Welcome To The Circle. Bang Bang.
Can an Abel Ferrara movie really be a feasible candidate for a list of All-Time Top Ten films? Iain Sinclair makes a case for Christopher Walken and King of New York.
1990. The cusp of a new decade, the end of a weary millennium, nowhere to go but oblivion. Cinema as we knew it (serial sentimentalists fixated on pre-'68 golden oldies) was over; winded, broken veined, posthumous. Who knows what the 1990s were? If you can remember them, you're trapped forever in that grey fog. (Like Stephen King rewriting Stephen King to the point of extinction.) A period of unconvinced revenants, erasure, retro-style. Time out between wars, between the Thatcherite combo (hardhat with pinstripe) and New Labour's smart-casual leisurewear, uniform hair and mean spectacles. The 1990s, in retrospect, are the vanishing dot (of information, entertainment, human contact) on an antique TV set. At close down. Then along comes Abel Ferrara: feral, frantic, a stonecold moralist.
King of New York is defiantly liminal. It exists in a dreamscape between the driven, crazy, egotistical film operas of the 1970s and 1980s (Coppola, Scorsese, Schrader) and image-swamp urban TV (The Sopranos, Homicide). Between film and tape. Between ambitious (structured) popular art and energised segments of docu-fantastic reality, served up to pass the time between commercial breaks. The gaudy video casket of King of New York, found in some newsagent's dump bin, is a significant fossil. A memento mori of the century's ultimate city in meltdown.
Ferrara's film affects memory, the memory of New York's aspirations and rhetoric, memory of cinema. The opening sequence is masterful: spare, elegant, cold. Subdued sounds of the prison seep in under the titles, no mood music, no dialogue. Christopher Walken as Frank White, gang boss coming to the end of a long sentence, is presented, back view, in his cell. Blocks of articulate darkness. The cell of a monk, an anchorite. A bowl (or chalice) turns his shelf into an altar. Walken's hair is undemonstrative, he wears studious spectacles. He has not yet taken on the part. He's in rehearsal, studying his role. Walken as Walken. A melancholy progress through gated corridors, prisoners' arms reaching out for a blessing. Tall shadows of bars, grilles. The narrative advances through a sequence of cuts. A reliquary of objects. The ritualistic procession, released criminal and attendant warders, grants Walken the time to prepare himself for his reincarnation as Frank White: moralist, fanatic, doomed criminal. The second death. White's flesh is tight, gelid, cryogenic.
The fatalism of this opening, the apparent inevitability of the shot selection, invokes that earlier cinema, the masters honoured in the 'Ten Best' lists: Bresson, Jean-Pierre Melville. Frank White is coming back from the dead, Nosferatu in bleached denim. White is more than white, he's an albino cured under strip lighting. The interior, skull-world of the prison/monastery in which he has been held is divorced from the city, from life. Moving outside, natural light intrudes by minor increments. Bird song. Is this dawn or dusk? The huge, black, polished limo - set against the cliff of the prison - is a hearse. Reflected in its brilliant sheen is a strip of sky. The silent overture concludes with the creaking mechanism of the prison gate. A banishment not a liberation.
In the ambiguity of early evening, street lamps, riverine sunset, the black hearse carries its revenant to the city. The opening is mythic and realist, part of a complex double game. Walken, the kabuki android, drifts towards New York, towards his role as Frank White. A courtesy motor from the studio. Time to prepare. The fabric of New York will be altered by his arrival, as the hubris of late-19th-century London was challenged and affronted by the presence of Count Dracula, the most unwelcome of asylum seekers.
The prison has been a site of meditation, Jansenist geometry, slow and repetitive movement. Blues and greys, natural sound. Like a lifer's masturbatory fantasy, like Frank White toying with revived potentialities, we see the city as a brothel. A member of the Colombian cartel stumbles out of this soporific nightworld: prostitutes in various stages of undress, coke saturation, warm colours, browns, golds, pinks. Hard edge has been leeched from the focus.
