Another Day, Another Movie: King Of The Gypsies (1978)

May 21, 2020
With so many of us locked down, FilmInk offers up a movie for your astute consideration (nearly) each day.

Though now labouring away in guest roles on TV shows (Suits, Law & Order) and largely B-grade cinematic fare (Collision Earth, The Unbreakable Sword, etc), Eric Roberts remains a charismatic and exciting screen talent. One big role, and this now largely forgotten Oscar nominee and star of essential titles like Runaway Train, The Pope Of Greenwich Village and Star 80 could be back on top, a la John Travolta in Pulp Fiction…Mr. Tarantino, we suggest that you get on the phone right now, before you allegedly retire.

When he first burst onto the screen, Eric Roberts had a similar grace and swagger to the young Travolta: he was lithe and eminently watchable, with a cocky veneer just covering up a swell of emotion underneath. The film that introduced Roberts to cinema audiences was the 1978 drama King Of The Gypsies, which plays out like a florid, low-rent version of Francis Ford Coppola’s 1972 masterpiece The Godfather. Whereas that classic offered a studied and consistently compelling look inside the inner sanctum of an American mafia family, King Of The Gypsies paints a vivid picture of life amongst America’s nomadic gypsy communities from the fifties through to the late seventies.

The film begins at a bright, colourful gypsy gathering, with chieftain King Zharko Stepanowicz (Sterling Hayden) ultimately stealing away the beautiful young daughter of his bitter rival (Michael V. Gazzo) so that he can marry her off to his son. Twenty-some-years later, that son (Judd Hirsch) has turned out to be a drunken, bullying, mean-spirited buffoon whose wife (Susan Sarandon) can barely stand him. Increasingly unimpressed with his son, the ailing King Zharko instead opts to pass on the leadership of the tribe to his errant grandson David (Roberts), who has pulled away from his gypsy roots and is now making a living as a con artist and singing waiter. With the position of king and leader thrown into free fall, father and son will be pitted against each other in a conflict that will soon boil out of control.

Filled with fascinating details (the gypsies’ various cons – from labyrinthine jewellery robberies to cheap huckstering as fortune tellers – are depicted with sharp humour and rich sociological detail), strong performances (Roberts is literally electrifying, as is Sarandon as his sexy mum, while Brooke Shields also appears as his little sister) and tense set pieces, King Of The Gypsies is a potent, little-known gem that cannily mixes ribald humour, strong drama and pulse-pounding excitement.

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