Big Mouth Billy Fish

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Elizabeth Daily, Diane Lane and Rick Moranis

In 2011, a 45-year-old director completed a long-gestating project which was viewed with confusion as a vanity project, an inchoate mash-up of his childhood obsessions, his adult obsessions, and his lust for micromanaging every aesthetic detail. Suckerpunch will be a fascinating time capsule in 20 years, but will never inspire romantic reveries, and in its own time it was a failure, bringing to life the latent fantasy landscape of very few people other than Zack Snyder.

27 years earlier, another maker of populist masculine films, slightly younger than 45, was met with similar public indifference for his own labor of love. Writer/director/producer Walter Hill used the power he had assembled from The DriverThe GetawayThe Warriors, Alien, 48 Hrs. et al. to expand his world beyond “tough little stories” into a whole fantasy landscape, a seamless intermingling of greaser/sock-hop and New Wave fashions, a world of young-forever romance and nighttime and rainstorms and neon and highway underpasses but no highways. A world where you’re never more than a block from someone who owes you a favor, or vice versa. I’m not going off on creative-writing flights of fancy here, this is exactly how Hill describes his inspiration.

Streets Of Fire, is, by design, comic book in orientation, mock-epic in structure, movie-heroic in acting style, operatic in visual style and cowboy-cliche in dialogue. I tried to make what I would have thought was a perfect movie when I was in my teens – I put in all the things I thought were great then and which I still have great affection for, custom cars, kissing in the rain, neon, trains in the night, high-speed pursuit, rumbles, rock stars, motorcycles, jokes in tough situations, leather jackets and questions of honor.”

No protestations here of intricate allegories tackling tough issues, like we got from Snyder when he was challenged by accusations of masturbatoriousness.

Streets of Fire features a hero with two qualities: tough-guyness, and honesty, played by Michael Paré [evoking a young Peter Weller, or a Travolta unable to smile]. A dream girl who talks tough but is fated to be kidnapped and fought over [Diane Lane as Ellen Aim, rock singer whose onstage apparel looks like something Sarah Vaughan would wear, except made out of spandex]. A variety of non-dream girls who actually are tough [Amy Madigan as a soldier, in a brave performance written for a man much taller than her; Elizabeth Daily as a plucky superfan; Deborah van Valkenburgh, the tough girl from The Warriors, here as your typical soulful waitress and Paré’s sister]. A bad guy who wears by far the most outlandish outfit in the movie. Gang wars in which what matters is ritualized combat between leader and leader, in which the loser doesn’t necessarily even get hurt, he just… loses, and leaves town, in a form of fairy-tale logic which would soon be labeled video-game logic. A world where people pay for everything in coins.

Amy Madigan and Michael Paré

Amy Madigan and Michael Paré

The plot of Streets of Fire: Gang leader Raven [Willem Dafoe] kidnaps Ellen Aim, not to make any particular point, just because he wants her. Her lover/manager Billy Fish [Rick Moranis] recruits her ex-lover Tom Cody [Paré] to assemble a small posse to get her back. Billy Fish himself is enlisted to tag along for the ordeal because he knows the territory. Cops [1950s-style, but racially diverse] get in their way. Gangsters get in their way. She is returned to safety, and then Raven challenges Tom to ritualized combat. That’s about it.

Did you notice the phrase “tag along”? That’s a red flag. The movie moves fast and is full of memorable images and moments. But Billy Fish is the most annoying character in any movie of the 1980s.

One of the most notoriously annoying characters of the decade is Willie Scott [Kate Capshaw], who tags along in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, who whines steadily, diminishes the adventure by giving persuasive arguments for turning around and avoiding all risks, and seemingly doesn’t need to be tagging along anyway. Billy Fish combines all these attributes with the other annoying aspects of Rick Moranis characters, being a socially awkward nerd who is also an impulsive loudmouth who gets others in trouble by never shutting up. And not only that, he’s also the rich guy who bosses everyone around, calls people “pal” or “sweetheart”, and lauds himself for being smart enough to escape his childhood neighborhood and eclipse the losers he grew up with. And he’s constantly asking what’s going on, because there can’t be a moment of peace.

The following, unless I missed something [surely did], comprises all of Billy Fish’s lines from Streets of Fire. I watched it after reading that Moranis left acting because his strengths were in improvising and writing, and he had no interest in the roles that fit his persona in if there was no room for creativity in the dialogue. Nothing is unplanned about Streets of Fire. Some actors are comfortable playing a one-note role. Moranis got bored early when filming this one.

