Sinister Cinema: A Couple of Popes

Breaking the pattern of recent years, this season I didn’t offer the usual Palm Sunday Tour in honor of Charles Willeford’s death, which fell on a Palm Sunday, March 27, 1988 — Willeford, who would be crowned posthumously by the Village Voice a year later “The Pope of Psychopulp.” Another walk by appointment nudged up against the date, so I let it go.

I did think about grabbing a Willeford book for rereading, but was caught up instead, on a sudden impulse, in a reread of Fritz Leiber’s Change War series.

No tour. No reread. But I did notice that The Pope of Greenwich Village was up free on On Demand.

Okay. I hadn’t seen that movie when I visited Willeford in April 1987 — and I still hadn’t caught it all these years later. In memoriam the late, great Charles Willeford, sure, it was time to sit down and watch Pope.

At some point when we were hanging around talking in his living room, Willeford mentioned The Pope of Greenwich Village and seemed surprised that I hadn’t seen it yet. He told me it was great. I believed him — I’d heard good things about it, and have continued to hear good things about it. And today I could watch it with the further careers of the three leads, Mickey Rourke, Daryl Hannah and Eric Roberts, in mind, something to brood over. I can’t help but appreciate career arcs, choices made, bad breaks — a large part of the appeal of Willeford as a writer is the way his career zigzagged around until he cracked the big time at the end of his life.

Now that I’ve seen it, I agree, Pope is a great little movie — reminds me in some ways of another favorite of mine, Palookaville.  Got to love the smalltime heist gone wrong scenario. And as I watched, I was impressed again and again by the dialogue. Yeah, as Willeford might put it, a minor masterpiece.

Then I got to the end, where Burt Young swallows the drink laced with lye — and I suddenly remembered after twenty-four years how Willeford specifically had pointed out how terrific a scene that was, then how he erupted with loud laughter. Yeah, it was a wild, unexpected development. And thank you Recovered Memory Department for bringing it back for me. 

Willeford did pretty much the same thing when he was telling me about Sid and Nancy, one of his favorite movies, and howled about the scene where Gary Oldman as Sid just walks right through a plate glass door.  Wild. Off-the-wall. In its way, totally Willefordian.

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