The Cotton Club

An introduction to the film by John Vernon Lord

The 128 minutes film The Cotton Club was directed by Francis Coppola (from the Zoetrope studios) and produced by Robert Evans and it was eventually released on 14 December 1984. Some time after making the 50 million dollar spectacular Evans described Coppola as `an evil person - a direct descendant of Machiavelli's prince'. Halliwell's Film Guide calls the film "a lumpy vehicle" and goes on to say that "despite a few effective moments, a prime example of the careless extravagance which all but killed the film business."
Brian Case in Time Out Film Guide writes -
"The misconception that sinks this often handsome confection is that revivalism will spread evenly over separate cultures, turning the Prohibition gangsters and backstage romances and old jazz into a winning hand of iconographic flash cards for the camera. What neck! Neither Ellington's music nor the black dancers will hold still, of course, and fatally detain the emotions while the lovers do not. [I disagree with this comment!]. Gere, with the masher's taz and major hair-oil, phones in his performance from the wardrobe department. Gregory Hines, his black opposite number, does better with less. Of the hoods, only Hoskins and Fred Gwynne rise above the mundane mayhem, spinning headlines and general dis-dat-doze. The narrative is a mess despite the simplistic twinning of tales, and worse yet - keeps interrupting the heart-stopping hoofing."
The tap-dance choreographer was Henry Le Tang and montage was done by Gian-Carlo Coppola. Screenplay by William Kennedy and Coppola from a story by William Kennedy, Coppola and Mario Puzo (writer of The Godfather films).
Background to the plot

The Cotton Club is a film set at the end of Harlem's roaring Twenties. It tells of a struggling jazz trumpeter - Dixie Dwyer (played by Richard Gere) whose fortune changes when he saves the life of gangster Dutch Schultz (James Remar). Bob Hoskins plays the part of Owney Madden, the owner of the legendary Cotton Club. The blurb from the Daily Star on the video of the film reports that the film `spectacularly mixes mobsters, molls and music ... blazing action and romance'.
The main extract we are going to see is towards the end of the film. It is a marvellous visual sequence (lasting about 4 minutes) showing the simultaneous double narrative of a tap dance and a murder. Gregory Hines takes the part of Sandman Williams - the dancer who dreams of becoming a star. His tap dance is a private soliloquy which builds up into a dazzling climax among the relentless glare of the spotlight. His dance suddenly comes to a halt when Dutch Schultz slumps dead across a dining room table after being pummelled with gunshot wounds. This montage sequence is one of several in the film which was directed by Coppola's son `Gio'.
The situation leading up to the sequence We are in the Cotton Club when Dutch Schultz (played by James Remar) is arguing with his girl friend - Vera Cicero (played by Diane Lane). Dutch is becoming jealous of Vera's relationship with the `mob boss' Dixie Dwyer (played by Richard Gere). A row develops when Dixie finishes a trumpet-playing session with the band. While they argue Sandman Williams sings with a line of chorus girls on stage.
When Vera refuses to leave the club with Dutch he stalks off with his three cronies and suddenly turns round and points a gun at Dixie. (At this point we have a close-up of the mysterious Charlie who is quietly seated with Owney Madden and others at a table in the club). Dutch's gun shot is deflected as a result of Sandman's remarkable acrobatics from the stage. We see the profile of Dutch's silhouetted gun in the foreground and the approach of Sandman and the blurred movement of his foot as he kicks the gun from Dutch's hand. A shot fires into the air while the sound of smashed glass is heard. The gun was sent reeling across the room and it crashes through a window and into the street below, landing beside an astonished porter.
Rough and tumble ensue while the raving and ranting Dutch is escorted out of the club by bouncers. (At this point we have a brief glimpse of the parallel romances of the two couples (Sandman with his girlfriend Lila and Dixie and Vera clutching each other in moral support).
The master of ceremonies of the club shouts through a megaphone, claiming that "everybody is having a ball tonight". We see another close-up portrait of the silent and mysterious Charlie as he observes the scene from his table. Dutch and his cronies are finally removed from the club and a couple or more of the bouncers clap as they re-enter.
We then see Dutch receiving a fistful from another bouncer on the staircase outside the club room. Viewing the scene from the bottom of the staircase we see Dutch and his mob being manhandled down the stairs.
We now observe the owner of the club - Owney Madden (played by Bob Hoskins) and his crew, together with Charlie, leaving the main auditorium of the Cotton Club and entering an adjacent room. We see the silhouette of Charlie mumbling Italian down a telephone. (A picture of a nude hangs on the wall beside the shadow of his arm).
Meanwhile Dutch Schultz and his men are finally chucked out of the Cotton Club (We now view them from the top of the stairs). Their coats and hats are hurled at them and there is a general scuffle until they reach the street.

