Plays are a strange thing to adapt to film. When a story is brought to the stage, the playwright has to be conscious of the lack of space and resources, and often tailors their story to take place using a minimal amount of sets and props. For film, your only limit for settings is the budget. Can you take a borderline claustrophobic stage production and successfully turn it into a movie? It’s tough but WHEN YOU COMIN’ BACK, RED RYDER? (1979) just barely squeaks by.
Most of the movie takes place in a struggling small-town diner. Teenage waitress doesn’t mind spending her days waiting around for customers, as it’s a good excuse to get out of the house she shares with her abusive mother. It also gives her a reason to innocently flirt with cook “Red” (named after famed cowboy Red Ryder). Red is too cool for that town and, one of these days, he’s going to leave for bigger and better things. Just not yet.
Life gets a lot more exciting for Angel and Red when two sets of customers come at the same time. Classical violinist Clarisse and her upper-class husband Richard stop in on their way to a performance of hers. Soon after comes Teddy and his girlfriend Cheryl. There’s something not right about Teddy and soon we find out what–he’s a sociopath. One by one he breaks down the pretenses of every character so he can zap them where it truly hurts.
Whereas the play took place all within the diner, the film version adds a few scenes here and there to either give glimpses into the backgrounds of the characters, or to bring a more “Hollywood” ending to the story. They were unnecessary and weren’t integrated well at all. The characters weren’t fleshed out at all but basic archetypes, from Angel’s innocent to the posturing of Red, the privileged snobbery of Clarisse to the hippie-in-over-her-head Cheryl. Teddy, too, was a stereotypical villain. The one aspect to save it, and really the whole movie, was the performance by Marjoe Gortner. Gortner burst onto the scene as a four year old traveling preacher. He continued on that road, on and off, for two decades before exposing the underbelly of the revival circuit in the documentary MARJOE (1972). After he left preaching he became a B-movie star, with roles in such classics as FOOD OF THE GODS (1976)and STARCRASH (1978). His performance of Teddy’s casual cruelty just barely walked the line of terrifying and cartoonish. Without him, this movie could have easily been forgotten.
This isn’t the best transfer but until WHEN YOU COMIN’ BACK RED RYDER? gets an official digital media release it’s as good as we can expect:
Question of the night: what’s your favorite thing to order at a diner?