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MOVIES : The Prince of Darkness : Director Abel Ferrara practices a kind of gonzo filmmaking, and his violent vision isn't a particularly popular one in Hollywood

October 28, 1990|PATRICK GOLDSTEIN

Written by Ferrara's longtime collaborator, Nicholas St. John, "King of New York" is a lurid urban thriller populated with cutthroat hoods and revenge-crazed cops. As gang chieftain Frank White, Christopher Walken is a nutty Robin Hood-style thug who lives at the Plaza Hotel, bankrolls a South Bronx hospital and attends avant-garde theater.

Walken handles the part as if he'd imagined how James Dean would play "Little Caesar." Released from prison, he celebrates by showing off his new dance moves. After murdering a hated police adversary, White arrives in a stretch limo at his funeral and finishes the job by bumping off one of the cop's partners.

The critics have been divided about the film's merits. The New York Times' Janet Maslin praised it as a "high-voltage drama," saying Ferrara "still works unapologetically in B-movie territory, but does it with A-movie style."

The Detroit News' Kevin Ransom slammed its "noxious violence and cheapjack fatalism . . . . It's difficult for a film so taken with its own sleaze factor to be anything but sleazy."

It certainly wasn't easy getting "King of New York" made. "Nobody would touch it," Ferrara said with characteristic candor, stretching out on his hotel-room couch. "I went around this town 22 times--and got nothing. Universal put up money for the script, but then I don't think they ever read it."

Finally, when Ferrara was in Italy opening "China Girl," he got an offer from Penta Films, a big Italian firm. "They just crank out movies over there," he said. "They're not reading scripts like these retarded people out here, who give you notes on Page 12 saying, 'Maybe this is a good place for the gangster to visit his mother.' When we told 'em we had Chris Walken committed, they wanted to kiss our feet. They love him over there, so they gave me the bread and I never had any hassles making the movie. Period."

Accustomed to shooting fast and cheap, Ferrara made "King of New York" for $5.3 million. Still, he needed all his low-budget wiles to secure certain key locations, most notably the swank Plaza, which serves as Walken's headquarters in the film.

Ferrara said the hotel, owned by Donald Trump, charged Francis Ford Coppola "$5,000 an hour" to film there. But Ferrara had an ace up his sleeve. "Ivana (Trump) was a huge fan of Chris Walken's, so they said if she could pose for a photo with him, we could have it for nothing. So she got some great pictures, and we got the Plaza."

One of Ferrara's favorite scenes, where Fishburne is hassled by the police at a fast-food chicken joint, was filmed in a grim Brooklyn slum neighborhood.

"We shot that so deep in Brooklyn you needed a passport to get there," he said. "Here I was, preparing to shoot, and I'm worried whether my cast is gonna show up or not. I mean, on our budget, we don't have drivers. So everyone takes the subway, and you just hope they don't get lost or mugged on the way. It was the kind of place where every store for five blocks had bulletproof glass, which we had to make them take out of the windows 'cause it reflects like crazy.

"So I'm running around, talking to the store owners, who are all saying, 'OK, you can take it out, but you better make sure that glass is back up tonight!' "

Half-Italian and half-Irish, Ferrara grew up in the Fordham Road section of the Bronx. "We lived near where Jake LaMotta lived when he moved to the Bronx," Ferrara explained while driving around L.A. "Jake was the neighborhood thug-hero. He had this great restaurant. Instead of a disco in the back room, they had a boxing ring. On Friday nights, the guys would go back there and beat the (expletive) out of each other."

Ferrara was deliberately vague about his father's occupation. "You could say he was a Frank White-type guy. He and his pals owned bars and after-hours places. I mean, who knew what they did? They'd go from being rich to being broke. In the Bronx in the '50s, who knew what was legal and what wasn't?"

Ferrara shrugged. "They were like the guys in 'GoodFellas.' Who cared what you did as long as you had money to show for it? You know, the American Dream."

When Ferrara was 13, his family moved to Peekskill in upstate New York. "It was like moving to Mars," he said. "I remember the first day I went to school, they were all excited 'cause they'd built a new sidewalk. So all the kids are jumping up and down, and I'm thinking, 'What is this?' "

In high school, Ferrara became friends with writer Nicholas St. John. They made short 8mm movies together, starting a collaboration that has lasted through five feature films, including "Ms. 45," "China White" and "King of New York."

Set in the urban jungle, Ferrara's films offer an ominous, often ambiguous interpretation of race relations. As one critic said of "King of New York," it's a movie in which "every scene is a weird mix of prejudice and belief in racial coalition."

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