The Night They Raided Minsky's is an appropriate film to look over on April Fools' Day, as its narrative hinges on one large “trick” to be played on certain characters. William Friedkin's second feature film is an uneven but sweet and charming ode to the 1920s theaters of burlesque. As the film today exists in current form, it routinely cuts away from his own narrative and splices in many apparent pieces of footage from the time period itself, thick with grain and washed-out images. The screenplay, based on a book by Rowland Barber and written by Arnold Schulman, Sidney Michaels and Norman Lear, supplies a dangerously thin storyline, but the film is at its most fun when the mechanics of the picture are almost invisible, and mere gags and burlesque performances take the center stage.
Jason Robards, who plays central figure Raymond Paine, received mixed notices for The Night They Raided Minsky's, but today his performance seems stronger than it may have at the time of the film's release. Robards was never too much of a “leading man movie star” to diminish his own self-effacing and auto-critiquing tendencies; even in the testosterone-laden westerns in which he appeared, he often played characters either physically or psychologically wounded, such as the contemporaneous Once Upon a Time in the West, Hour of the Gun or The Ballad of Cable Hogue. With Minsky's, Robards allows his most winning attributes to mesh with his nearly continual semblance of debilitation—ever so slightly suave, his persona is crushed when confronted with hostility or projected dubiousness by others. It helps that Robards is given many of the film's best lines. When his longtime partner and friend, Chick Williams (an energetic Norman Wisdom), falls for the pulchritudinous Amish ingénue, Rachel Elizabeth Schpitendavel (a wide-eyed Britt Ekland), Robards' roguish huckster comedian undermines Chick's propriety. )(Which ties into their joined rendition of “Perfect Gentleman,” in which Robards' character sings along with Wisdom's about just how much of a gentleman he is. “You suffer from the three D's,” Raymond tells Chick, “you're decent, devoted and dependable. Good qualities in a dog—disastrous in a man.” He goes on: “Women love bastards. I am a BFC: Bastard First Class.” Robards likewise shines in a long scene in which he approaches a woman at the local deli—where a significant portion of the film's events take place—only to be surprised when her husband returns from the restroom. So Raymond smooth-talks the husband and is as smooth as the skin of a newborn. The humor is obvious but Robards is too excellent when at his best in this film to dismiss, balancing his motor-mouthed shtick with the fearfulness behind it.
Ekland is fine as the young runaway Amish woman who is blinded by the dazzling marquee. As Raymond and Chick contest one another over her affections, Ekland's debatable one-note performance never feels particularly calculated, which is key in making it fit with the long line of young ingénues who were transfixed on the idea of becoming a star of show-business. Considered unqualified for burlesque, Ekland's Rachel is manipulated by the scheming Raymond; his bright idea is to have her perform one night after being billed as “Mademoiselle Fifi,” the French starlet and heroine of pornographic literature, who is, it is constantly noted in her billing, “The Girl Who Drove a Thousand Frenchmen Wild.” Raymond figures Rachel will do what she has done in her Pennsylvania Amish community—perform a Biblical dance rather than a bawdy number. Thus, Secretary for the Suppression of Vice Vance Fowler (Denholm Elliott), determined to raid Minsky's in the event of Mademoiselle Fifi's appearance, will have no reason to shut the establishment down and Raymond's job will be safe.
Two other welcome performers are Joseph Wiseman and Elliot Gould as the father and son (Louis and Billy Minsky), who repeatedly enliven the picture. Wiseman and Gould play their parts as Jewish businessmen with significant emphasis on their ethnicity. The Night They Raided Minsky's pokes some fun at religion in general, as Rachel's stern and unforgiving Amish father, Jacob Schpitendavel (Harry Andrews), hunt her down and finally finds himself confronted with Wiseman's Louis Minsky. Louis educating two other religious men about the identities of each finger's meaning in religious terminology evokes laughter. The picture may satirize stoically religious individuals, but at this late point in the film, it does so with a genial warmth.
The Night They Raided Minsky's was released just as Hollywood films had largely been let loose; censorship in American cinema was coming to an end. So it is particularly amusing to view Minsky's as the film examines a different kind of show-biz thriving under the threatening thumb of censorship. As Elliott's Fowler chastises the men who run Minsky's, he is asked what he finds so objectionable. “Well, the women... They jiggle,” he remarks. The film is hilariously accurate in its depiction of the censoring force having to attend every show and write down in explicit detail what is to be considered lewd and improper.
Reportedly, Friedkin's cut of The Night They Raided Minsky's was a considerably different film from the eventually released 1968 picture—Friedkin's first cut was, it was almost universally agreed, a complete disaster. Editor Ralph Rosenblum worked on the film in postproduction for over a year, finding a coherent film through his assiduousness. Some may assume the concept of cutting to old footage was Friedkin's idea—perhaps an homage to Jean-Luc Godard's stylistics—but it was indeed Rosenblum who came up with the idea himself. Rosenblum, in effect, re-directed the film himself and made an alternative version of Minsky's which is today the one actually seen.
Some of the film's finest moments are simply of Robards and Wisdom engaging in song and dance with one another. The soundtrack is stuffed with modern classics as well as some songs by Lee Adams (the score was provided by Charles Strouse). The agreeable combination Robards' wise-guy next to Wisdom's naïve optimist makes The Night They Raided Minsky's seem so effortlessly mounted, though it actually was one of Hollywood's most painful births; likewise, Robards' history as a great stage actor and Wisdom's history as a great British comedian and music-hall star must have paid dividends as they excel at projecting an immediacy that draws in a live audience. Minsky's isn't a grand time at the movies, but it is fast, fun and frank—a valentine to all things just vaguely fulsome.