Every shift from interior to exterior carries risk, a fracture in consciousness. The secrets of the city are in private rooms, clubs, expense-account restaurants. Returned to the street, the Colombian drug boss with his designer case of dirty money uses a public phone kiosk. The culture is pre-mobile. He's slumming in a heritage black-and-white 1930s gangster clip from Warner Bros. He's blown away, naturally. A knife prises open the door. Shattered glass. The first words of dialogue: "Read this, Emilio." A newspaper strap headline, like a quote from Orson Welles, Sam Fuller. Like Don Siegel working one of his montage sequences: "FRANK WHITE RELEASED FROM PRISON."
Ferrara's opera - blood, not soap - slides into its opening act. Big close-ups. Tracking shots from the darkened window of the limo: the trash of the city, subterranea. Dope fiends, hookers, bums. Walken, like a blasphemous back reference to Falconetti in Dreyer's 1927 The Passion of Joan of Arc (like Anna Karina responding to those sculptural CUs), registers the pain of the world. Moves into Frank White mode. Acting acting. He brings the mask to life: as a mask. Droplets of blood trickling into an ice sculpture. It's a risk-taking performance, achieved without embarrassment. To actor or audience. Walken shows nothing, gives nothing. He lets the vein, the pulsing worm that decorates the side of his head, take the strain. Those thin lips twitch a rictus and immediately withdraw the gesture. Everything is half-signalled, tested; irony, possession, resignation. He is accompanied on his stately ride by twin angels of the city, the Bassinger-type languorous blonde and the sharp-eyed black girl. Shared smoke.
It's a stock device, the villain (fixed in some previous era and about to be shafted by ambitious psychos) met at the prison gates and chauffeured to the coming-out party. The British paradigm (exiled director) would be Joseph Losey's The Criminal (1960), written by Alun Owen, featuring Stanley Baker, and 'authenticated' by Baker's friendship with underworld figures such as 'Italian' Albert Dimes and the Richardsons. The Criminal is realist, black and white (photographed by Robert Krasker), downbeat: aspirant European (echoes of Truffaut's Shoot the Pianist). The prison is detached from the city. The criminal leads a life of Masonic discretion, among his own kind, he doesn't engage with the rest of society. The prison itself, with its hierarchies, coded language, savage rituals, is Baker's theatre. The growling Beckettian Patrick Magee is notable as a warder. The rest of the cast, choral and over-animated, could come from a Brendan Behan or Frank Norman production by Joan Littlewood.
Frank White is different. He not only belongs to New York, he has ambitions to be mayor. (This is not so fantastic a conceit as it appears. Motorway flyovers in East London are still decorated with "REG KRAY FOR MAYOR" graffiti.) White identifies, body to body, with Manhattan and the boroughs. He's a dead man, released on a mission of revenge, restitution. He has a Jesus complex (as a starting point) and he accepts, relishes the foreknowledge, that he will die again. Bent Catholicism, blood sacrifice, autistic narcissism: Walken rehearses every move against an imaginary mirror.
Ferrara's ferocious drama invades the complacent body politic. Frank White is like one of the pre-'68 auteurists confronted with an industrial product that he neither understands nor appreciates: necro-merchandise (weapons, drugs), a culture remorselessly prostituting itself. The warped moralist (as much a style zombie as Delon in late Melville) initiates his own bonfire of the vanities. King of New York, in its attempted stratification of the energies of the city, belongs with the poetic/prophetic underground cinema of the 1960s. Stan Brakhage's projected trilogy (The Act of Seeing with One's Own Eyes, Deus Ex, Eyes) was intended to define Pittsburgh by a group of films that moved from police patrol car to open-heart surgery, to the coroner's office. The results were overwhelmingly visceral: the audience forced up against secrets they would prefer to ignore.
Walken is Ferrara's device, a stand-in for Brakhage's handheld camera and manipulated 15-inch lens. "Your heart beating will create an earthquake in the image," Brakhage said. Walken is that sensitised instrument, the revenger. The 1990s version of a steel-blue Lee Marvin's return to Los Angeles in John Boorman's Point Blank (1967). That's how the critique works: option the dead. Access film memory, overlay the ghosts of Get Carter or Poor Cow.
