The Cool World (1964) is a pioneering independent American fiction film shot on location in New York for less than $100,000, using then-unknown actors, and directed by experimental filmmaker Shirley Clarke, who was one of the foremost members of the “underground” film movement that dominated American low-budget filmmaking in the early to mid 1960s. In the cast are the actors Antonio Fargas, Carl Lee and Clarence Williams III, among others, who all went on to lengthy careers in the cinema; for many working on the film, this was their first brush with commercial filmmaking.
Based on a novel by Warren Miller, the film was produced by Frederick Wiseman, who later became a major figure as a documentarian with such films as Titicut Follies (1967), which documented deplorable conditions in a Massachusetts mental hospital. Shirley Clarke had made a series of evocative short films earlier in her career, particularly the gorgeous In Paris Parks (1954), which documents children and couples during one day in Paris, and Bridges Go Round (1959), a brief abstract film that turned a series of Manhattan bridges into an extended merry-go-round of light and activity. In 1960, her short film Skyscraper, documenting the construction of a building on Fifth Avenue, received an Academy Award nomination.
Moving into features, Clarke directed The Connection (1961), based on the play by Jack Gelber, dealing with a group of jazz musician junkies anxiously waiting for a heroin delivery in their New York loft, which was hailed a new breakthrough for realism on the screen. This led to The Cool World, which dealt with black gangs in Harlem in an equally forthright manner, creating a gritty and often brutal film, although Clarke’s poetic streak often comes out in some of the film’s visuals, particularly in the dreamy main title sequence, in which the credits roll past abstracted scenes of trees in the mean streets of the city.
Though the film was sold sensationally as an exploitation feature (“HOOKER! FUZZ! JUNK! RUMBLE!” the film’s poster screamed), The Cool World is at base absolutely serious, and presents an unflinching look at the social conditions endured by African-Americans in the early 1960s. The film centers around a 15 year old gang member, Duke (Hampton Clanton), who wants desperately to buy a gun from the older criminal Priest (Carl Lee), so that Duke can become the leader of his gang, and lead his fellow gang bangers in a series of “rumbles” (gang fights).
Clarke shoots The Cool World in cinema verité fashion, so that it almost seems like a documentary, and the stark black and white imagery of cinematographer Baird Bryant, coupled with a cool jazz score by Mal Waldron, makes the world of Duke and his gang seem real and immediate. As an example of the independent film movement in America, The Cool World is a real, personal landmark. Clarke’s direction is unsentimental and tough, as fits the subject matter, offering the viewer a new level of realism in American filmmaking.