Filmmaker Firsts: William Friedkin

#17: The Night They Raided Minsky’s (1968) – dir. William Friedkin

Before director William Friedkin became an icon of American cinema in the 1970s with the films The Boys in the Band (1970), The French Connection (1971), The Exorcist (1973) and Sorcerer (1977), he made some lighter fare like The Night They Raided Minsky’s. I guess this film isn’t much of a litmus test for his later ventures into the thriller and horror genres, but it felt like as good as place as any to start. Besides, I enjoyed the film.

Britt Ekland plays innocent Amish girl Rachel Schpitendavel, who travels to New York in hopes of becoming a dancer. I liked her much more in this role than in the other film I’d seen her in last year, The Wicker Man (1973), although that’s certainly a different type of film.

Rachel “accidentally” invents the striptease. The audience knows that this is going to happen from the beginning of the film, which announces on a series of title cards (narrated by Rudy Vallee, no less) that “this real religious girl” is the creator of the infamous dance. Although the scene is complicated by the emotional baggage of several characters, it’s a lot of fun to watch as Rachel learns to assert herself and run her own show her way.

The male stars of the film are Norman Wisdom and Jason Robards, who play a comedy team who headline the burlesque show along with the female dancers. Wisdom is wonderful, sometimes reminding me of Joel Grey in Cabaret during the dance sequences but also showing kindhearted sensitivity in the scenes when he spends time with Britt Ekland’s Rachel, on whom the Wisdom character has a crush. Robards, however, plays a pretty despicable character, a guy who seduces every female in sight and who doesn’t keep his hands off Rachel either. Despite this he’s still a marvel to watch since he was always such a showman whether the medium was film, theater or television.

Other good performances in the film are given by Bert Lahr as a former comic many years past his glory days, Harry Andrews as Ekland’s horrified father and Denholm Elliott as a flustered vice squad man intent on shutting down Minsky’s establishment. All in all I quite liked the movie, particularly because of the editing, costumes (or lack thereof) and cinematography. I don’t think that the ending totally makes sense, but for the most part the film is very entertaining and it has a surprising amount of subtle acting for a movie that is mainly about people who take pratfalls and/or take their clothes off.

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