William Friedkin’s third film, The Night They Raided Minsky’s, was billed as being a period piece about the origin of striptease, but it’s really a broader tribute to the golden age of burlesque, told through the eyes of Rachel Schpitendavel, a young Amish woman played by Britt Ekland, who joins Minsky’s Burlesque after arriving in New York in the early 1920s. At first, this seems like it might be a zany coming-of-age film, as Rachel’s cloistered background throws the city into vivid and comic relief, but her story is quickly absorbed into a more ambient evocation of the world of burlesque. In a remarkably condensed and kinetic series of sequences, Friedkin takes us through the many facets of the Minsky’s repertoire, most of which centre on Chick Williams, played by Norman Wisdom, and Raymond Paine, played by Jason Robards – a pair of entertainers who have devised an astonishing variety of numbers.
It only took two months to shoot Minsky’s, but ten months to edit it – and it shows, since the film effectively plays as a single sustained montage sequence, suffused with hyperactive, hyper-kinetic camera work. Virtually every scene is cluttered with rapid zooms, swivels and pans, as Friedkin tries to capture – and rival – the restless and insatiable gaze of the burlesque audience. This prevents him ever adopting a static perspective on, or historical distance from, the burlesque world, as might occur in a more conventional period piece. Instead, his camera is continually drawn into the polymorphous hyperactivity of the Minsky’s show, generating the restless collective momentum of a Robert Altman film – and this feels like a script that Altman could have easily shot about five years later. In fact, I wondered whether Altman had watched it, and been influenced it, especially at those moments when Friedkin opts for rapid editing within the scene, shifting fluidly between the gazes of the actors and their audience.
Rather than confining burlesque as a historical peculiarity, Friedkin thus reinvigorates it as an art that spills over its diegetic boundaries, mingling with the kinetic texture of urban life in the process. Many of the Minsky’s numbers involve the performers coming into the audience, or playing members of the audience, while Friedkin also slips in and out of the theatre and the city in quite an impressionistic manner, rather than excerpting one act for any great length of time. For the most part, he shoots the “offstage” scenes with the same restless lexicon of the burlesque numbers – a combination of slow zooms and frantic close-ups, often in the same sequence or shot, and frequently interspersed with stock footage and historical images. In one particularly memorable scene, Raymond Paine leaves the theatre, walks across the street, and orders his lunch in the restaurant across the road, remaining in character the entire time, while Friedkin continues to shoot him in just this way, as if he is still on the stage.
In other words, Minsky’s is situated at the cusp between burlesque and the outside world – or, rather, presents burlesque as the continuous process of reinventing its cusp with the outside world, culminating with the evolution of burlesque into striptease in the final scene. Burlesque becomes a kind of convergent media, a centrifugue of other older media – a process encapsulated in one of the film’s most distinctive stylistic traits: moments when Friedkin zooms in rapidly to one image and just as rapidly out from another. This double zooming is often used to transition between one burlesque act and the next, allowing the film to enact the process whereby burlesque itself gathers disparate showhall traditions into a new multimodal whole. Despite a marketing campaign that foregrounded striptease, Minsky’s is interested in a queerer and more polymorphous sensuality than mere nudity would suggest; a sensuality that exists primarily in the cuts, transitions and montages between acts – that is, in the rapid editing of the film itself – rather than in the naked body.
As the film proceeds, this gradually positions burlesque as a hyperreal medium, since the logic of burlesque dictates that its spectacle is always poised on the precipice of “real” life. Even the more “realistic” scenes in the film are always on the cusp of spectacle, even or especially as Friedkin seems to be searching for some grain of naturalistic authenticity in his period textures as well. In that sense, burlesque here feels like both a blueprint for, and pre-emptive critique of, New Hollywood, since Friedkin anticipates a generation of directors who were keen to address the emergent hyperreality of the public sphere but to also recover a naturalistic vocabulary beneath it. This tension, encapsulated in the opening shot of Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation, is played as farce in Minsky’s, partly because Friedkin seems prescient that this new auteurist style is just as predicated on the male gaze, and the objectification of the female body, as the traditional Hollywood system it is rebelling against.
To that end, Friedkin almost seems to stave off New Hollywood with an even queerer and more polymorphous style, especially when the burlesque crowd spills out into a broader public sphere, producing long montage sequences of people eating, walking, talking and interacting. At these moment, Friedkin presents burlesque as the apotheosis of silent cinema, and a companion to the synergy between audience and cinema screen during the silent era – a synergy that has been waning ever since, despite cinema reinventing itself anew with each decade and generation. By presenting burlesque as both a reflection of this originary moment of cinema but also as prescient of the postmodern in its hyperreality, Friedkin uses it as a synecdoche for the evolution and fate of cinema itself, which is perhaps why the whole film often seems to be unfolding in the stage wings. This is where the editing is more frenetic and hyperactive, and where reality and representation are most vertiginously converged, as Friedkin forces his audience to lie in wait, watching, for whatever lies beyond current cinema.
That produces an incredible visceral energy in the last part of the film, when the plosive intensity of the Minsky’s show expands out into speakeasies, dancehalls and pinpall parlours, eventually dispersing into the urban texture of New York City itself. During these scenes, in particular, it’s clear that there were many more hours of burlesque shot than actually appear in the film, resulting in a compressed temporality that sees all the characters counting down the minutes until the midnight show where Rachel is slated to make her first appearance. Finally, Rachel steps onto the stage, but she is so overwhelmed by the crowd that she loses some of her clothing, gradually gathering herself enough to make this seem intentional, and so laying down the future of striptease. At this very moment, the other players know they’re out of a job, and so the film ends on the very cusp between burlesque and striptease, as Friedkin goes without a montage break for the first time in the film, but also ends with the liberated energy of the theatre spilling over into the street, where Rachel is taken away in a police fan, gleefully embracing her new role as countercultural icon as the final credits roll up.
In these final moments, all Friedkin’s superb editing culminates with the cusp between the theatre, which is barren after Rachel is hauled out by the police, and denuded anyway by Friedkin’s return to “realist” cinema to depict her performance, and the manic energy of the street, which is supercharged by burlesque energy after her striptease has expelled it from the theatre. This visceral space between theatre and street, and this threshold between spectacle and world, is where Minsky’s ends, a challenge to New Hollywood, and a challenge from Friedkin to himself, to produce a cinema that both channels the visceral intensity of burlesque but also contains and processes its incipient hyperreality. In that tension lies one of the deftest conclusions of Friedkin’s career, and a high watermark in his early filmography.