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STRANGERS IN THE CITY (1962).

The early-'60s were a breakthrough era for US independent cinema, with directors like John Cassavetes and Shirley Clarke bringing gritty realism to European film festivals. Well, here's a low-budget indie with a difference. While this first-and-last feature from Pittsburgh-bred Rick Carrier boasts a realistic inner city backdrop and a cast of unknowns, it also wallows in the type of seamy melodrama (street gangs, prostitution, murder) that was a staple of drive-in exploitation. Nevertheless, it premiered at Cannes and played arthouse theatres across the country (complete with a wide variety of ad campaign approaches)... First-time writer-director-producer-cinematographer (and ex-professional skin-diver) Carrier introduces us to the Alvarez family, Puerto Rican immigrants who're scraping by on Manhattan's Upper East Side. Squeezed into a one-room tenement, father José (Camilo Delgado) is an unemployed guitar player who's too stubborn to take a menial job like dishwashing (because it would ruin his precious hands), and Rosita de Triana is his long-suffering wife. To help out the household, "weak" teenage son Filipi (Robert Gentile) gets a job from a skinflint deli owner in order to afford food, while his too-sexy-for-her-own-good sister Elena (Creta Margos) is attacked by derelicts. Yeah, this is a great neighborhood they've moved into. Welcome to America, suckers. Things just keep getting worse, as mother is forced to get a job, Filipi makes friends with an abusive gang following a spectacularly-choreographed alleyway rumble, and (worst of all) statuesque Elena is approached by sleaze-meisters who want to turn her out as the newest whore in their Houston Street stable. Since the girl's "like putty," it'll only take a few new dresses and a little liquor before she's got her legs spread and her skirt hiked over her head. Meanwhile, Dad is a real charmer, as he sits on his ass, drinking and living in the past. It all ends in a spectacularly grim finale, including everything from electrocution to eating rat poison!... Shot in black-and-white, amidst authentic outdoor locations and appropriately-seedy interior sets built in a Manhattan warehouse, this sports a racy 'European' veneer, from its lingeried ladies to a smoky beatnik shindig. And finally, we've got a movie that accurately captures the cramped and dingy ambience of a New York City slum, complete with a rat falling into the tub while you're taking a bath. The acting ranges from credible and sincere, to downright laughable (just try to keep a straight face when Papa gets furious), and while the melodrama gets thick at times, Carrier demonstrates loads of raw talent and a good visual eye. It's too bad he never parlayed it into a further career, because this sleazy portrait of the American dream is a potent little gem.

© 2000 by Steven Puchalski.