A project originated by director Robert Kaylor (who had previously helmed the documentary DERBY and the underrated, black & white short MAX-OUT, both of which were recently released to DVD by Code Red) and The Band’s Robbie Robertson, CARNY is a movie that received lukewarm reviews upon its original release, subsequently flopping at the box office, never to be heard from again. Which is a shame, as there’s much to admire here, not least the fantastic ensemble cast: alongside headliners Robertson (not an actor, but surprisingly comfortable in his role), Jodie Foster (spunky as ever) and Gary Busey (in what has to be one of his most impressive performances), it seems as though even the most minor of parts has been taken on by a solid character actor.
Among the faces you’ll recognise as CARNY plays out are Altman regular Bert Remsen, Elisha Cook Jr. (ROSEMARY’S BABY), Tim Thomerson (TRANCERS), Meg Foster (LEVIATHAN), Fred Ward (SOUTHERN COMFORT), Kenneth McMillan (THE TAKING OF PELHAM 123), and more besides. But the real draw of CARNY is its simply superb first hour, which manages to deliver the smell, touch and taste of the travelling carnival as it once was, with freaks, strippers, barkers and hustlers rubbing shoulders night after night, all in single-minded pursuit of that American dollar. Kaylor’s background in documentary really comes into play here, as he provides an unobtrusive, fly-on-the-wall approach to the material, letting the hazy atmosphere of the carnival dictate the rhythm of the film.
Had he and Robertson been just a little braver and left CARNY to play out as a slice-of-life drama, we may well be talking rediscovered classic here. But unfortunately the pair obviously felt as though some kind of conventional dramatic punctuation was sorely needed; thus, after the hour mark, CARNY unexpectedly slips into pure melodrama as the plot centres first on a drab, unresolved love triangle between Foster, Busey and Robertson and then, even less intriguingly, on a pair of local gangsters who attempt to shake down the carnival boss. The climactic 10 minutes prove to be particularly clichéd, as the carnies gang together and take revenge on the hoodlums in a cheesy sequence probably more suited to drive-in dreck such as SHE-FREAK, jarring somewhat with the naturalistic approach that made the first hour of CARNY such a pleasure.
So why the four stars? Well, that unbeatable cast for one. Not to mention the fact that time has been particularly kind to Robert Kaylor’s CARNY, a movie that preserves a slice of Americana now sadly forever lost in the mists of time…
Warner Archive’s R1 MOD DVD comes highly recommended – providing a clean, colourful OAR print that can be picked up for less than £10 via Amazon. If CARNY’s subject matter piques your interest in any way, I’d strongly suggest you give it a try.