The Wanderers is one of those rare gems, a movie superior to the book it is based on. Directed by Philip Kaufman, this film about a teenage gang set in the Bronx of 1963 was released in 1979. Unfortunately, it is sometimes confused with The Warriors, another film depicting gang life released the same year.
When broken down to its bare bones, the plot is deceptively simple. Richie (Ken Wahl) the leader of the Wanderers, must prepare for a showdown with a rival gang called the Dell Bombers while his relationship with girlfriend Despie (Toni Kalem) is jeopardized by his chance meeting of Nina (Karen Allen). However, in the telling of the story, the viewer is treated to much more: arrivals and departures, loyalty and betrayal, murder, lust, revenge, and humor. In addition, there are party crashers, a game of strip poker, a no-holds barred brawl, plus an opening chase scene in which Richie and some fellow Wanderers are pursued by the fearsome Fordham Baldies. And when it is least expected, a few wrong turns lead into a surrealistic netherworld known as Ducky Boys territory, where mists hover and residents never speak.
The lead actors are excellent, but it is the supporting cast that truly shines. Foremost is John Friedrich as Joey, Richie’s best friend in the gang. My gut response to his character is: “I know that guy or someone a hell of a lot like him!” It’s as if Friedrich just strolled onto the film set and Kaufman talked him into staying. Though diminutive, Joey is ready to mix it up at the least provocation, much to the chagrin of his fellow Wanderers who spend ample time trying to save Joey from himself. Despite his flaws, it is Joey, not Richie, who displays the widest range of emotions in the film.
Then there is Erland Von Lidthe (Stir Crazy) as Terror, leader of the Fordham Baldies. When we first see him, he devours a slice of pizza in a way John Belushi would have approved. At the end of the initial chase scene, Terror engages in a stare-down with newcomer Perry (Tony Ganios) reminiscent of a wild-west flick. Linda Manz (Days of Heaven) plays Terror’s girlfriend Pee Wee. Manz brings feistiness to the role and, by the end, an unexpected vulnerability.
Dolph Sweet appears as Chubby Galasso, Despie’s father, a man with power and connections in the neighborhood. At one point, Chubby speaks of the sexual exploits of his youth, but cautions, “I never did it with nobody’s daughter!”
Olympia Dukakis plays Joey’s mother. Even though her part is small, she nails the role of the long-suffering wife of Emilio (William Andrews), a man whose only form of communication is rage. Alan Rosenberg plays the self-serving Turkey. He succeeds in showing that his character is just a scared, confused kid behind the bravado.
The film’s soundtrack is strong, featuring such artists as The Four Seasons, The Shirelles, The Angels, and Ben E. King. On occasion, Kaufman uses music to make a point. When we first hear The Wanderer by Dion and the Belmonts, Richie and the gang are in their element, strutting down an alley wearing their Wanderers jackets, fellow members climbing down fire escapes to join them, as they head for a meeting concerning the upcoming rumble.
When the song is heard near the film’s end, it is at a party in Richie’s honor. Much has changed in his life. The song’s devil-may-care lyrics have become cruelly ironic. Richie’s wandering days are clearly over.
The film American Graffiti famously asks the question, “Where were you in ’62?” But The Wanderers takes place in 1963. What a difference a year makes. So while both films have a coming-of-age theme, The Wanderers offers something more: the dawning of a new age. And this is what I like most about the film.
The first example comes unexpectedly. Richie is walking down the sidewalk when he comes across a woman seated and crying. Just ahead is a car with its passenger door left open. Richie hurries around a corner and finds a crowd of people, some crying, some in shock, gathered outside an appliance store window where a display of televisions show the black-and-white images of JFK and Jackie in Dallas. The President has been assassinated.
Next, there is the last time Richie sees Nina. He spots her heading down the street and tries to catch up with her. He sees her enter an establishment called Folk City. Through the window, he watches her take a seat on the floor while a Dylan-like folksinger sings “The Times They Are a Changin’.” Richie does not enter. At this place, with his hair slicked back, still wearing his gang jacket, he is suddenly a figure from a bygone era. He doesn’t enter because he can’t enter. In addition to these examples, there are hints toward the end of the movie that the characters, at least the young ones, may yet rise above the ethnic and racial constraints that have defined their lives.
The film is not without its faults. The Dell Bombers and the Wanderers challenge each other to a fight at the end of a chaotic classroom confrontation. For me, the whole classroom scene is too calculated. Also, the fate of the Fordham Baldies, although humorous, strains credulity. But these are minor points. The Wanderers will always be a film I like to return to from time to time. To quote Joey near the movie’s end: “Wanderers forever.”
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