Night of the Juggler (Robert Butler, 1980)

HE’LL TEAR APART A CITY TO SAVE HIS DAUGHTER

When a vicious psychopath mistakes the daughter of tough ex-cop Sean Boyd (James Brolin) for the daughter of a wealthy developer and kidnaps her for ransom, Boyd goes on a city-wide rampage to get her back. Fighting his way through 42nd Street porn palaces and Bronx gang territories, facing street thugs and crooked cops, Boyd’s unrelenting search through the urban decay of New York City is a pulse-pounding, action-thriller in the gritty spirit of Dog Day Afternoon and Taxi Driver.

Based on the novel by William P. McGivern (who wrote the original serial for The Big Heat) and featuring wild performances by Cliff Gorman, Dan Hedaya, Sharon Mitchell, and Mandy Patinkin, Night of the Juggler is a stunningly grimy portrait of the Big Apple at its most fetid and a relentless thrill-ride of brawls, car crashes, dog attacks, and knife-fights!

Special Edition Contents:

  • High Definition Blu-ray (1080p) presentation
  • Original mono audio (uncompressed LPCM)
  • Optional English subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing
  • Held Hostage, new interview with actress Abby Bluestone
  • Along for the Ride, new interview with actress Julie Carmen
  • At the Peep Show, new interview with actress Sharon Mitchell
  • Theatrical trailer
  • Reversible sleeve featuring two artwork choices

FIRST PRESSING ONLY: Illustrated collector’s booklet featuring new writing on the film by cult cinema critic Steven Puchalski

Chances are you probably haven’t heard of director Robert Butler, although you’ve probably seen at least some of his work. Butler directed episodes of Star Trek, Kung Fu, The Twilight Zone, Gunsmoke, I Spy, Batman, The Fugitive, Hogan’s Heroes, Remington Steele, Hill Street Blues, and Lois & Clark, not to mention numerous television movies and some live action Disney features like The Barefoot Executive (1971) and The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes (1969). It’s the sort of directing résumé that deserves more respect that it likely garners, as Butler helmed projects for various major networks and studios and was entrusted with very popular TV franchises. It’s also the sort of résumé that probably doesn’t anticipate a feature film as jaundiced and sordid as Night of the Juggler (1980).

Few films are as unrelenting as Butler’s Night of the Juggler, an action-thriller that proceeds largely as an extended chase between ex-cop/now-trucker Sean Boyd (a hirsute James Brolin) and his daughter’s kidnapper, Gus Soltic (Cliff Gorman). Soltic bears a harsh grudge against the City and its wealthy real estate tycoons who’ve turned his Bronx neighbourhood into crumbling ruins and who’ve taken away his family’s building and its 97 units. He mistakes Boyd’s daughter Kathy (Abby Bluestone) for the child of a rich and entitled developer, snatches her on the way to summer school one morning, and ransoms her despite Kathy’s assertions that he has the wrong girl. Boyd is a one-dad strike force, tearing through streets with broadly-portrayed cab drivers (Mandy Patinkin) and street preachers (Barton Heyman), butting heads with world-weary Police Lieutenant Tonelli (Richard S. Castellano), dodging the homicidal intentions of rage-fueled Police Sargent Barnes (Dan Hedaya), laying waste to a peep show for information from a nude dancer (sexologist, health advocate, and former porn actress Sharon Mitchell), and confronting violent street gangs with the help of a beautiful animal shelter employee named Maria (Julie Carmen). Few film heroes are as uncompromising as Boyd, who essentially demands help on his own terms and considers all else to be obstacles to be circumvented or overcome, and he moves at a breathless pace starting with a half-hour long initial chase that never feels like it ever ends, even when it does.