Lee Marvin (as Walker) was a righteous man, an individualist who hacked his way through the tentacles of the Organization, the corporate state (car lots, glass towers, modernist architecture on the edge of town). Walken (as White) doesn't have to walk. He's driven, he observes. He might work the tables at a charity bash or attend an opening - but his real business is apocalyptic. The eradication of the pretensions of the cabals, pseudo-corporations, meatball-gobbling heavies. The operatic ambitions of Coppola's The Godfather (all numbers) are reduced here to a cigar-sucking ape pissing on another man's shoes. Coppola's lavishly orchestrated suburban weddings are reprised by Ferrara as throwaway urban affairs, loud, drunken, ugly: in a neighbourhood Irish bar.
King of New York is constructed in three acts: argument (escalating violence), counter-argument (carcinogenic cop), death and resolution. The articulation is dynamically theatrical. Groups (or posses) preening, strutting, teasing, spitting defiance. Soliloquising "fucker/motherfucker" challenges and echoes. Variants of tone not language. A trashed Elizabethan sense of parade, homoeroticism - of dialogue and gesture. Walken sniffing a murdered man's leather glove and trying it on. Carrot-head Irish cop (David Caruso) and his sidekick (Wesley Snipes) slavering over fantasies of prison rape: "Cocksucker, Aids fuck!" The extraordinary Larry Fishburne (with his Christopher Marlowe swagger, black leather and A Clockwork Orange bowler) licking a gob of spit, tasting it on his finger. Caruso (as Dennis Gilley) kissing the dead Snipes: "I love you."
City heat. Over-ripe to the point of parody. To the point where the film threatens to implode into genre fodder, a deep-crimson gore fest. By several hundred years, you won't find such energy in theatre. The punk dandy Fishburne ('Larry' on the way to 'Laurence') opens with a Jacobean speed-rap, deflected insults, violence. Steve Buscemi, cadaverous, leaking attitude, is his partner, a coke alchemist. The scene is played out in a Travelodge International Hotel (incoming jet scraping over ugly rooftop). Drug reps lounging on sofas, getting a hit of junk TV. Fishburne demanding root beer from room service. The humour is grotesque. Payment, when it comes, is revealed as Tampax tubes, not cash. Blood jokes. "To plug the holes." Before the drug cartel are wiped out in spasms of gunfire.
Hotels are neutral locations in which the princes of the city live and carry out their transactions. Frank White, as befits his status, is in a suite at the Plaza. Luxury and hermeticism. The cardinal with no possessions - and the use of the best the city can offer (cars, guns, clothes). When Walken waits to receive the homage of his underclass rabble (black, Puerto Rican, white hookers), he becomes, by shifts of stagecraft, Frank White. It was this mediumistic trick, the instantaneous, blink-and-you'll-miss-it embodiment of the role, that excited critics at the time. Walken was the ultimate challenge to the ambitious NME boys and girls from the suburbs and provinces. Doing Walken initiated you as a metropolitan. But where over-excited journalism lives and dies on the page, the weird mystery of Walken the actor is untouched.
It starts with the hair. The modest prison trim has been crop-sprayed with Viagra. A controlled Don King eruption signalling priapic engagement. Walken, unvisited during his long incarceration, mimes resentment, cancels it with a snaky dance of rapprochement and resurrection. He's shaking the earth from his slick suit. He's zombie fresh. An anti-Warhol: a man parodying the jolt and scorch of the electric chair (that papal throne for losers). Body-tremble liquefies into shimmy. Dead eyes flash. A lethal smile ghosts and vanishes. The teeth are un-American, real. Walken franchises charisma. He has to take on the city, politically, through the currency of crime and the warring clans. The big hair is a Clinton Xerox. The taut skin stretched over an alien skull is David Bowie, fallen to Earth. A needling, edgy and gracious incarnation. Walken's wink, his slowburning or cancelled smiles, his minimalist turns of the head (towards an unseen presence, a director): these are the elements of a masterclass in managed neurosis. The big question is always the same: 'How should I react?'
