As an actor, Stallone has had the number-one box office film in five separate decades. As a writer, he is known for redrafting the scripts to all his films, ensuring that they explore thematic concerns relevant to him; his notion of masculinity, the immigrant experience, and the struggle to maintain integrity in the world. But as a director… Stallone is frequently ignored. In this arena, he is easily accused of the excesses of vanity, and thus, he is neglected as a canonical auteur. But Stallone has brought a unique visual style to the eight (and a bit) films he has directed across his career.
Much of Stallone’s early work seems to be a response to the diluted vision of Rocky (1976 – John G. Avilsden). Much has been made (not least by Stallone himself) of the struggling actor gambling everything on starring in the astonishing script he bashed out one weekend. Stallone realised that success would only come to him if he took full control of his career. Despite all the achievements of Rocky, Stallone seems to have been profoundly affected by his inability to direct it, and his first films of Paradise Alley (actually written before Rocky) and Rocky II (1979), seem to be driven in a large part by a response to the work that made him a cinematic icon. They employ many of the same cast and crew (here a score is provided by Bill Conti). They rephrase and revisit the story of an outsider (played by Stallone) overcoming personal adversity to achieve success in their chosen sporting field. It’s not unreasonable to suggest that Stallone was drawing on his own personal experiences when crafting the script…
Whilst Paradise Alley features Stallone as the lead character (and the movie is very much marketed on the charisma of the burgeoning star), he does not participate in the sporting events in the same way as he does in Rocky. Here he is Cosmo Carboni, fledgling manager to his hulking brother Victor’s wrestling career. Carboni, shares Balboa’s quick-witted, non-stop sliver tongue, but here, because he has no real talent of his own, he remains un-appreciated. What is charming in Balboa become irritating in Carboni. Paradise Alley is unique in the Stallone canon in that it allows us to see him in a thankless role; Stallone will come to craft roles that are, without exception, individuals at the top of their game, respected by everyone around them. Conversely, here we have an unexceptional man, despised by most (including members of his own family) and only redeemed by his integrity in protecting his savant brother.
As much as we associate Stallone with the overblown excess of action movies in the eighties and nineties, it’s important to recognise that his formative work comes in the distinct director-led American cinematic landscape of the 1970s. He establishes himself in the same decade as Scorsese, Coppola, Friedkin et. al. These films are realist, feature morally questionable protagonists and usually feature downbeat endings. Much of Stallone’s early work is dedicated to exploring the experience of Italian immigrants into America in the twentieth century, a not thematically unsimilar vein to at least two of those above directors. He demonstrates an enormous sympathy for the struggle of poverty and intolerance that they were experiencing in this time. As an actor, Stallone was dedicated to the dominant style of naturalism that was found in cinema; his mumbling and stream-of-consciousness dialogue are a deliberate choice, and not, as has sometime lazily been referred to, as a product of ineptitude.
Visually, Stallone reflects this allegiance to New Hollywood cinema in many of directorial choices. Aided by cinematographer Laszlo Kovacs, the film has a soft focus, high-contrast look. Found regularly in seventies cinema where films were set in the past, this diffused and desaturated style is used to provoke the nostalgic ‘look’ of a faded photograph. In addition, Stallone begins to employ many of the stylistic flourishes that will make his name. Slow-motion is liberally employed during moments of action, designed to make us reflect upon the emotional trauma of physical punishment as the motion is prolonged. During dialogue scenes, he employs single-shot close-ups of actors – there are very few reaction shots, for instance – he is in this regard, an actor’s director, allowing performance to take centre stage. He begins to employ elements of montage to show the passing of time; uniquely he superimposes dialogue scenes hanging in the air above some of the wrestling matches.
But there are some unique touches to the film. He shoots the matches from deliberately low angles, cutting out much of the parrying and balletic back-and-forth, and focusses on the painfully crushing body-slams. He employs elements of near-fantasy to heighten the drama of these matches – one round is filmed during torrential rain in an outdoor arena, the splashing of water only emphasising the brutality of the sport. Most affectingly, Stallone employs a significant use of the colour red throughout the film. There are scenes set in nightclubs that are entirely suffused with the colour, red lampshades appear in significant scenes, and not unexpectedly, red appears as blood during the matches. Stallone uses this disruptive colour to indicate the unobtainable – women, success, life – in the face of trauma. It is a stylistic flourish that prefigures his music-video aesthetic that will erupt in the coming eighties.
As much as Paradise Alley is Stallone’s attempt to dominate a version of Rocky that he was somewhat side-lined for, the deliberate choice to re-engage with the themes and plot of his star-making movie cause Paradise Alley to diminish in its light. Much of Stallone’ appeal comes from his extraordinary physicality, and placing himself in a supporting role in this regard, means the film loses much of his potential appeal. Rocky II will be in some ways a correction of this fault. Sometimes we expect too much for our directors; certainly, neither Scorsese, Coppola or Friedkin’s first films are masterpieces. But actors have a significant advantage over directors; they are able to observe a number of people at work, and adopt the practices that work, and disregard those that don’t. Paradise Alley is no masterpiece, but it gives an indication of the visual tools that Stallone will employ throughout his directorial career.