Friday, May 11, 2012

From My Collection: The Outsiders Movie Review

Francis Ford Coppola’s The Outsiders, based on the novel by S.E. Hinton, is one of those iconic movies from my childhood. It was slightly before my time, but I watched it any time I caught it on TV. The boys in the film were old enough that to me they were grown up. Still, something in the story connected with me in a strong way so that I lived and breathed with their actions and, in some cases, their tragic ends. Of course it didn’t hurt that it’s a story about boys being boys without any real authority to direct their rambunctious energy and it all ends with an epic rumble in the rain and mud.

Watching the film as an adult is a very different experience. Ponyboy Curtis is the moral center of the story. It’s told from his point of view and because he’s a sweet-natured boy who is caught in poor circumstances, it’s easy to side with him. He’s the youngest of three brothers whose parents were killed in an accident. His eldest brother Darrel (Patrick Swayze) is the only one of age and works to support Ponyboy and Sodapop (Rob Lowe), who has dropped out of school to work at a gas station. The threat of a boys home looms threateningly over their lives at every hint of legal intervention. Ponyboy’s best friend is the slightly older Johnny (Ralph Macchio), who has a home life that is so unappealing he’d prefer to sleep in a vacant lot under newspapers than in his own bed. The gang is rounded out by Tom Cruise as Steve, Emilio Estevez as Two-Bit, and Matt Dillon as Dallas, the toughest of the bunch just released from jail.

These boys are known around their Oklahoma town as “Greasers,” so called because of the grease they use to slick back their hair. They dress in jeans and tight t-shirts and often carry blades in case of a scuffle. Their cross-town rivals are the Socs. They have more money and dress in loafers, khakis, button down shirts and sweater vests. They drive mustangs and other cars that shame the junkers that the Greasers drive around in. After becoming friendly with one of the Socs’ girlfriends, a beautiful girl named Cherry Valance (Diane Lane), Ponyboy and Johnny are attacked by a group of them in a park. In an act of near self defense, Johnny kills one of them (Leif Garrett). Dallas gets them an old abandoned church to hide in and then in a twist of fate, the young Greasers become local heroes when they save a bunch of school children from a deadly fire.

The version I watched this time and own on DVD is The Outsiders: The Complete Novel, a kind of director’s cut that restores 22 minutes of footage and removes the original score by Carmine Coppola in favor of a rock and roll soundtrack. The original theatrical version is a tighter story overall, although this version offers more character development particularly in the relationships between Ponyboy and Johnny and between the three Curtis brothers. There’s a stronger sense of the emotions raging within Ponyboy as an almost helpless 14 year old struggling to grow up faster than he should. The rock soundtrack includes tunes by Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis and other 1950s icons. I’m not sure if it’s because I’m so familiar with the original, but they add a jarring quality. Carmine Coppola’s score was sweeping and dramatic in a way that fit the story, which references Gone With the Wind not only through Ponyboy’s reading the book to Johnny, but also with a sunset scene filmed on a soundstage that recreates the look popularized by the film Gone With the Wind and most recently imitated in Steven Spielberg’s War Horse.

The original version of the film is better and more focused even if it excises a lot of the heart of Hinton’s novel. The worst sin of The Complete Novel version is the inclusion of a coda shot and edited in the style of a dream sequence that sums up the trial that acquits Ponyboy of wrongdoing in Bob’s death. The film worked better when it cut directly from the emotional climax and death of Dallas to Ponyboy finding a letter from the now deceased Johnny. Throwing in the extra material including an additional denouement of the brothers’ story made me impatient for the close of the film which I always found more moving than anything Coppola decided to restore (the sappy “Stay Gold” by Stevie Wonder notwithstanding).

Kathleen Rowell’s screenplay hues closely to the novel and Coppola has a knack for capturing the young performers often at their most vulnerable. The performances are all very good. However, you can see in Howell’s acting that he is untested and unsure of himself and quickly you understand why his career was so short-lived while those actors who give the most and whose intensity is present on the screen (Swayze, Cruise, Lane and Dillon) went on to very successful movie careers.

Apart from Gone With the Wind, Coppola’s most obvious film reference point is Rebel Without a Cause. The time setting is obviously similar and both films deal with characters from comparable socio-economic strata, but the Ponyboy and Johnny friendship strongly reflects that between James Dean’s Jim and Natalie Wood’s Judy. All four characters are teenagers lost in a world that has no regard for them as self-defined people. This is the classic tragedy that teenagers often see themselves in. Ponyboy and Johnny have the added difficulty of being part of a class of people who are generally looked down upon.

It’s easy to look at The Outsiders as a failure because Coppola made a string of four classic American films in the 1970s before falling precipitously into lesser fare. Such was the case for most of the New Hollywood directors. Scorsese and Altman are two other glaring examples of directors whose films of the 80s were far less successful both critically and commercially than their work in the preceding decade. Is it fair to disregard a work that is otherwise worthwhile and occasionally very good because we came to expect greater things from its director? The Outsiders doesn’t have the heft of The Godfather or Apocalypse Now, but it captures the honesty of S.E. Hinton’s novel.

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