The sequence :

Sandman Williams' tap dance and the murder of Dutch Schultz.
In the Cotton Club Sandman Williams (played by Gregory Hines) starts limbering up by stepping off a raised platform step on to the dance floor (echoing the view previously seen of Dutch's crowd stepping from the curb outside in the street). Sandman then steps in tap dancing manner towards the circular beam of the spotlight which shines brightly on the floor He stands upon the circle to begin his dance.
We return to the phone scene while Owney closes the door of the ante room of the club.
Sandman continues with his dance sequence, (We first see a close-up of his white trousers and shoes and their shadows on the spotlight circle; and then we see his whole body, on the left hand of the dance floor, going through a jumping sequence - leading him to centre stage for a while and then to the right. Two lights shine symmetrically on either sides of the `stage'.
00m 37s A car, with headlights blazing, drives down a wet street. Dutch is in the car cursing and mumbling and wiping his bleeding lips. (Somehow, in the mayhem that went on before, Dutch has managed to get his hat and coat on!) The scene of Sandman's dancing in the Cotton Club and Dutch's cursing in the car alternates in quick succession. The steps of the Sandman's tapping rhythm seem to punctuate and emphasise the points made by the cursing Dutch.
01m 22s Dutch and his accomplices reach the corridor of a café (Dutch's is still denouncing everything and everybody and his bodily gesture for a moment almost simulates Sandman's dancing steps). They move from right to left of the screen and we are left with a brief shot of the empty corridor.
Dutch and his men now enter the dining room of the café. The white table cloth seems to resemble the spotlight of the Cotton Club and the two lamps on the wall on either side of the scene seem to echo the Cotton club's arrangement of lights.
We have another short glimpse of the corridor of the café where we see a man walking away towards a door - presumably to inform someone that Dutch and his crew have entered the café.
Meanwhile in the dining room of the café Dutch wipes his bleeding lips while uttering oaths and demanding service. A waiter enters the room.
Back in the Cotton Club we have a worm's eye view of Sandman dancing among the hazy beam of the spot light while he circles round and round.
In the ante room of the Cotton Club we see Owney, Charlie and their associates at a dining table. Charlie opens a bottle with a picture of a landscape hanging on the wall behind him.
The tap dance continues from right of the screen, with a floor-level view. The dancer jumps towards the centre in the blazing spot light.
01m 58s A portrait shot of Charlie as he pours out the drink. The company raise their glasses, saying "salut" (a toast, presumably, to celebrate the forthcoming demise of Dutch, which had no doubt been planned by them on the telephone earlier). Another portrait shot of Charlie as he sips his drink.
Sandman's dance takes him up a short flight of steps (The way he dances on both sides of these steps seems to symbolise the balance of power between the rival gangsters).
02m 25s Back in the dining room of the café Dutch, still cursing and spluttering, rises from the table to relieve himself in the toilet. There is also a landscape situated above the table of this café. The waiter is still in attendance.
We are now placed in front of the main bar of the café (a little distance away from where Dutch and co are about to dine) where a bar man is polishing the counter. Two men appear from the left hand side of the screen and the bar man quickly recognises the men (who are hired gun men) and the likely outcome of their arrival on the scene. He peers towards the direction where Dutch and his men are dining and ducks behind the bar. The two men continue to walk, silently past the bar counter, in the direction of Dutch.
The tap dance continues.
The gun men men continue walking.
The tap dancing continues.
