Wednesday Editor’s Pick: “Cockfighter” (aka “Born to Kill”) (1974)

by on June 8, 2011Posted in: Editor's Pick

Playing Wed June 8th at 6:00 at Film Society of Lincoln Center [Program & Tix]
A rare chance to see cult favorite Monte Hellman’s 1974 exploation pic, which will screen on a double-bill with (the New York premiere of) Hellman’s recent return to filmmaking, Road to Nowhere.
Kent Jones, from The Last Great American Picture Show: New Hollywood Cinema in the 1970s:

The story falls far afield of many norms at once–of decency (the subject matter), of morality (no one gets their comeuppance for indulging in the evils of cockfighting), and of storytelling and movie
acting (the hero doesn’t speak). And what’s so striking about Hellman’s approach is its feeling of familiarity. We seem to light upon every scene, with delicacy and an appropriately southern sense of ease…Hellman shows a warmth in Cockfighter that is not so abundant in his other work.

Jonathan Rosenbaum in The Chicago Reader:

Except for Iguana, which is almost completely unknown, this wry 1974 feature is probably the most underrated work by Monte Hellman (Two-Lane Blacktop). Shot by Nestor Almendros on location in Georgia (partly in Flannery O’Connor’s hometown, which seems appropriate), it follows the absurdist progress of a man who trains fighting cocks (Warren Oates in one of his best performances) and who takes a vow of silence after his hubris nearly puts him out of the game, though he continues to narrate the story offscreen. Produced by Roger Corman as an exploitation item for the drive-ins, this performed so badly in that capacity that it was recut and retitled more than once (as Born to Kill, Wild Drifter, and Gamblin’ Man). But as a dark comedy and closet art movie, it delivers and lingers.


Film Comment, circa 1974:

On his own more modest level, Hellman seems to be attempting much the same game as [Roman Rolanksi’s in CHINATOWN]: to elicit all the necessary cheers from the peanut gallery while continuing to play some of his favorite formalist tunes in the bass clef, intermittently abstracting the material at hand….The cutting edge of Hellman’s treatment of this Roger Corman quickie can be seen in the wonderful crowds that he collects around the cockfights, the uncanny talent for directing rural speech to make it sound like crazed ritual incantation.

Keith Phipps at The AV Club:

Oates’ portrayal of a backwater existential hero slowly reveals a state of mind in which money, houses, and (most) women are valuable only as stakes in his game. Beautifully shot by Néstor Almendros and unmistakably filmed on location using real participants in the cockfighting underground, Hellman’s not-always-simulated fight scenes will make the film rough going for anyone who likes animals, but it’s tough to deny Cockfighter’s effectiveness. What it lacks in Blacktop’s dreamlike atmosphere, it matches in grit and a similarly resigned tone. One of the great character actors, Oates wrings more from his silent performance than many actors could manage from a sheaf of Shaw and Wilde.
Producer Roger Corman chose to bring pulp master Charles Willeford’s novel Cockfighter to the screen because it exploited a sport whose worldwide popularity nearly matched its notoriety. What he got instead (as happened remarkably often with directors used to working the margins) was an off-kilter, unforgettable art film created from equal parts celluloid, philosophy, and blood.


Nicholas Pasquariello interviewed Hellman in a 1976 issue of Jump Cut:

P: Did you run previews?
H: We had one preview.
P: And that was when he discovered that audiences were repulsed by the blood?
P: Right.
H: What did they do? Were you there?
P: Yeah, I was there. They went, “Oooh….” In actuality, there is very little blood in cockfighting, and they (Corman) inserted blood that was really unrealistic.
P: So it sounds as if you’re saying that Corman’s pressure on you during editing had some bad effects, as well as some good ones.
H: Normally I enjoy that kind of conflict with a producer because it forces you to satisfy him and yourself at the same time. I liked being forced to find a way to say the same thing only more economically, with a faster pace. We had a problem that was built into the script where the story didn’t really get started until about forty minutes into it—what little story there is. Consequently, everything that happened before that point seems slow.
There was a lot of good material. At the same time it didn’t really hold the audience as well as things that happen after the major questions are raised. We knew that we had a problem there. We knew all that material had to be cut down as much as possible. He found ways to cut it down even more. He kept saying, “Maybe you can trim this, maybe you can trim that;” and in that area he’s very good. I found it stimulating to work with him along those lines.


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