The Night They Raided Minsky's (Blu-ray)(Olive Films, 2.24.2015)
Best known for injecting a new degree of documentary realism into mainstream Hollywood filmmaking with 1971’s The French Connection, William Friedkin came from a background in non-fiction filmmaking. This can be felt all over The Night They Raided Minsky’s, Friedkin’s second or third fiction feature (like The Birthday Party, it was released in December 1968) after the lightweight (if inventive) Sonny and Cher vehicle, Good Times. The result is a lively portrait of 1925 New York… that pulls the viewer in too many directions. The film’s tendency toward over-direction is apparent right off the bat, as the viewer is bombarded with visual conceits and abrupt changes in direction. Working with visual consultant Pable Ferro -- arguably the heir to Saul Bass’s throne as cinema’s great graphic designer -- and legendary editor Ralph Rosenblum (Annie Hall), Friedkin offers an abundance of stimulus, but little sense of purpose.
The story revolves around Rachel, a naïve Amish girl, who travels from Pennsylvania to New York to become a dancer. While her routine is far too tame for Minsky’s burlesque theatre, they decide to use her act to shame a local moral crusader, who is attempting to shut the theatre down. But when Rachel learns of this scheme, she decides that it might be time to take her routine in a provocative new direction.
Your tolerance for The Night They Raided Minsky’s is likely to be proportionate to your tolerance for burlesque, as we spend much of the film simply seeing what the audience sees and/or the audience itself. If you’re fascinated by the history of this art form, you should find plenty to admire in these precise recreations (featuring screen legend Jason Robards at the height of his powers). Additional cast members include Britt Ekland, Elliott Gould, and Denholm Elliot, who do their best to pull the audience in, even as Friedkin leaves us at a documentary remove. It makes for a clumsy exercise in narrative filmmaking, but one filled with moments of striking authenticity. -- Jonathan Doyle