Ferrara loves dualism: reality and artifice. The filtered blue light of a stage show (city elite watching a prison musical) or lowlife dive, and the flesh tones of lunch-hour restaurants, hotel bedrooms, brothels. The sweat and hurt of cops in their bars and precincts arguing revenge, nursing grudges. The charity bash with fixers and movers set against a visit to the underground, the New York subway (transit to Hades). Frank White takes his WASP lawyer girlfriend on a subway train, fondles her breast. The chthonic is his natural element. When they are threatened by teenage muggers, he hands over a roll of notes, invites them to join the firm. "Come by the Plaza Hotel, I got work for you. Ask for Frank White."
Frank wants a piece of everything, every nickel-and-dime deal in every wastelot, on every corner of his city. "I want in." White's trajectory is invasion: from the edge to the centre, stately tracking shots from the window of his limo, the chorus line of the damned. A mirror image of the credits sequence of The Sopranos, in which a Mafia crime boss moves out, driving himself, carrying the infection into the suburbs. And logs the topography of transit, off-highway enterprises, industrial dereliction. The humans don't register.
The dualist tension evolves into a spiritual battle between Frank White and his chief adversary, the detective Roy Bishop (Victor Argo). Narrative focus moves from one to the other, White to Bishop: as if in mocking homage to Bergman's Python-parodied chess game between Knight and Death in The Seventh Seal. Morality is debated. Argo's repressed, interior performance balances Walken's flamboyant shtick. They are both posthumous, New York doesn't need them. "I must have been away too long, my feelings are dead," White says. Bishop, ravaged by disease, rattles pills, struggles for breath. The Irish cops can barely tolerate his restraint. They joke about the "Afro-American sheen" of his hair. His eyes are tired, his shoulders slump. His skin is something you'd strike a match on. The healthiest thing he does is light another cigarette. He has taken the carcinogenic corruption of the city into his system. Witnessing White's dialogue with Bishop, we are eavesdropping on the confessional. Sick priest and unjustified sinner: "I never got away with anything." The acts of fabulous charity, the hospitals funded, count for nothing. "I'm not your problem, I'm just a business man."
The city has given up its immortal soul. In Chinatown, the Triad boss plays Murnau's Nosferatu. "Why don't you stick around?" he asks. "I got Frankenstein." Violence intrudes like an explosion of bad cinema, a Hong Kong martial-arts programmer. When you run out of dialogue, start shooting. The final act begins its descent towards a bad-weather pile-up of bodies in a breaker's yard, a standard Jacobean revenger climax. Tarantino's Hamlet.
White handcuffs Bishop to a chair, with sado-masochistic tenderness. "Now you know what it's like. Welcome to the circle - bang bang." The dying Bishop is initiated by the doomed White: into the circle of vampires. The chase and shoot-out in the subway are a simple shortcut to Hades, not a cinematic showpiece (as in The French Connection). "No more stories, Frank. Put the gun down." The cycles of time, and the lineage of remembered culture, are over. Finished. Walken gives one of those forensic smiles. "I don't need forever."
The status of King of New York is paradoxical, an intelligent and ambitious piece about the end of ambition. The small triumphs (against capitalist inertia and studio interference) of the years between 1968 and 1990 are parodied, guyed, tested. The romance is over. Multicultural New York is at war with itself. A coming principality of the dead. The single splash of primary colour Ferrara allows is when the wounded White, walking at last, in among the Times Square crowds, passes the pulsing heart of the COLA sign. CIA-sponsored Pop art. To be in the city on foot is to die, to be faceless, one of the mob. No longer a performer, just a member of the audience. White slumps in a cab. The cabbie, bearded like a New Testament disciple, abandons him. Runs from Gethsemane. Leaving his rosary beads, the statuette. Walken gets his final close-up. Blood haemorrhaging from a stomach wound. Pistol drooping from hand. Darkness. Credits.