By Sean Rogers
B-movie king Roger Corman’s original vision of Cockfighter (1974) must have differed immensely from the finished film. Corman’s version, one imagines, would have involved a proudly vulgar depiction of an illegal, bloody activity tended to by cartoonishly ignorant southerners, blending vicarious thrills, brutality, and condescension in a sure recipe for success. Imagine Corman’s surprise, then, when he discovered that one of his productions, seemingly destined for cheap and sleazy profitability like so many others, turned out to be something of an art film. Roger Corman has directed and produced some 137 films, notes screenwriter Charles Willeford in his on-set memoir; â€œand Cockfighter, he said, was the only movie he ever lost any money on.
But the film never really was Corman’s. For one, it is at least as much Willeford’s, especially in the eyes of his cult following. The haute-pulp novelist provides not only the screenplay, but also the original source novel, and with gruff charm plays the part of Middleton, an old hand at cockfighting and something of a mentor to Warren Oates’ Frank Mansfield. As in Willeford’s book, Mansfield, the titular cockfighter, has taken a penitential vow of silence until he can win the Cockfighter of the Year award. As he risks losing everything from his family home to his fiance (Patricia Pearcy), the film follows him in his single-minded pursuit through a series of southern cockpits, farmyards and backyards, barns and hotel rooms, all shot on location in rural Georgia by Nator Almendros. The legendary cinematographer is another dominant presence in the film’s conception. Although he had worked previously for Corman on AIP’s Europroduction The Wild Racers (1968), Almendros had spent the intervening years working with nouvelle vaguistes Barbet Schroeder, Eric Rohmer, and Francois Truffaut, and so here feels free to revel in the sun-dappled woodland and dusty parking lots, or to turn a curious long lens on the spectators and practitioners of the sport (these are actual crowds at actual cockpits). More than anyone, though, the picture belongs to its star, Oates, and to its director, Monte Hellman.
In 1974, Warren Oates was at the peak of his career, particularly due to his collaborations with Hellman and Sam Peckinpah. Like the few other filmmakers Oates worked with at first, he spent much of his early career playing bit parts on television, Peckinpah cast the scruffy but personable actor in memorable supporting roles, beginning with 1962’s Ride the High Country. In the director’s blackly personal Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia (1974), Oates finally assumes the lead, impersonating and inhabiting the Peckinpah persona with loving aplomb. But it was Hellman who initiated Oates’ unlikely string of great leading roles with The Shooting (1967). Their next collaboration would yield Oates’ turn as a protean bullshitter in Two-Lane Blacktop (1971). However, only Cockfighter competes with Alfredo Garcia as the finest showcase for Oates’ consummate skill. Given only a few taciturn voiceovers and a brief flashback in which to drawl, Oates spends the rest of the film silent. Of necessity, everything gets communicated by gesture, by posture, by look. Oates mugs, grimaces, stares, walks surefooted among his coops, and lurks confident outside the pits, like some reincarnated Lon Chaney stalking the set of a Tod Browning film that never got made. Oates, here, is every bit as improbable a leading man as Chaney was, compelling and convincing, a figure of mute fascination.
Hellman’s hand in the film, though not as evident as Oates’, is just as confident, and as accomplished. There are, of course, the easy auteurist coincidences to turn to for evidence of the director’s thematic maturity. Cockfighter, for instance, returns to the same breed of specialized milieu as Two-Lane Blacktop, with the characters ensconced in their cultic activity, and the dialogue peppered with shop talk, cutting and shuffling and billing and flushing, keeping the socially acceptable world at bay through cant and the very depth of these people’s involvement. Notably, though, as more than one critic has noted, Cockfighter neatly inverts Oates’ Two-Lane Blacktop role “that one desperately gregarious, this one determinedly trappist” while nevertheless carrying forward a destructive, obsessive commitment to some spurious ideal.
Brad Stevens, in his book on Hellman, isolates this obsessive drive as the predominant theme in the director’s films. More interesting, however, and more abstract, is Stevens’ focus on how Hellman overturns generic conventions as a means to undermine notions, such as masculinity, perpetuated by those genres. For Stevens, Cockfighter is a modern-dress Western in which the Westerner has already made way for the encroaching forces of civilization to such an extent that the only frontier left is the small and petty one of the cockpit. As a sports film, it remains puzzling, the end confounds all expectation and typical sports film progressions, and we are left not with the moment of triumph, or even the promise of further accomplishment, but with an emphasis on the pointless, goalless repetition of the sport. But the film would also seem to belong to that hoary 1970s genre of the “character study” only, happily, it refuses to fall back on some easy appeal to psychological realism. Instead, the film’s bloodless but savage final moments confront us with the unfathomable depth of obsession, an act of repudiation indistinguishable from one of reaffirmation.
Perhaps understandably, then, Hellman and Corman disagreed over Cockfighter’s final cut. Hellman insisted on including more character moments; Corman wanted more chickens getting killed. The film, as it exists now, is something of a compromise. Hellman got more dialogue while Corman got more gore (and, in a version prepared for the drive-ins after a disastrous initial run, some nonsensical bits involving naked nurses and exploding cars). One hopes, with the critical rediscovery and DVD release of the film, that Corman has finally seen some sort of return for Cockfighter, if only to reward his nonplussed hatching of such a wonderfully ugly duckling.
USA, 1974. 83 min. Artists Entertainment Complex/ New World/ Rio Pinto