Micky Rourke playing famous author/poet/drunk Charles Bukowski is an immediately tantalising prospect, especially when joined by Faye Dunaway and a script by Bukowski himself. Yet Barbet Schroeder’s 1987 Barfly has remained under-seen and under-praised, particularly in the UK (it seems it was never given a disk release here, though there are imports available). I may not have heard of Barfly myself if it wasn’t for a college media teacher with particularly outré taste in films.
The characters that inhabit this world of seedy bars and ramshackle apartments feel distinctly Lynchian, so it makes perfect sense when Jack Nance pops up, a Lynch regular since Eraserhead. His appearance is morbidly appropriate for a film bookended with vicious bar fights, considering that Nance died 9 years later from injuries following a drunken brawl. Mickey Rourke is ideally suited to the subject matter himself (the boxing, the reputation) and despite his really quite mannered portrayal we feel we are seeing something genuine. It has the unmistakable stink of authenticity, the sense that the whole cast belongs in this world.
I was surprised to see this turn up on UK Netflix. For all my complaints about film selection, they do make up for it with rare gems like this, a film that’s imperfect but full of barmy energy. The cinematography is rough and ready, bold but beautiful, no surprise coming from Wim Wenders’ regular collaborator Robby Muller. Rourke tends to steal any show he’s in, but Dunaway equals his performance here. They create characters that are at once grotesque and sympathetic. Violent, pathetic and charming. In one extraordinary scene, Dunaway’s Wanda brings Bukowski’s alter ego Henry Chinaski back to her disgusting apartment. She breaks down in a drunken stupor after cooking unripe corncobs (stolen from a crop patch on their way home) when Henry points out that they are, obviously, inedible. They sit and talk. The atmosphere is electric. “Just one thing”, she warns. “I don’t ever want to fall in love. I don’t want to go through that again.” “Don’t worry, Rourke wearily reassures her. “Nobody’s ever loved me yet.”