(I recorded the 1979 film, Boulevard Nights, off of TCM on December 14th, 2017).
Boulevard Nights tells the story of two brothers, living in East Los Angeles.
Raymond Avila (Richard Yniguez) used to be involved with the street gangs but he’s gone straight. He still likes to cruise the boulevard. He still likes to make his lowrider hop up and down. He still knows better than to trust outsiders and he always makes sure that he’s not around whenever the cops show up. But, unlike many of his old friends, Raymond is now determined to stay out of trouble. He’s got a job working at a garage and he dreams of the day when he’ll have his own auto shop. He takes care of his mother. He keeps an eye on the neighborhood.
Chuco Avila (Danny De La Paz) is Raymond’s younger brother and also his opposite. Chuco is a high school drop out who doesn’t want to cause trouble but who says that he can’t stop getting angry. Chuco always carries a switchblade with him, even bringing it to a job interview. Chuco only feels secure when he’s a member of a gang. Chuco steals. Chuco fights. Chuco huffs paint and gets a snake tattooed on his arm. Whenever Chuco has to hide out, he goes to a graffiti-covered shack that he shares with a stray cat.
There’s a war coming as random skirmishes between two separate neighborhoods lead to greater and greater violence. Chuco is looking forward to it. Raymond just wants to avoid it. He’s got a good job and he’s planning on marrying Shady Londeros (Marta DuBois). But, as Raymond explains it to Shady, if a war does break out, he’s going to have his brother’s back.
The plot of Boulevard Nights is a familiar one. Stories about good and bad brothers have been told since ancient times and anyone who has ever seen a “gang” movie should be able to guess everything that’s going to happen in Boulevard Nights. It’s not a spoiler to say that the war between the two gangs leads to tragedy. You can see that tragedy coming from the first five minutes of the film. It also doesn’t take a psychic to predict that one brother will survive while one brother definitely will not. The only question is whether the film will end with either Raymond or Chuco wistfully staring out at the Los Angeles skyline.
What does set Boulevard Nights apart from other gang films is that it never glamorizes its violence and it was also shot on location in East Los Angeles. When Raymond and Chuco drive through their neighborhood, the small and dilapidated houses that they see are the houses that were actually there in 1979 (and which might still be there today). The use of real locations brought a grittiness to the film that the by-the-numbers script failed to provide. Boulevard Nights also featured a cast largely made up of amateurs. Members of the gang were played by actual gang members. Needless to say, this led to some noticeably uneven performances but it also created an authenticity that would otherwise be lacking.
Boulevard Nights is an uneven film but, because it was shot on location, it functions as a bit of time capsule. If you want to know what East L.A. looked (and sounded) like in the late 70s, you can either purchase a time machine or you can watch this movie. For many viewers, watching the movie will be probably be the more practical choice.
Last year, Boulevard Nights was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant”.