Thursday, July 11, 2013

Cult Classics Revisited: NIGHT OF THE JUGGLER (1980)

(US - 1980)

Directed by Robert Butler.  Written by Bill Norton, Sr. and Rick Natkin.  Cast: James Brolin, Cliff Gorman, Richard Castellano, Julie Carmen, Abby Bluestone, Linda G. Miller, Barton Heyman, Sully Boyar, Dan Hedaya, Joseph Carberry, Mandy Patinkin, Marco St. John, Sharon Mitchell, Rick Anthony, Steve Inwood, Serena, Robert Weil, Richard Gant, Samm-Art Williams. (R, 101 mins)

"You know...I got a feelin' it's gonna be another goddamn New York day."

A video store and cable favorite in the 1980s, NIGHT OF THE JUGGLER, loosely adapted from William P. McGivern's 1975 novel, has fallen into relative obscurity, championed today primarily by grindhouse enthusiasts and vintage 1970s NYC location-shooting fanatics.  Indeed, if you're a fan of seeing the city and the surrounding boroughs in all their grimy, scuzzy, pre-Giuliani glory, then you'll probably reach a state of nirvana watching NIGHT OF THE JUGGLER.  Shot in the summer of 1978 but unreleased until the summer of 1980 (Times Square marquees show such hits as THE DRIVER and TINTORERA), JUGGLER is the kind of film that simply couldn't be made today:  it's sleazy, tasteless, racist, politically incorrect, and many of the chase sequences seem to put the actors and actual NYC pedestrians in harm's way.  But damn it...this is how it should be.  Today, they just greenscreen and CGI it.  Back in the late '70s, they did it for real, and if they had to tie up busy streets for two weeks to get an action scene shot, then so be it. Right down to small roles for XXX stars like Sharon Mitchell and Serena and its palpable sense of Big Apple rage,  NIGHT OF THE JUGGLER belongs in a time capsule with the same year's legendary THE EXTERMINATOR.

Divorced trucker and disgraced ex-cop Sean Boyd (James Brolin, with his awesome late '70s hair and beard, looking like he went straight from this to the set of 1979's THE AMITYVILLE HORROR) has his teenage daughter Kathy (Abby Bluestone) staying with him for the summer and taking some extra classes at summer school.  Walking with her to school one morning but exhausted from working all night, Boyd lets Kathy go on her own but while she's still within his sight, she's abducted and thrown in a car by twisted psycho Gus Stolic (Cliff Gorman).  Stolic, irate that rich real estate fat cats have allowed his beloved Bronx to deteriorate into a demolished, gang-ravaged war zone, devises a crackpot plan to kidnap the daughter of a rich property owner (Marco St. John).  The rich kid and Kathy look similar and are walking through Central Park within a few steps of one another, and a momentarily confused Stolic grabs the wrong girl.  Boyd hears Kathy scream and sees Stolic grab her, which sets off an absolutely insane foot/car chase that gets an even bigger lift from a fast-talking cab driver played by a scene-stealing Mandy Patinkin in one of his first films.

Boyd has no patience for the useless cops, led by grumpy Lt. Tonelli (Richard Castellano, in his first big-screen role since THE GODFATHER), and has to deal with vengeful Sgt. Barnes (Dan Hedaya), who has a personal score to settle with him.  Despite her explanations and pleading, Kathy can't convince Stolic that he's kidnapped the wrong girl, and as the day goes on, it's pretty clear that he's got sexual designs on the underage girl as well (late in the film, Gorman's line "I'm gonna keep her" was a last-minute change when studio execs balked at "I'm gonna fuck her").  Boyd meanwhile, wages a one-man path of destruction across the city looking for his daughter, wrecking cars, injuring passersby, destroying property, getting into a brawl at a Times Square peep show, and tangling with a Bronx street gang when his pursuit of Stolic leads him to their turf.

It isn't the most plausible thriller you'll ever see (it never occurs to Kathy to just scream for help and say "This guy's kidnapping me!"?), but you can practically smell sweltering 1978 New York City while watching this.  The packed streets, the porn palace jizz booths, the cramped subways, the garbage...it's just beautiful.  NIGHT OF THE JUGGLER was started by journeyman Sidney J. Furie (THE IPCRESS FILE, LADY SINGS THE BLUES, THE BOYS IN COMPANY C, THE ENTITY), who broke his leg at some point during production and was replaced by veteran TV director Robert Butler, who had just made Disney's HOT LEAD AND COLD FEET.  Brolin and co-writer Bill Norton Sr (BIG BAD MAMA, DAY OF THE ANIMALS) have both said in interviews that Furie directed much of the film, though only Butler is credited.   An intense Brolin is excellent as the obsessed Boyd, who will stop at nothing to save his little girl, and he's matched by a skin-crawling Gorman as the repellently racist Stolic, who leaves a trail of corpses behind in his pursuit of the Bronx that he knew and loved from his childhood.  Gorman was always an underrated actor who rarely got the showy roles and acclaim that he deserved, though not long before his death in 2002, he did get a memorable turn as an aging, rap-obsessed mobster in Jim Jarmusch's GHOST DOG: THE WAY OF THE SAMURAI (2000).  Castellano, whose role as Clemenza in THE GODFATHER seemed to close more doors than it opened, is quite fun as the harried Tonelli.  Francis Ford Coppola has said that Castellano's unreasonable demands caused him to be written out of THE GODFATHER PART II (rather than recast Clemenza, Coppola reworked the character as Michael V. Gazzo's bitter Frankie Pentangeli), and Castellano was primarily a sporadic TV actor for the remainder of his career, with a few TV movies and two short-lived sitcoms (ABC's THE SUPER in 1972 and CBS' JOE & SONS in 1975).  He died in 1988, with his last film appearance coming in 1982's little-seen Joe Pesci vehicle DEAR MR. WONDERFUL.

NIGHT OF THE JUGGLER was released on VHS in 1984 but has yet to appear on DVD or Blu-ray.  A rip of the 1.33:1 VHS print is available on YouTube and frequently suffers from too much darkness, particularly in the climax.  This mean, gritty, relentlessly fast-paced thriller will probably be offensive and dated to some, but for those with an appreciation of the fascinating imagery provided by the sights, sounds, and yes, smells, of this period in New York City's history, NIGHT OF THE JUGGLER is mandatory viewing.  A proper special edition DVD/Blu-ray restoration in its correct aspect ratio, preferably with a Brolin commentary, is long overdue.


  1. Nice write up, Mark. I dig this flick too and wish it was out on a nice widescreen release. Agree that it would never be made today as it would cost $50 million alone just for the permits to drive all over NYC and raise hell.

  2. Thanks. Hell, even if they could get the permits, all the great stuff is gone. They'd probably shoot it in Louisiana and pass it off as NYC (see BROKEN CITY, or better yet, don't). What would the Brolin character do? Chase the kidnapper through a taping of GMA? That said, if, say, Spike Lee wanted to remake this with Josh Brolin, I'd give it a look. It would at least still have a NYC flavor.