In 1978, Sylvester Stallone was riding high on the rags to riches success of his make or break everyman made good script, Rocky. After fighting his corner to play the mumbling underdog as well, he had freedom to pursue a couple of interesting projects, both largely forgotten in the pantheon of his otherwise overblown career. One was F.I.ST. the fictional tale of a trade union leaders rise and fall, loosely based on the life of Teamster leader Jimmy Hoffa, and directed by Norman Jewison, no less. But it is Paradise Alley, which he wrote, directed, starred in, and even (controversially) sung the theme song for, which sticks in my head and heart.
Stallone spent his first five years in New York’s Hell’s Kitchen, and sets his story there in harder times, post WWII. Three brothers: Cosmo (Stallone), gentle giant Victor (Lee Canalito), and the eldest, embittered war veteran Lenny (Armand Assante, in his first major role), scrape an existence in the ghetto. Cosmo is the joker in the pack, a hustler. Lenny works in an undertakers, initially hiding his limping, broken spirit from the world. He once dreamed of becoming a lawyer. Victor is a kind of Lenny type from of Mice And Men – maybe the brothers names were switched when Stallone realised. Although nowadays Victor would probably be diagnosed dyslexic. Here he’s reduced to hauling huge blocks of ice to customers around the block. For three losers, they all have (or pursue) pretty hot girlfriends. Victor’s girlfriend helps him learn to read, and they dream of getting out, living on a houseboat.
The brothers continually fall foul of local pint-sized hood Stitch (Kevin Conway). Cosmo sets Victor up against Stitch’s wrestling man mountain Frankie The Thumper in an arm wrestling match, to win Frankie’s monkey. He’s convinced he can make an act with it. Victor wins the epic match, and sets in chain a set of events whereby he wrestles as Kid Salami: Cosmo training him, Lenny managing. Naturally, the bonds between brothers will be tested, Cosmo and Lenny clashing over Victor’s health, before a triumphant uplifting brawl in the wrestling venue known paradoxically as Paradise Alley.
This is such a great little gem of a film, with humour, pathos, and even tragedy, in quiet, devastating little moments. A broken, washed-up wrestler quietly, with no fuss, drowns himself on Christmas Eve, because he’s at the happiest point he’ll ever be. In the great opening sequence, Cosmo and another desperate chancer race each other for money across the rooftops, leaping the gaps between buildings in slow motion to Sly’s weary cadence of the theme song. Sly is helped immeasurably by one of the best Directors of Photography in the business, Laszlo Kovacs. They frame the chase well, leapers shot from below, and above the washing lines, sheets hung out like tears to dry (thank you, Sammy Cahn!).
In fact, the film is shot like a bruised cousin to The Godfather, and helps elevate the material. Armand Assante gives one of his best performances here, essaying a path from cynicism to wary awakening. Almost a reverse of Michael Corleone’s path. He worries that Cosmo is pushing Victor into more and more punishing bouts. It’s a pleasure to see him and Sly butt heads here in a layered, dramatic fashion, compared to their clone brother bombast in Judge Dredd years later – “THE LAAAAWWWW!!!”
Stallone as Cosmo is nominally the hero, although he pleasingly gives plenty of screen time to the other brothers. He’s a fast-talking hustler, Del Boy on his last shot. His terrible attempt to make the monkey dance for him is funny, and results in him tieing it up . I doubt film-makers could get away with that today. Incidentally, I wonder if this monkey is the same one from Raiders Of The lost Ark? I like to think so.
Victor’s big hearted lunk is the heart of the family, who eventually knits them back together. He is an uncomplaining titan, for the most part, although the wrestling threatens to unleash a dark temper beneath. In a simple pivotal scene, we see him labour up several flights of tenement stairs, Sisyphus – like, a huge block of ice over his shoulder. On his customers door is a note – no ice is needed anymore, he’s got a new – fangled refrigerator. Victor wordlessly releases his hold and his burden tumbles down the stairs, crashing in a million pieces onto the pavement outside. It’s in the wrestling ring where he’ll now be tasked.
Stallone peoples his rogues gallery with a great selection of oddballs, a ton of wrestlers looking like huge slabs of meat, all broken noses and cauliflower ears. Musician Tom Waits plays Mumbles, the local stumble bum piano player. He adds perfect flavour with a diffident nonchalance. He was even considered for an alternative theme song.
Paradise Alley itself is a bear pit of an arena, a no rules, no holds barred Thunderdome. Sly shoots Victor’s climactic bout, choreographed by professional wrestler Terry Funk, in the middle of a storm. Rain pounds the canvas through a hole in the roof, the electrical storm setting the lights haywire, sparks shooting everywhere. The goliaths bodies slam the canvas, water spraying the crowd. The gag where Stitch is roundly humiliated is a brilliant, unexpected comic delight.
Paradise Alley is a fascinating little side note in Stallone’s career. I don’t begrudge him his superstar success, but I wish he’d taken more creative dramatic choices like this one (but not out and out comedy – Stop Or My Mom Will Shoot is an abomination!). Many thanks to Paul Whitelaw another voice in the wilderness championing this underdog tale, for inspiring me to do this piece.