* * *

  • How we doing here, we all set?
  • Yeah, not one of them’s got a pot to piss in. I never should’ve let myself get talked into this dumb benefit, I could’ve been making some real money tonight. All right, let’s get this thing started.
  • Yeah. So what gives? And make it fast, my time is valuable.
  • You and what army?
  • Easy. All you gotta do is earn it.
  • I started out there. It’s the shits. I wouldn’t go back to that dump if you paid me.
  • I don’t think so. It’s not my scene.
  • Look, Cody, you sound pretty dumb. But nobody’s that dumb. I’m the one paying you. That means you go get her, I wait here, and you bring her back to me.
  • Can you really get her back?
  • Alright, I’ll go. She’s real important to me.
  • That’s right, Cody.
  • Hey, what’s your problem? We’re not takin’ no skirt along.
  • Listen, skirt, lemme make it simple for ya. Take a hike.
  • Hey, what is this? Get serious. I’m not paying you any extra to take some sweetie pie along for company.
  • Look, I’ll take you through the Battery and where the Bombers hang out, but I’m not taking any risks. I’m not paying you to add any thrills to my life, that’s not how it works.
  • Look, Butch, I buy and sell people more valuable than you every day.
  • Let me tell you something. These clothes are worth more than you make in a year.
  • If they got her anywhere, they got her at Torchie’s. It’s a real knockdown joint, no class. I used to book bands in there. It’s right in the middle of a big factory, it’s the shits. You’ll love it, McCoy, it’s just your style. Okay, Cody, what’s the plan? How do you figure on handling all these guys and their motorcycles? You start killing Bombers, we’re gonna be in worse shape than we’re already in.
  • Just keep going straight ahead, then make a left under the bridge.
  • Look, I know my way around. That’s why you brought me along, remember?
  • Walk? I’m not gonna walk around here, I’d get killed!
  • What are we talking to this creep for? Let’s get out of here.
  • Just trying to get away from you. We’ve got some business here.
  • I’m not gonna pay this jerk!
  • Don’t call me shithead.
  • Go buy some soap.
  • I don’t need this guy to tell me she’s at Torchie’s, I said they have her at Torchie’s.
  • Are you crazy? They’ll notice me in a second down there!
  • What about her? I thought she’s supposed to do the driving.
  • Jesus, Ellen, am I glad to see ya! I thought you were gone forever!
  • You’re not going with him, you stay in the car!
  • McCoy, can’t you drive this car any faster? I don’t want any Bombers sneaking up on us. Let’s get our asses outta here real quick. And where’s this Grant Street anyway, I never heard of it before, are you sure you know where you’re going?
  • Listen, I say we give it a couple minutes, then get outta here, okay?
  • I’m talking about saving our ass. We’ve got a lot to live for, Ellen!
  • Don’t worry about him, he’s getting paid a lot of money to look after Raven.
  • What, do you think he’s doing this for love? You think he’s doing this ’cause he’s your biggest fan? He’s getting paid, dear. He takes his chances.
  • What’s this old flame stuff?
  • What, is she kidding?
  • Well, Cody, we’ve had our differences, but it looks like we’ve got it made now, huh? We just zoom along here for a couple hours, then we’re home and dry.
  • Bury the car? What are you talking about, bury the car?
  • Gonna get rid of the car? What’s wrong with the car? Is this what I’m paying you all this money for, to come up with these brilliant ideas? Why don’t we just hand ourselves back over to Raven and ask him to shoot us?
  • What are you talking about? What are you going with him for? Hey, I don’t like the way this looks, Ellen. I’m paying the bills around here, how about some respect?
  • Wonder what they’re talking about.
  • Cute.
  • How big a thing do you think they had, anyway?
  • Yeah, well, she’s with me now.
  • I hope you two got everything straightened out.
  • What’s he mean, he hurt your feelings? What’d he say? Did he say anything about me? What’d he say?
  • We’re nobody. We’re going nowhere.
  • Look, knock it off. We’re not interested in conversation, okay, moron?
  • Great. We just got rid of the old wheels. Wonderful leadership, Cody.
  • This is great. Just great.
  • Changing flat tires isn’t exactly my line of work, dear.
  • The famous Sorels sure put a lot of money into that bus, huh?
  • Listen, Cody, I didn’t know you had a thing with Ellen in the old days. You better get some smarts. Learn to adjust to the fact that you’re out of the picture now. See, Cody, I do things for her. Things that a guy like you could never do. Things that matter in the real world.
  • Keep your hands off the suit, buddy.
  • Come on, hurry the hell up with that flat tire! It’s time to go.
  • Way ahead of you, Cody. Whaddya think, I gotta be a genius to know what you’re going for?
  • I’ll handle this. I’ll talk us through.
  • Aw, knock off the crap, will ya? As far as I’m concerned anybody that goes into the Battery and does some damage deserves a medal.
  • Look, cut the shit, okay? You guys got a big job to do, we’re trying to get where we’re going, now let us through. Or do you want to come to some kind of financial arrangement?
  • You guys talk my language.
  • Glad to see there’s some integrity left in the force.
  • First he dumps the car, and now he’s dumping the bus!
  • Don’t worry, babe. Everything’s gonna be okay from now on.
  • It’ll be great.
  • No, she’s not. She’s tired. She’s been roughed up. I’m gonna take her back to the hotel so she can get some rest. This whole thing started ’cause I had to do a gig in this shithole. I shoulda stayed the hell away from this dump.
  • Now you’re talking, kiddo. C’mon, let’s get out of here.
  • I’ve been expecting you. I know what you want. Ten grand. As good as my word. I pay on time.
  • You know, you play rough, Cody, but you do a good job. You should do a little more work for me when you get a taste of what that money’ll bring you. Then you’ll realize I’m the one with the brains around here and you’ll start treating me a bit nicer.
  • Where do you get off talking to her like that? She’s way out of your league, musclehead.
  • You know what’s wrong with that guy? He’s stupid.
  • What’re you sorry about? Where are you going? Where are you going?
  • What is this? You can’t get away with this! You think you can ride into any town and kidnap anybody you want? Now get the hell out of town and leave these people alone.
  • You know something, Waldo? We’re gonna be rich.
  • Great, huh? New discovery. I’ll take them right up the ladder.
  • But don’t worry, Cody, I’m not going to stand in your way with Ellen. I know how it is between you two.
  • She needs me, but she loves you.
  • Is that what I’m supposed to tell her?
  • Take it easy, Cody. Thanks.

