One of the unfortunate casualties of a general disregard for William Friedkin's early work has been his 1968 film "The Night They Raided Minsky's" (IMDb listing). Among the qualities that mark Friedkin's approach to filmmaking is a devotion to coming up with just the right visual means of reflecting the theme of whatever story he's trying to tell. In "The Exorcist," much of the story's inherent duality is mirrored through subtle contrasts between characters, settings, and, on a more obvious level, lighting. In Friedkin's remake of Sydney Lumet's "12 Angry Men," a curious camera roams around the jury room, as though it were documenting a piece for the six o'clock news. In "Minsky's," Friedkin has a spectacle on his hands, and he knows it. By filling just about every frame with chaotic activity, Friedkin imbues the film with the likelihood that whatever poignancy emerges along the way, the emphasis is going to remain on fun. If you keep looking under the table for scraps, Friedkin seems to be telling us, you're going to miss the entertainment at hand.
The story is somewhat complicated, but the script is sure enough (Norman Lear had a hand in it) and the direction focused enough to give the film an engagingly simple air. Rachel Schpitendavel (Britt Ekland) is a young Amish woman who moves from Pennsylvania to New York City in the 1920s and becomes involved with the famous burlesque theater known as Minsky's. At first she's happy to observe from the sidelines, but that all changes when Raymond Paine (Jason Robards) comes up with the idea of using Rachel to throw a wrench into an imminent police raid of the controversial theater. Since she has experience putting Bible stories to dance, Paine decides to bill Rachel as the upcoming attraction, Madame Fifi, a persona the theater promises will be a crowd-pleaser unlike anything their audiences have seen before. The true idea, however, is to have Rachel perform her Bible story dances with the hope of throwing the police off the scent.
It might have worked, too, if human emotion didn't have to complicate matters. Rachel's father comes looking for his daughter, and he's less than thrilled by the state of affairs when he finds her. Rachel has fallen for Paine after many perorations on his part, but her reciprocation has had the unwanted effect of changing the footloose performer into a supercilious bear. Her only chance of escape when Paine and her father accost her in the wings is to take to the stage, where a crowd of hungry-eyed spectators awaits the dazzling Fifi. Her performance starts off slow, but before long she's tossing her hips with the best of them. No Bible stories tonight! For encouragement she only needs to glance offstage, where the effects of her dancing are plainly written on the faces of both her father and Paine. But when she accidentally draws too near to her father, he reaches out to pull her from the stage and tears her dress in the process. The crowd goes wild. Rachel knows an opportunity when she sees it and doesn't hesitate to invent the striptease.
Thrown into this boisterous mix is Paine's partner of ten years, Chick Williams (Norman Wisdom). The moments when he's onstage performing his acrobatic slapstick are electric, but it can be painful to watch him fail with Rachel, who he loves at first sight. Although Chick is a clown through and through, it's a little hard to swallow his quiet acceptance of the feelings that develop between Rachel and Paine. When Rachel is just another potential conquest for Paine, it's all right for Chick to display his jealousy. But when a legitimate bond begins to form between the unlikely couple, Chick is expected to cool it, and by gum, he cools it. That's a clown for you, I suppose. But Friedkin misses an opportunity to bring something startling to his farce. That's okay. It's a damn good farce. But it left me wondering if it could have been something more. I guess I forgot to keep my head above the table.
Filmfodder Grade: B+