From Ralph Bakshi, the man who brought Robert Crumb's Fritz The Cat to animated form a year earlier, comes 1973's bizarre counter culture animated feature, Heavy Traffic. Given that Fritz and its more explicit content became a huge box office hit when released, it probably won't surprise too many to learn that Bakshi returns to that same adult landscape for this mix of live action footage and cell animation (it was only the success of the Crumb adaptation that allowed Bakshi to get this one moving, it was actually conceived a few years earlier). However, on the off chance that you're considering this title without any prior knowledge of the movie, it's not the politically correct sanitized, family friendly animation you get from Disney and Pixar but instead a film that deals heavily in racial stereotypes and intentionally crass designs. With that said, to dismiss the movie based on those criteria would be unfair, as it's frequently brilliant and often quite funny.
Set in the bowels of New York City, the movie revolves around a young underground cartoonist named Michael Corleone (voiced by Joseph Kaufman), the son of an overbearing Jewish woman named Ida (Terri Haven) and her philandering, abusive husband Angelo (Frank DeKova). Angelo, or Angie to his friends, insists that he's â€˜respected in this neighborhood' to anyone who will listen but seems to spend most of his time fooling around with dippy blonde Molly (Mary Dean Lauria) than doing much else. He thinks he's a big shoot mobster but he can't bust up the union workers at the docks to the don's satisfaction and isn't much of a provider for his family.
Michael is a bit of a miss with the girls. He's a bit shy though easily talked into having a quickie with a local floosy on the rooftop of a nearby apartment building. He's crushing pretty hard on pretty black barmaid Carol (Beverly Hope Atkinson) and when she loses her job, he offers her a place to stay, noting that she can have the bed and he'll take the floor. At first she rejects him, noting that as long as she has her ass and her brain, she doesn't need anything else, but eventually she relents and they strike up a relationship. This happens just in time for Angie to bring back a fat Italian hooker to get his son some experience and the ensuing chaos soon finds Michael and Carol out on the street doing their thing. She brings him into her world and he brings her into his. When his attempts to sell his â€˜religious' comics to an ailing publisher who notes that Jesus material always sells goes belly up (it seems Michael's take on religious is far from the conventional material the old man was expecting), the couple have to figure out another way to make enough money to get out of New York City and move to California. Meanwhile, Angie puts out a hit on his own son for disgracing the family by dating a black girl.
Bakshi's New York City is as much a character here as any person in the movie, a veritable fleapit of junkies, pimps, hustlers, whores and thieves. By using plenty of actual archival photographs of the city as backgrounds with the animated cell art placed overtop, he and his team create an interesting and remarkably seedy atmosphere for all of this insanity to play off of. And what insanity we get! Highlighted by a few unforgettable scenes, not the least of which is the knockdown drag out brawl that takes place between Angie and Ida, we're definitely not in Kansas anymore. A prolonged sequence in which we see, in fairly explicit detail, a couple screwing around in their moving car while a black man with insanely exaggerated features (everyone in this movie except Michael has insanely exaggerated features) keeps trying to get in between them is noteworthy for how far it takes things, as is the fight that happens between Michael's three greaser â€˜friends' after he fails at getting it on with the local whore on the roof.
At just short of seventy seven minutes in length this seedy little gem moves by right quickly. Bakshi's style is completely over the top here, he's running full steam ahead into material so surreal and so mind bendingly bizarre that you can't help but get pulled in. Dealing very bluntly in racial issues, sexual issues (a cross dressing character goes cruising in a bar at one point, only to get called out by the drunken redneck who makes out with her once he discovers her surprise), and as much sex and violence as you can realistically cram into a movie, there's more to this than just surface level sleaze. The movie was obviously semiautobiographical to a certain extent, as Bakshi himself grew up in New York City and experienced firsthand some of its less than glamorous aspects. It's hard not to see Michael, striving to remain true to his underground style, as anyone other than the director while the exaggerated violence is an obvious extension of the sanitized carnage we see in â€˜kids' cartoons like Looney Tunes and Tom And Jerry. It's all set to an interesting soundtrack that incorporates a cover of Simon And Garfunkle's Scarborough Fair as well as Chuck Berry's Maybelline and Twist And Shout (the Isley Brothers version, not The Beatles' version). It all adds up to a completely insane viewing experience but one that's as entertaining as it is flat out bizarre.
Heavy Traffic is a weird looking movie and that weird look translates fairly well to Blu-ray in Shout! Factory's AVC encoded transfer, presented in 1080p high definition framed at 1.66.1 widescreen. As the movie mixes things up using live action footage, still and photo backgrounds and traditional cell animation you have to expect that there will be some inconsistencies in terms of the footage that makes up the feature. As such, there's some obvious dirt and what not visible in the image, but the elements were obviously in pretty decent shape here otherwise. Colors are reproduced nicely and quite boldly in the animated sequences, even if they look a bit flat in the live action scenes. A few sequences are intentionally dark but overall, things look pretty good here. Just keep in mind that the dirt you're going to see pop up here and there is just part of the movie and roll with it, it's completely in keeping with the tone of the feature anyway.
The English language DTS-HD Mono track on the disc, the only option available, also sounds pretty good. The quirky score has some nice presence to it and dialogue is generally very easy to understand so long as you can get past the thick accents that some of the voice actors use in the movie. There's more depth here than you'd probably expect from a mono mix, you'll hear this during a couple of the action scenes and you'll hear it when the music kicks in too, even if the opening track, a cover of Scarborough Fair, sounds a little flat and muffled. Generally though, yeah, the audio here is good. No subtitles or closed captioning of any kind is provided.
Aside from a static menu offering â€˜play movie' there are no extra features at all on this disc, not even a trailer. A shame, as this movie would be ripe for a commentary as the story behind it, involving various studio arguments and issues between Bakshi and other parties, would make for a great commentary track.
Like a lot of Bakshi's work, Heavy Traffic is a brash, psychedelic work of experimental filmmaking, as confrontational as it is often times very funny. Sure to offend plenty of people, the film cares not one iota for political correctness, dealing in racial stereotypes aplenty but working quite well as an equal opportunity offender. It's an odd picture, but one that fans of his work and his style will likely appreciate. If Shout! Factory's Blu-ray debut of the film is unfortunately a barebones offering, it does look and sound pretty good and comes recommended to those with a taste for the bizarre side of animated features.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.