Based on the novel by Peter Maas, King of the Gypsies details the criminal lives led by a group of gypsies based in New York city. The film opens as their self-proclaimed “king” Zharko Stepanowicz (Sterling Hayden) abducts a young girl from another gypsy family as a child bride for his loathsome son, Groffo (Judd Hirsch). As an adult, Rose (Susan Sarandon) bears him two children, a boy named Dave (Matthew Laborteaux, star of TV’s Little House on the Prairie and The Red Hand Gang) and a younger sister called Tita (future singer-songwriter Daniele Brisebois). It is Rose whose outrageous con tricks - including phoney fortune telling and stealing a diamond from a glitzy jewellers by getting Dave to swallow it! - support the family, while Groffo degenerates into a feckless, abusive drunk from whom Dave later decides to flee. Years later, the grownup Dave (Eric Roberts) is drawn back into the gypsy fold when he learns Groffo is plotting to sell the now twelve-year-old Tita (Brooke Shields) in marriage. On his deathbed King Zharko anoints a reluctant Dave his successor, enraging Groffo who hires two assassins to kill his own son.
Produced by Dino De Laurentiis, back when he was alternating big dumb blockbusters with grittier fare, King of the Gypsies was dogged by the same accusations of racism and scandal-mongering that plagued Maas’ novel. Accusations that seem unfounded given it weaves a largely sensitive and eloquent tale about a young man torn between acquiescing to age-old traditions or finding his place in the modern world, a world where the odds seem sadly stacked against him. The film is at its best while delving into the fascinating minutiae of gypsy life, the territorial squabbles, celebrative rituals and superstitions, though some may take issue with how casually it intertwines their subculture with criminality. The makers clearly wanted to do for gypsies what The Godfather (1972) did for the mafia, but for all its authenticity the plot seems florid when compared to the more restrained portrayals of gypsy life done by Corsican filmmaker Tony Gatlif.
Writer-director Frank Pierson had co-screenwriting credits on classics from Cool Hand Luke (1967) and Dog Day Afternoon (1975) to Presumed Innocent (1990), though his work as a director was more hit-and-miss including the third version of A Star is Born (1976) and the gripping biopic Citizen Cohn (1992). As a writer, Pierson has a good feel for the gypsy vernacular, but though there are several witty and memorably bleak scenes, the sprawling story lacks focus. Pierson’s curiously lackadaisical direction lets the tone slip into darkly comic melodrama, while losing sight of seemingly crucial characters as when Dave inexplicably forgets about his adoring “gadji” girlfriend Sharon (Annette O’Toole) - cruelly dubbed “a red-headed whore” by Rose - to tryst with a whiny gypsy housewife (Annie Potts - the secretary from Ghostbusters (1984)).
The glowering, theatrical acting from veteran character actors Sterling Hayden and Shelley Winters alternates with subtle, sensitive playing from a radiant Susan Sarandon, Annette O’Toole, an assured young Brooke Shields and especially Eric Roberts who as a very affecting lead draws us into poor David’s dilemma. Sitcom star Judd Hirsch snarls through scenes as a clownish, yet surprisingly effective villain while the violence is sensibly low-key and naturalistic leading to a shotgun-wielding climax that treads a precarious line between harrowing and darkly comic.