* * *

Despite the presence of Billy Fish, and the fact that the kids of 1984 were more in tune with musicals starring Prince or Kevin Bacon, Streets of Fire has inspired love from many hard-bitten romantic teenagers in the following decades, particularly apparent in the form of fan art.

Read a more fair assessment of Streets of Fire here, from Robert C. Cumbow.

Tonight is what it means to be young.

Tonight is what it means to be young.

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A bucket of bloody superb dialogue

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I haven’t seen Corman’s Little Shop of Horrors, but the musical version is cynical and overly noisy. I don’t like any of the people in Little Shop, whereas A Bucket of Blood [Roger Corman, 1959] is generous to all its characters and it’s a brilliant comic experience. Walter is annoying, dumb, and homicidal but it takes a long time before we stop rooting for him. Carla could be a wet blanket if Barboura Morris wasn’t so relaxed in playing her, and if the camera didn’t like her so much. As the Zach Galifianakis character, Julian Burton is more likeable than Galifianakis ever is. Leonard, who knows what Walter is up to, never has any real proof, so it’s more like he’s deluding himself. Even Alice is basically naïve and doesn’t take herself too seriously. [For more on Alice’s point of view, fans may want to read this odd short story.]

I’d like to write something about how Roger Corman’s work compares to other B-movies of the time, based on all the Mystery Science Theater 3000 I’ve watched over the years, but after reading this piece by Michael Ned Holte, it turns out that many things I was going to speculate about are facts. Holte straightforwardly describes A Bucket of Blood as the first film ever intentionally made as both a horror movie and a comedy, and how Corman was skeptical but was convinced it was a good idea by prolific screenwriter Chuck Griffith, who had more outlandish, but just as accurate, ideas of what the public wanted to see.  All those Abbott and Costello Meet the _________ movies were vaudevillean spoofs, they were not supposed to actually scare you, they didn’t contain explicit scenes of deadly violence. A Bucket of Blood does, and its comedy is not slapstick, all the humor is in the script. There was a tradition of “old dark house comedy-chillers” with witty dialogue, like The Black Cat and The Cat and the Canary [and The Old Dark House], which seem to derive partially from the tradition of the wry gothic novel and partially from the tradition of the cozy mystery-thriller. A Bucket of Blood is a horror movie of the viscerally visual sort, with little suspense, that would not be creepy or chilling or thrilling in novel form, and until 1959 had been treated humorlessly in movie form.

