Color, 1971, 88 mins. 53 secs.
Directed by Ivan Passer
Starring George Segal, Paula Prentiss, Karen Black, Jay Fletcher, Hector Elizondo, Robert De Niro
Fun City Editions (Blu-ray) (US RA HD) / WS (1.85:1) (16:9), MGM (DVD) (Germany R2 PAL, Australia R4 PAL)

Along with the tremendous relaxation Born to Winin censorship standards for violence, nudity, and Born to Winprofanity with the inauguration of the modern MPAA ratings system in the late '60s, adult themes were soon permissible in a way that couldn't have been depicted a decade before. Take drug use, which had been gradually escalating on theater screens since Otto Preminger's The Man with the Golden Arm but was only depicted in graphic detail for years in underground films like Paul Morrissey's Trash. The early '70s changed all that with films like Panic in Needle Park and the lesser seen Born to Win (shot under the title Scraping Bottom), with New York City in particular providing a rich backdrop for an assortment of oddball junkies fighting to live day by day.

Czech director Ivan Passer (Intimate Lighting) made the leap to American films with Born to Win, which paved the way for a really odd English-language career including films like Cutter's Way, Haunted Summer, Creator, and Silver Bears. In the middle of his golden Big Apple period (along with No Way to Treat a Lady, The Owl and the Pussycat, Loving, Bye Bye Braverman, and of course Where's Poppa?), George Segal stars in this character study of J, a likable but sad-sack junkie whose Born to Winaddiction and dealing have already broken up his marriage to Veronica (Prentiss). When he tries to steal a car belonging to Parm (Black), the two end Born to Winup having an on-and-off romance while J navigates between trying to reform himself and getting his next fix.

Anyone unfamiliar with the "all bets are off" tone of the era may be a bit baffled by this one (and some critics at the time certainly were, too), with Segal bouncing between melodrama, goofball comedy (especially a lengthy sequence in which he tries to get arrested at a window wearing a frilly women's dressing gown), and grim depiction of the NYC drug trade with Hector Elizondo as a powerful compatriot. However, it's that unpredictability and wild tone shifting that make it especially compelling today with a very game Segal headlining a wild cast including a young Robert De Niro popping up in a small role as a cop. (Incredibly, second-billed Prentiss' role is even smaller!) In fact, De Niro's presence led to a slew of outrageously misleading public domain VHS and DVD editions over the years touting him as the star (complete with head shots totally unrelated to the movie itself), often paired up with another quasi-PD De Niro film, The Swap. Even worse, those releases featured a heavily cut TV print that rendered the film virtually incoherent in spots.

Luckily you can ignore all of the substandard editions out there thanks to the first authorized and complete U.S. release on Blu-ray from Fun City Editions, licensed from MGM (who Born to Wininherited it as part of the United Artists library). The new 2K restoration from the 35mm interpositive looks excellent, with the label once again letting it breathe as a gritty, grainy slice of '70s NYC filmmaking with all of the earthy colors and thick textures left intact. No complaints here, and it's Born to Wingreat to finally see this salvaged from the PD dumpster heap. The LPCM English 2.0 mono track is also in excellent condition and features optional English SDH subtitles. A new audio commentary by the Fun City Cinema podcast's Jason Bailey and Michael Hull is a perfect fit for the release as they clearly know their stuff, pointing out the ins and outs of NYC cinema (and geography) while pointing out lots of trivia tidbits along the way including ties to other films (even including an early reference to The Party at Kitty and Stud's). They also have quite a bit of background info including the film's origins as a very off-Broadway play by David Scott Milton, who ended up writing the screenplay and probably wasn't thrilled about UA's title change. Also included are the theatrical trailer and an insert booklet featuring a new essay by Justin LaLiberty appraising the film's virtues as a key but often overlooked slice of New York City cinema.

Reviewed on May 8, 2022