COCKFIGHTER

 (Directed by Monte Hellman. USA. 1974.


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Cockfighter, another Roger Corman/Monte Hellman collaboration, explores the popular but mostly illegal "sport" of cockfighting (it is banned in 48 states). The film was marketed under several different titles but it never caught on and was virtually unseen until the Anchor Bay DVD release in 2001. Based on a novel by Charles Willeford, the film contains one of Warren Oates' best performances as Frank Mansfield, a trainer of prize cockfighters. Since he was disqualified for the "Cockfighter of the Year" award for excessive drinking and talking during a fight, Frank has taken a vow of silence and refuses to talk until he wins the medal. Filmed in actual outdoor arenas in Georgia (cockfighting was legal in Georgia) by cinematographer Nestor Almenderos (Days of Heaven, Kramer Vs. Kramer), the crowds at the matches consist of real fans and people who have participated in this brutal spectacle, giving the film a documentary look and feel. 

In Cockfighter, we are privy to a world that none of us will probably ever see or ever want to see, a world where roosters are bred and trained to engage in a deadly battle with other birds for the benefit of gamblers and spectators. With cocks equipped with little metal hooks attached to their feet to make them more deadly, Cockfighting is shown for what it is, a violent bloody business filled with sleazy operators who have no feeling for the life and death of the animals. Though the roosters in the film were destined to be killed in matches anyway, there is animal violence in the film and those that object to this should be forewarned. I personally had to turn away from the screen on several occasions. 

As the film begins, Frank has lost a match with his friendly adversary Jack (Harry Dean Stanton) and has to give up his truck, mobile home, and his girlfriend Dodo (Laurie Bird). Without wheels or money, he sells his house where his brother (Troy Donahue) and his sister-in-law (Millie Perkins) had been living and visits fiancée Mary Elizabeth (Patricia Pearcy). Mansfield is a driven man, yet also one who is thoughtful and gentle and the scenes with him and Mary "talking" about their future with a glittering lake in the background are unforgettable. Mary loves him and wants to get married but is clearly put off by cockfighting and will not go to a match. To shore up his finances, Frank goes into partnership with Omar (Richard B. Shull) and his luck seems to turn for the better. Like most films about sports or competition, the adversaries end up in the big match, in this case, the Southern Conference finals.

While Cockfighter contains some sports cliches, it is not a soap opera in any sense. Rather it is a thoughtful character study of a man on the edge, caught between the only profession he has ever known and a chance to escape a lifetime of loneliness. Although Oates says only a few words during the film, his facial expressions and hand gestures leave little doubt about what he is thinking and feeling. Hellman, true to the standard he set in his earlier films, has created a gritty and involving film that deserves a wider audience and Oates gives the film true character.

GRADE: B+

Howard Schumann
 
 
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