So let’s focus on the words. There’s plenty of good writing about A Bucket of Blood on the internet. Scott Ashlin describes the plot and characters well. Quint shows amused enthusiasm. Nigel Honeybone gives background info, focusing on the writer and art director. Nathan Shumate talks about Dick Miller and the beatnik background of the people involved. Tim Lucas writes about Barboura Morris. Scorethefilm gives us a ton of stills. Movie Magg talks about the music and the poetry [Julian Burton wrote his own poems].

IMDB has some great quotes, but there’s others that ought to be cited as readily as “I have to go now. My planet needs me,” or “I’m not going to pay a lot for this muffler.” I recommend watching the film [it’s in the public domain, available at archive.org] instead of continuing to read here.

At the end of this post, the characters are described for your ready reference. I might have gotten Oscar and William mixed up now and then.

  • Walter [frustrated at lump of clay]: Come on. Be a nose. Be a nose!

  • Police Chief [at station]: Anything new at the Door?
  • Art [at pay phone]: Well, nothing you can pound nails in. Couple of hustlers. One of ’em’s short, fat, brunette. Named Skinny. The other one was short also, she was bleached and skinny.
  • Police Chief: Named Fat?

  • Maxwell: Walter has a clear mind. One day something will enter it, feel lonely, and leave again.

  • Oscar: I saw a statue once; it was called The Third Time Phyllis Saw Me She Exploded.
  • William [annoyed]: Man, what kind of a statue was that?
  • Oscar: I don’t know, it was made out of driftwood and dipped in fluoric acid … very wild.

  • Lou: Okay, Walter, who’s your connection?
  • Walter: Connection?
  • Lou: Yeah, connection. Where do you score? Where do you buy your horse?
  • Walter: Horse?
  • Lou: Yeah, horse, junk, white stuff. Heroin!
  • Walter: Is that what this is? I never seen any of that before. I always thought that was expensive.

  • Walter: I’m workin’ on somethin’, it’s not ready yet.
  • William: What is it, man, finger painting?
  • Oscar: Draw me a picture of a house, Walter. Make some smoke comin’ out the chimney.

  • Maxwell: Attention. Attention, everyone. As you pass through these yellow portals, I am sure you noticed on your right a small clay figure — and assumed this transfixed effigy to be the work of a master sculptor. And indeed, so it is. That master sculptor is in our midst. He is none other than Walter Paisley, our very own busboy — whose hands of genius have been carrying away the empty cups of your frustration. Mark well this lad — his is the silent voice of creation. But in the dark, rich soil of humility he blossoms as the hope of our nearly sterile century. [everybody applauds] Bring me an espresso, Walter.

"Ring rubber bells! Beat cotton gongs! Strike silken cymbals!"

  • Maxwell: One of the greatest advances in modern poetry is the elimination of clutter. I am proud to say my poetry is only understood by that minority which is aware.
  • Blonde woman: Aware of what?
  • Naolia: Well, not of anything, stupid! Just aware.

  • Leonard: Besides, you’re creating an incident, and when people are applauding they don’t order coffee. So go on home and … work on something. Make another cat.
  • Walter: But I haven’t got another cat.

  • Oscar: Oh man, you should try the Sorrel Sewer. They got wheat germ bagels … too much.

  • Walter [in brand new hipster outfit]: Sylvia! Didn’t you see me wave my zen stick?
  • Sylvia: Why, it’s Walter Paisley.
  • Walter: Bring me a cappuccino and a piece of papaya cheesecake. And a bottle of Yugoslavian white wine.
  • Sylvia: Yes, sir, Mr. Paisley!

  • Leonard: I was just suggesting to Walter that he try his hand at free-form.
  • Maxwell: Why do you suggest anything to Walter? Are you the spokesman for society, come to put your stifling finger in his eye?

  • Alice: Maxwell! Yoo-hoo!
  • Maxwell: Clear the table. Bring a bowl. I may be sick.
  • Oscar: It’s Alice the Awful, come to spread cheer and cholera.

  • Alice: Look at my suntan, everybody.
  • Maxwell: Do we have to?
  • Carla: Where have you been, Alice?
  • Alice: I went over to Big Sur to look for Henry Miller.
  • Maxwell: You didn’t find him, I hope.
  • Alice: No. He’s in Europe.

  • Alice: Why is the busboy sitting here?
  • Walter: I’m not the busboy anymore.
  • Maxwell: That’s right, Walter has become a sculptor.
  • Alice: Oh really! I’m a model, you know. I only charge 25 dollars an hour. Would you like to do me?
  • Walter [gritting teeth]: I just might.

