As a follow up to his highly successful 1972 release FRITZ THE CAT (the first animated feature to be given an X rating by the MPAA), Ralph Bakshi’s pet project HEAVY TRAFFIC (1973) would became one of his most critically celebrated efforts. Shout! Factory releases the very adult cultish cartoon (from American International Pictures) on Blu-ray just in time for its 40th anniversary.
In a very grimy early 1970’s New York City, Michael Corleone (Joseph Kaufmann) is a 22-year-old (24 according to the original trailer), unemployed underground comic artist who lives in an apartment with his Italian father, Angelo "Angie" Corleone (Frank DeKova) and Jewish mother Ida (Terri Haven). Angie — a second-tier mafiaso with a blonde bimbo on the side — bicker and fight at all hours of the night, to the point where they’re trying to kill each other with household objects. Using his harsh environment as inspiration, Michael exceeds in sketching cartoons, getting the attention of a black barmaid named Carole (Beverly Hope Atkinson) who gives him free drinks in exchange for his artistic renderings. With her boss furious at her, Carole quits the job and is then harassed by a legless bouncer named Shorty; in response she covers up by saying that she’s been involved with Michael, and as he’s smitten by her anyway, he takes the unemployed waitress into his home. Dad Angie desperately tries to pop his son’s virginity by delivering a massive and loud prostitute to his bedroom, but the discovery of Carole’s presence brings out his racist rage. Michael and Carole get out of his parents' apartment and set out to raise enough cash to move to California, and Michael even gets the chance to pitch one of his wild comic-strip concepts to an ancient executive lying in a hospital bed (he has a heart attack and dies while listening). The couple’s further exploits include Carole taking a job as a taxi dancer (with Michael as her zoot-suited manager) and a crime set-up where Carole poses as a streetwalker, only for the hapless john to be clobbered over the head and nabbed of the loot in his wallet. But Michael’s life is in danger as his own father has put a contract out on his life “disgracing the family” by going out with a woman of color.
As one of the earliest American adult-oriented animated feature films, HEAVY TRAFFIC has an interesting back-story behind it. The now legendary animator Bakshi had collaborated with producer Steve Krantz since the 1960s (for the cartoon series “Rocket Robin Hood” and more importantly, the late 1960s “Spider Man” psychedelic Saturday morning series that many of grew up gazing at with a bowl of sugary cereal in our lap). In the early 1970s, Bakshi developed his story idea for HEAVY TRAFFIC, some of which stemmed from his own life, but Krantz refused it thinking the subject matter was too much for studio execs to handle. Instead, Bakshi directed FRITZ THE CAT, an adaptation of an established R. Crumb comic strip, and its financial success allowed for HEAVY TRAFFIC to be his follow-up feature (where he would create people rather than anthropomorphic animals). But during production, Bakshi demanded the money owed to him by Krantz, as he still hadn’t got paid for FRITZ. Krantz came up with a number of excuses and even fired him from HEAVY TRAFFIC with aspirations to replace him with Chuck Jones! The film’s backer, Samuel Z. Arkoff, demanded that Bakshi be brought back, or else funding would cease (Bakshi did return to complete the film, but reportedly, some brief bits were directed by someone else). In 1974, Krantz produced THE NINE LIVES OF FRITZ THE CAT, also released through American International Pictures but without the involvement of Bakshi.
A surreal tale of inner city life and all the colorful, sleazeball and eccentric characters that come with it, the animated HEAVY TRAFFIC begins with and ends with live action (with some thrown in periodically) and this is mostly seen through shots of a pinball machine, a sort of metaphor for the seedy events in the film. With its greasers, transvestites (a cross dressing homosexual voiced by Jim Bates), racists, junkies, call girls, johns and murderous thugs, the film tosses political correctness out the window to illustrate its world of mostly unsettling characters, but does it in a satirical and exaggerated way (almost all of them are drawn as grotesque caricatures, except for Michael and Carole) and although you might want to indulge in a shower after viewing it, its not because you’ve been impacted by anything in a realistic sense. It’s X rating (in the days when the MPAA rating system was still in its infancy; remember, MIDNIGHT COWBOY and THE DEVILS got an “X”) is no doubt a result of its sexuality, peeks at (mostly male) full frontal nudity and carnage that takes the “cartoon violence” of “Tom and Jerry” and “Looney Toons” to excessive levels which comes off as satire more than anything in the film's overall humorous context (there’s a slow motion scene of a bullet going through a skull for example). It’s hard to believe that mainstream, intellectual adult moviegoers used to patron films like this, as now they seem more interested in whatever mind-numbing Hollywood computer-animated family-oriented sequels are churned out, and aside from Japanese anime creators, Bakshi was one of the few who embraced features of this sort. On the small screen media, more modern animated shows such as “Beavis and Butthead” and “South Park” allowed for obscenities voiced from cartoon characters, so the foul-mouthed players in HEAVY TRAFFIC, FRITZ THE CAT and the like come as no big shock forty years later.
Though Bakshi’s films are not for every taste (and of course much different from his earlier studio cartoon shorts and Saturday morning television work), HEAVY TRAFFIC is something of an original piece of cinematic art (sort of like a a far less inhibited cross between “Fat Albert” and YELLOW SUBMARINE), a pastiche of cool animation, bubbly voiceover by some familiar television actors (M*A*S*H's Jamie Farr is among them), live action (which includes clips from old black and white movies and color footage of NYC, ironically from earlier and much “cleaner” days) which is all blended together ingeniously, and Michael’s interest in drawing and perceptive imagination allows for the film to veer off occasionally into sexually-driven fantasy sequences. The film’s brisk 77-minute running time makes for an inventive, if at times jaw-dropping viewing experience. The influence of pop culture is witnessed throughout (when Michael admits he’s a failure with women, he proclaims, “Mick Jagger I’m not”) with Edward Hopper's perennially familiar painting “Nighthawks” used as background in one shot, and such songs as The Isley Brothers’ “Twist and Shout” and Chuck Berry’s “Maybellene” heard on the soundtrack. Sérgio Mendes and Brazil '66’s haunting version of "Scarborough Fair" is heard in the opening credits and the ballad is used as a recurring (and somehow fitting) musical motif throughout the running time.
MGM had previously released HEAVY TRAFFIC on DVD (way back in 1999) as one of the earliest back-catalog titles to be featured on the then-new media. Unlike their DVDs of FRITZ THE CAT and THE NINE LIVES OF FRITZ THE CAT, HEAVY TRAFFIC was presented full frame 4:3. Almost 15 years after the fact, Shout! Factory has licensed the film for this 40th anniversary edition which not only presents it in 1080p HD but in a fitting 1.66:1 aspect ratio (even if the film was intended for 1.85:1, as AIP’s initial pressbook states, the compositions appear perfectly framed here). Colors appear bold and a majority of the animation and its various filmic techniques pop out, with the overall presentation being extremely clean. The brief live action shots have nice depth to them, even though they still show their age (they always appeared flat color-wise compared to the rest of the feature), with colors remaining stable. The English DTS-HD Master Audio mono mix is quite satisfying with dialogue being crisp and clean, and the music and sound effects coming through fine. There are no subtitle options or extras on the disc (the original MGM DVD included a trailer, but it has been omitted from this Blu-ray release). (George R. Reis)
BACK TO REVIEWS