Even hard boiled movie critics/historians are not immune to peculiar relationships. Quite the contrary. Sometimes the inexplicable comes along and you just have to roll with the punch.
Stuart Rosenberg's 1984 film "The Pope of Greenwich Village" is one such example. On the surface this film has absolutely nothing which recommends it to me. Not the story, not the characters, not the setting . . . by all logic it's a movie I'd easily overlook.
So explain why this film fascinates the heck out of me?
(Some of you quickly reply: "He sits through "Out of Africa" and worries about "The Pope of Greenwich Village"?")
All right, all right. Point made. I'm nothing if not inconsistent. And "The Pope of Greenwich Village" isn't alone in this respect. Under what I laughingly might have called "usual circumstances" I'd would've also ignored Martin Ritt's "Hud", as well as Norman Jewison's "In the Heat of the Night" and "The Cincinnati Kid". But I don't and I enjoy those films. So what is the common element, and is it also found in "The Pope of Greenwich Village"?
I could, of course, cut to the chase and fill in the blank right here. But work with me, pumpkins. I want to discuss the film in some sort of depth and see if you arrive at the answer.
For openers we have Stuart Rosenberg. With films like "Cool Hand Luke", "Voyage of the Damned", "WUSA" and "The Laughing Policeman" under his belt, Rosenberg certainly possessed the sort of directorial chops that attracted serious attention. The sort of man who effectively strode between the worlds of cinema and television. It could be said that good directors produce good films which attract even the quirkiest of tastes (hello).
Now "The Pope of Greenwich Village" was originally supposed to be directed by Michael Cimino and would star Robert De Niro and Al Pacino. The project suffered a bad case of the Hollywood Shuffles, however, and eventually fell into Rosenberg's hands (with Mickey Rourke and Eric Roberts as the new leads. In retrospect I can only speculate how the project would've looked under the aegis of Cimino/De Niro/Pacino).
Which brings us to the plot. Plot we've got, quite a lot! Charlie and Paulie are two cousins in the Italian section of Greenwich Village (the sort of place where people are referred to as "goombahs" and "mooks" and similar terms of identification, and there's a lot of hugging and such. It's a small world after all!). Charlie and Paulie are waiters with Big Dreams and that's about it. They want better, though, and so Paulie talks Charlie into participating in a big robbery. Everybody at this point go "Uh oh".
Thank you. Naturally the robbery goes wrong (for one thing, Our Heroes manage to rip off a local crime boss. Smooth move, Raffles!), and matters tend to deteriorate rapidly from that point.
Nothing in particular to catch Uncle Mikey's eye. And certainly not in terms of the major characters. Mickey Rourke plays Charlie: a basically good-hearted sort whose loyalty to friends and relatives tends to override his common sense (for a while I was mistaking him for the character Timothy Hutton played in "The Falcon and the Snowman". If you've seen that film then you know the sort of person Charlie is, and vice-versa).
Then we have Eric Roberts as Paulie.
Mother Mary and Joseph!
I tell you, pumpkins, I have seen some frickin' losers in films before. And I mean FRICKIN' LOSERS! The sort of people that, if I encountered them in books, I would immediately be driven to put the novel aside out of sheer irritation (e.g. Jack Williamson's Giles Habibula, Stephen Donaldson's Thomas Covenant. In short: people who would generally get on my tits). In motion pictures I'd have to say that, hands down, Eric Roberts in "The Pope of Greenwich Village" was (and still is) the all-time king-hell champion whining bastard LOSER.
Whine, whine frickin' whine. Cry and bitch and complain . . . and this guy was allowed to plan a major heist? If brains were dynamite then Paulie couldn't blow his nose. Charlie should've easily known better than to let himself be talked into getting involved. Even Darryl Hannah (here playing Diane, Charlie's girlfriend) can clearly see that Paulie's about as useful as a rubber bone is to a starving dog (then again, given that she's dating Charlie, one has to wonder how sharp a knife she is).
Under normal circumstances (!) I would've put up this sort of crap for fifteen minutes. Tops.
Then the epiphany hit me. Everybody say "ouch".
Thank you. Then it occurred to me that the person I was seeing really wasn't all that grotesquely stupid. I took that ol' objective step back and rubbed my nose in the fact that what I was seeing was Eric Roberts playing a role. Rather effectively, too, if he was managing to invoke the sort of reaction he was getting out of me.
Eric Roberts . . . was . . . Acting!
Yeah, I know. Big Revelation. But I had allowed myself to become so blessedly irritated by the character Roberts was playing that I was losing sight of the fact that it was all a performance. A rather talented performance. Roberts was supposed to play an enormous loser, and he accomplished this assignment with considerable aplomb. Talented director . . . talented performance . . . now we see why your Uncle Mikey ended up glued to the screen.
(Apparently Roberts did his job so well that he practically recreated the role the following year for Konchalovsky's "Runaway Train". In fact, if your imagination is willing to stretch a point, you could consider "Runaway Train's" Buck as simply being the future of Paulie from "The Pope of Greenwich Village".)
(Memo to myself: discuss "Runaway Train" someday.)
Of course the film doesn't entirely depend on Roberts' performance. I mentioned Mickey Rourke and Darryl Hannah. Certainly no lightweights there. Then there's the ever-dependable Burt Young as Eddie Grant (the crime boss which Charlie and Paulie steal from); as sinister a little hard boiled egg as one would (or wouldn't, actually) wish to encounter. But the closest anyone comes to stealing what is practically Roberts' one-man show is Geraldine Page as the mother of a policeman killed during the robbery. A chain-smoking, hard as nails rhymes-with witch, she is the grubbier spiritual descendant of Leopoldine Konstantin from Hitchcock's "Notorious" (one can easily imagine the two women sitting over coffee and exchanging techniques for pulling wings off of butterflies).
Talented performances tend to create resonances within me. Even though I care little for stud poker, ranching or small Southern town law enforcement, the drama which rises in films like "Hud", "In the Heat of the Night" and "The Cincinnati Kid" have kept me glued to the screen time and time again. And Eric Roberts . . . whiny little turd that he was . . . has kept "The Pope of Greenwich Village" as still another source of fascinated movie watching. We arrive at the conclusion that Talent covers a lot of sins.