Oscar, William and Carla

  • Oscar: Man, this place is beginning to feel like a lineup.
  • William: Yeah, baby. It don’t cool out pretty soon, I’m gonna haunt somebody else’s joint.
  • Oscar: We may have to start drinking.

  • Walter: I don’t like you.
  • Alice: [giggles] Nobody asked for your opinion, Walter! You’re just a simple little farmboy and the rest of us are all sophisticated beatniks.

  • Walter: That’s not true. I am a sculptor.
  • Alice: Oh yeah? Make something out of this. [holds a piece of clay]
  • Walter: [squishes it in her hand] There. Hand.
  • Maxwell: [laughs]
  • Alice: That isn’t a real hand. If you were a sculptor you’d create something for me.
  • Maxwell: A harpoon would be very nice.

  • Oscar: Man, if you’re gonna be an artist, you’ve gotta do nudes … nudes …
  • William: Right, right! Right! Ain’t nobody an artist unless he does … nudes …
  • Maxwell: Will you get them out of here before we wind up in night court?

  • Walter: Hi!
  • Maxwell: Morning, Walter.
  • Carla: Hi, Walter, what brings you here?
  • William: Have some breakfast, man.
  • Walter: What are you having?
  • Maxwell: Soy and wheat germ pancakes, organic guava nectar, calcium lactate in tomato juice, and garbanzo omelettes sprinkled with smoked yeast. Join us?
  • Walter: No, thanks. [pauses] Sounds great, though!

"Are these eggs fertile?"

  • Oscar: Man, why do you suppose Walter wants to get her alone?
  • William: Do you suppose he could be physically attracted to her?
  • Oscar: No, man, he ain’t the type. He don’t get enough vitamin E.
  • William: Maxwell gave him a bottle of wheat germ oil once. Maybe he just started taking it.

  • Walter: Oh, not me, Maxwell. I wouldn’t ignore you. I know what it is to be ignored.
  • Naolia: Tell us what you’re going to do next, Walter.
  • Walter: I’m gonna make the most wonderful, wildest, wiggiest things you’ve ever seen. I’m gonna make big statues and little statues, tall statues and short statues. I’m gonna make statues of nobodies, and statues of famous people, statues of actors, and poets, and people who sell things on television. And a statue of the mayor. And some opera singers and their intimate friends. And everybody’ll say “Walter, let me shake your hand. It’s been a real pleasure to have known you.” [everybody applauds]

  • Singsong paperboy: Extra! Extra! Horrible murder in furniture factory! Read about the man who got cut in half! Extra! Extra! Police can find only part of his corpse! Read all about it!

  • Leonard: Walter, listen to me, carefully. I don’t want you to make any more statues. Do you understand? No more statues.
  • Walter: Why not? I gotta make statues, Leonard. You heard Brock, they want me to make ’em. If I stop makin’ ’em I’ll just be a busboy again.
  • Leonard: Brock … he’s behind all this with his stupid bitter poetry.

  • Alice: Well, I don’t see why we can’t go.
  • Maxwell [wearing a tuxedo and sandals]: Mr. Leonard Desantis is afraid to have you come. You buy his coffee and lure his tourists. You are the heart and soul and meat of the Yellow Door. He’s slighted you.
  • William: Did you get an invitation?
  • Maxwell: I did not. But I am going anyway. Not to drink his champagne, but to see Walter’s triumph. After that, we go no more.

Our cast of characters:

  • Walter Paisley (Dick Miller) – nerdy busboy who envies the beatniks. That’s “nerdy” meaning “dull and socially awkward”, not the modern sense of “intelligent and part of a subculture”.
  • Carla (Barboura Morris) – intelligent and attractive mousy woman
  • Leonard (Antony Carbone) – capitalist and proprietor of the Yellow Door
  • Maxwell Brock (Julian Burton) – pompous bearded poet
  • Alice (Judy Bamber) – stuck-up blonde model
  • Art (Ed Nelson) – cop who goes undercover in a bathrobe and cowboy hat
  • Lou (Bert Convy) – cop who seems to be undercover but looks like a cop
  • Naolia (Jhean Burton) – overly emotional follower type. Possibly the first dope pusher mentioned by Art in his report.
  • Oscar (John Shaner) – laid-back wastrel in a battered hat
  • William (John Brinkley) – Oscar’s sidekick, with manic energy and a Confederate-looking hat
  • Sylvia (Lynn Storey) – adorable young waitress and gamine

In the film Alex Hassilev sings "Go Down, You Murderer" and the Gypsy song "Gari, Gari".