coasting very near his exceptional performance in Robert Altman's The Long Goodbye. Pierson tries to compensate by cramming in character after character, including Annie Potts and Annette O'Toole as dead weight females who latch onto Dave. No one really makes much of an impact - Sarandon's impossibly large eyes excepted, though her performance on the whole is a non-starter and hardly indicative of her impressive turn in Louis Malle's Atlantic City just two years later.

The other surprisingly ineffective part of King of the Gypsies is the nondescript cinematography. The film was lensed by Sven Nykvist, rightfully considered one of the great artists in his field, but you'd never know it just by watching. By extreme contrast, Nykvist also shot Ingmar Bergman's Autumn Sonata the same year and the difference in artistry is striking.

So this all begs the question, if the writing, directing, acting, and cinematography are all lacking, what's to recommend? In this case, the film is probably more than the sum of its parts. Nostalgia for the different kind of Hollywood that flourished in the 1970s may contribute to the film's minor charms today, but it's also important to recognise that King of the Gypsies remains highly watchable for a few reasons. Its star power is hardly insignificant, with every major role filled by an actor of some stature. The story, while familiar and derivative, is still mostly interesting, well-plotted and compelling. The formula it follows is at least a good one. The Gypsy theme, despite sending woefully mixed signals, is also a point of interest since it's been so rarely explored. There may be some guilty pleasure in there for some viewers, as well. Perhaps all these mild strong points even support that guilty pleasure label, though it's not a term I particularly favour. Regardless, it just seems that there's a strange and intangible quality to Pierson's film that makes it worth recommending for those with any disposition towards this kind of picture. That doesn't make it a good movie necessarily, and my score here reflects as much with a mild, but firm recommendation.

The Disc

King of the Gypsies is another Paramount title in the group of 32 licensed to Legend Films. Their disc is single layered and the transfer is interlaced, with some light combing. The image quality isn't bad otherwise. Colours are faded and murky, but detail is rather good, if still a touch soft. A blue vertical line shows up in the middle of the frame early on, as do some unobtrusive scratches and dirt. Grain and digital noise are present, but the transfer as a whole looks very close to how a theatrical print presumably would in that it's not been overly manipulated or cleaned up. I wish Legend would encode their transfers progressively and use double layered discs, but this is a pretty good, natural-looking effort. Despite no mention of widescreen or aspect ratios on the back of the case, video is presented in the 1.78:1 aspect ratio, and enhanced for widescreen televisions.

The English Dolby Digital two-channel mono track is totally unremarkable. It's not consistent in terms of volume levels and dialogue struggles to be heard sometimes. And if you miss a word or two, there are no subtitles to clarify what was spoken. Optional subtitles are an essential feature of DVDs and there's no legitimate excuse for their absence. Thankfully, most of the dialogue is understandable after some fidgeting with the volume button, but there's nothing impressive about the disc's sound quality.

There are no extra features at all, not even a trailer.

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