One of the most uncommon New World Pictures projects was exclusively Roger Corman's idea, adapted from a rather obscure novel by Charles Willeford. And though it was meant to be someting of an artistic provocation – I reckon, a replay of "The Intruder" – it became an instant disaster and flopped miserably. "Cockfighter" has been given to Monte Hellman, one of the oldest Corman's pupils, who came back around after directing "Two-Lane Blacktop" for Universal (till this day his most famous film), which never scored bigtime against it's powerful vision and raving press reviews. Nestor Almendros was hired as a cinematographer for the picture (later Academy Award winner for Days Of Heaven in 1978) and was paid to fly from Paris to USA – it was his first American movie. The only problem was Monte Hellman, who he felt like passing on this project when he saw a scouted dirt pit in Georgia with smashed Southerners around, betting heavily on blood-thirsty cocks.
"Cockfighter" has irrevocably retained this split. A strange picture, expressed in quick cuts, bloody close-ups and out of blue voice-over – it didn't manage to develop characters' potential either. Although definitely an artist's alley, it got dominated by second unit shots of Lewis Teague in an editing stage – film's editor, who volunteered to fill it with rough, shocking footage, demanded by Corman. Unfortunately this move cut it's legs totally, boiling it down to a vague half-way runner between typical New World exploitation product and a possible, multi-layered tale of love and passion in a violent world, which as we might only presume was something closer to Hellman's spirit. Inside screening uncovered a sheer brutality of the rough cut and it must've been really repulsive one as even Corman turned away from releasing it with so much chicken blood and guts flying around. As an effect the final cut was something of a compromise between Corman's salesman drill and director's artistic vision, but it satisfied nobody
"Cockfighter" is a story of Frank Mansfield acted by Warren Oates. Although he's a top cockfighting coach, he loses opportunity to win MVP of the year award when shooting his mouth off and getting his favourite rooster slaughtered in a hotel room before the big day... his love for whiskey is only part of the problem as there's alsoa girl, who loves him madly and is repelled by his unconditional blood lust. Shaken by the loss he takes an oath to keep his mouth shut untill he finally takes the trophy. That makes Warren Oates' performance a mute one for most of the time (which might as well be the best thing here) and his inner dialogues externalized by mentioned, bizarre voice-over. But shaping up is not that easy and Frank needs to hit the bottom before getting a grip again. Short on cash he sells his parents' house – which gets tolled away – and comes back to the game with a new partner (Omar Baradansky - weird Polish-American countryside businessman), who provides him with fresh chickens. Together they take on the toughest competitors of this southern sport step by step and eventually get down to the beat.
Apparently cockfighting was still a country entertainment in the South when the film was made, but in the same time it was a public embarassment and the topic hadn't a slightest chance to storm the box office. Tabooed at least, but most likely totally disgusting event for drive-in crowd, hardened by exploitation roughies – if it was made today, animalists would get a heart attack – it screened for a very short time. After expected wows didn't exactly come as a wave, it got yanked off by Corman, recut and reissued as Born To Kill. Joe Dante has done another oddball trailer with famous helicopter explosion – used in almost all New World Pictures teasers – but even these desperate gimmicks couldn't save the picture and it was shelved eventually. Somehow it survived underneath the surface and became a minor cult movie afterwards, considered a second, most important work of Monte Hellman. Although pacing is kind of wonky, Corman's influence overwhelming and it doesn't reach weirdness of "Two-Lane Blacktop", it's an interesting example of digesting the southern mystique by one of the most interesting American directors of the golden era. 70's curious zone!