It’s no secret that MMC! is a fan of this era’s brand of “New York-ness”  – the cynicism, the exhaustion, and the all-around bankruptcy of the city and its inhabitants. Lt. Tonelli recalls the exasperated transit police of The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (Joseph Sargent, 1974), treating bomb threats and abductions with the same put-upon attitude he gives to his own daughter’s incessant wedding planning. Still, that tired air of fatalism and acquiescence takes on a brand of authenticity in Juggler that is missing from most other studio films set in late ’70s NYC. Butler achieves an unforeseen level of scuzziness by embracing the dingy streets, sleazy trades, and unusual people of the real Big Apple, appearing to frequently shoot on the fly and without blocking off the public from his scenes. Things feel all too real when Soltic starts slashing people in the stomach in broad daylight, when cars speed across crowded midday sidewalks, and when Sgt. Barnes starts firing a shotgun at a fleeing Boyd with little regard for the public around him. The brazenness of this guerrilla-like filmmaking only condemns the New York streets all the more. Shouldn’t mass panic be ensuing? By the time Juggler arrives at the Bronx’s sun-baked rubble, the film has crossed the line into a man’s fight against a true-life dystopia. It’s there that much of the film’s violence loses meaning and motivation, where grudges (Barnes) and misunderstandings (the peep show) are replaced with sport (the youth gang) and delusion (multiple competitions of pedophilic desire for Kathy). Boyd’s paternal single-mindedness will ultimately not be denied, culminating in an Orpheus-like descent to save his lost daughter and turning Juggler into its own underground film.

On the other hand, it’s possible to see Night of the Juggler as a film entirely in keeping with the work of Robert Butler, one that represents an almost exploitation-level imagining of the “ripped from the headlines” topics endemic to made-for-television movies. Juggler features kidnapping, sexual predation, divorce, and, most importantly, parenting as a heroic, unconditional, and self-sacrificing endeavour, not to mention the aesthetic of television’s high and even lighting present through much of the movie. In its most melodramatic moment, Boyd and his ex-wife Barbara (Linda Miller) argue over Kathy’s upbringing. Barbara blames Sean for the kidnapping, for sabotaging his career, and for keeping Kathy in this dangerous city and preventing her from moving to the safety of Connecticut with Barabara. Sean angrily rejects his ex-wife’s weakness, asserting his principles and Kathy’s desire to live with him in New York. It’s merely a moment, perhaps the only scene where Sean must answer for his past choices and convey the love and guilt that impels him. For many, it may be too brief and too undeveloped to give Juggler the emotional gravitas it might need to make itself a fully-rounded film, but in the context of the TV-movie form, where the rhythms of melodrama are drawn in between commercial breaks and station identifiers, the scene feels weirdly appropriate in its truncation (although Barbara’s absence from the remainder of the film feels less explicable). If it weren’t for all the car crashes, switchblades, nude dancers, and shotgun blasts, you might mistake Night of the Juggler for a soap opera plot.

Night of the Juggler is a film with various problems, not the least of which was author William P. McGivern’s title which conjures ideas of some murderous court jester but only refers to Soltic’s complaint of the rich “juggling the books” and his vow to “juggle them my way.” The film’s international titles offer less esoteric takes on Juggler but no real solutions – PursuedNew York ConnectionFort BronxNew York KillerCountdown in Manhattan. Originally, Sidney J. Furie was Juggler‘s director but he resigned after James Brolin injured his foot shooting a chase sequence and production was delayed from June 13 to August 16, 1978. Butler took over the project but Brolin was apparently disappointed with the end result. Prints of the movie do exist but hard media editions seem to have been limited to a pan and scan VHS cassette. One account I came across suggests that the rights to Juggler are held by a soap company who bought it and Foolin’ Around (Richard T. Heffron, 1980) from the failed General Cinema Corporation and who now hold the movie for ransom. I have no idea if this is true, but I can hope that my beloved Arrow Video can save Night of the Juggler from its sudsy Soltic (or whomever holds its rights). This is a sleazo-action masterpiece – profane, preposterous, and pertinacious – and it’s precisely the kind of film that Arrow Video loves!

Credits: This post owes thanks to Ned Merrill’s post at Obscure One-Sheet, Steve Puchalski’s review at Shock Cinema Magazine (whom we tap for a booklet essay), Janet Maslin’s review for The New York Times, Frank Calvillo’s review at Cinapse, and Robert Skvarla’s discussion at Diabolique Magazine.

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