A black cat passes by, padding across the café's tiled floor.
We have a close-up of tap-dancing feet
02m 52s Shadows of figures (the gunmen's) walking on the same tiled floor as the cat.
We now have a back view of the gunmen as they enter the dining room where Dutch's men are about to dine. The gunmen seem to be quick at noticing Dutch's absence and the one on the right quickly nudges the other to look elsewhere while he opens fire with his gun - first shooting one of Dutch's men in the forehead (the penetration of the bullet is graphically shown) and then the others. We now have a front view of the gunman as he fires his gun towards us.
Meanwhile we have a close-up of Sandman's dancing footsteps.
03m 05s The other gun man shoots Dutch in the lavatory. One of the bullets bursts a pipe which spurts out with a constant spray of water. Stains of blood are smeared on the wall behind Dutch as he falls and tries to grasp hold of the plumbing during the onslaught of bullets. The gunman leaves the toilet.
We return to the dining room where Dutch's men are slumped on their chairs and the man who killed them is now joined by the accomplice who had just murdered Dutch. This latter gunman now raises his machine gun at Dutch's men and aims his gun at them yet again to make sure that the job has been done properly.
03m 22s Back to the the tap dance at the Cotton Club as Sandman approaches the small flight of stage-prop steps. The tap dancing quickens and reaches a climax while the machine gun fire seems to synchronise with the dance rhythm. We see very short cuts of the dancing itself interpolated with the machine gun fire. We are left with a scene of Dutch's dead men seated by the dining table (somehow the waiter had the time to set the table and place food on it sometime during Dutch's brief visit to the toilet!).
03m 40s Dutch staggers through a door into another part of the dining room. He is holding a gun but drops it. His hat is still on his head! he grimaces with pain and slumps over a table, staining the white table cloth with blood.
Sandman dances up and down the small flight of steps.
The gunmen leave the dining room.
04m 00s A final aerial view of Sandman's dance as he swirls round and round - suddenly stopping as if transfixed in thought. Sandman's dance is arrested at the same moment as Dutch's arm flops from the table top and swings limply.
A loud applause for Sandman's dancing performance at the Cotton Club breaks out - seemingly simultaneously representing cheers for the killing of Dutch.
In a blaze of blue spotlight Sandman greets his girl friend at her table in the audience area of the Cotton Club by saying - "I love you , Lila" (played by Lonette McKee). we have a portrait view of Lila, then back to Sandman, who leaves the scene by the exit door of the stage.

Some of things to look out for:

the coherent linking and overlapping of a complex set of images in such a short space of time;
the pacing and synchronising during the various clips of action
The simultaneous progress of the murder and the dance
suspense, climax and resolution;
multifarious camera angles
close up shots and distant views
zooming in an out
front and back views
linking soundtrack
contrasts -
dance and murder,
fantasy and life,
light and dark,
black and white,
noise and silence,
love and hate.
visual and soundtrack connections - ie: spotlight and table cloth; tap steps and gunfire etc.
the soundtrack - Among the clicking and rhythmic steps of the lone tap dancer and a solemn orchestral background (which permeate the sound track during this passage of the film) we have the sounds of - generally unclear spoken dialogue, rumble of car exhaust, Dutch's cursing and his gang's mutterings, the Italian murmurings of Charlie and his group, the plop of the uncorked bottle, tinkling of raised glasses, a whistling sound, the screeching of a cat, pistol fire, groans of victims, the spurting of a burst water pipe, machine gunfire, and a final applause.

Peter Cowie, Coppola , Faber and Faber, London & Boston, 1989.