The film starts out in live action, introducing the protagonist Michael Corleone, a 22-year-old virgin (inaccurately referred to as 24 in the movie's trailer) playing pinball in New York City. The scene then transitions into animation. New York has a diseased, rotten, tough, and violent atmosphere. Michael's Italian father, Angelo "Angie" Corleone, is a struggling mafioso who frequently cheats on Michael's Jewish mother, Ida. The couple constantly bicker and try to kill each other. Michael ambles through a catalog of freaks, greasers, and dopers. Unemployed, he dabbles with cartoons, artistically feeding off the grubbiness of his environment. He regularly hangs out at a local bar where he gets free drinks from the female black bartender, Carole, in exchange for sketches of the somewhat annoying Shorty, Carole's violent, legless bouncer devotee. One of the regular customers at the bar named Snowflake, a nymphomaniac transvestite, gets beaten up by a tough drunk hard-hat who has only just realized that Snowflake is a man in drag and not a beautiful woman. Snowflake loves it, but the drunk causes property damage Shorty throws the drunk out and the bar's white manager abusively confronts Carole over this. Fed up with her manager, Carole quits.
Shorty offers to let Carole stay at his place, but not wanting to get involved with him, Carole tells Shorty that she's staying with Michael, and that they've been "secretly tight for a long time." Michael is turned on by her no-nonsense attitude and strong sense of self-reliance. This relationship also arouses his father's racist fury, as well as the jealousy of Shorty. But Rosa comes over to have sexual intercourse with Michael while Angie slaps Ida in the face with a gun. Michael and Carole decide to move out of Michael's parents' house and try to earn enough money to move to California, in order to avoid Shorty. Michael gets a chance to pitch a comic strip idea to an old executive lying on his death bed, who seems enthusiastic enough to listen to the idea.
Michael's story is too much for the mogul and he dies during the pitch. Meanwhile, Carole tries to work as a taxi dancer. Michael, acting as her manager, tries to pass her off as "the fourth Andrews Sister" ("'cause she was black, they kept her in the background"). A quick flash of her panties gives an old man a heart attack, and Carole gets fired. Meanwhile, Angie tries to use his Mafia connections to put a murder contract out on his son for "disgracing the family" by dating a black woman. The Godfather refuses to do this, because the hit is "personal, not business". However, Shorty eventually meets up with Angie, and agrees to do the contract.
Michael and Carole turn to crime as a means of getting by, with Carole taking the role of a prostitute. Carole flirts with a sleazy businessman and brings him to a hotel room, where Michael beats him to death with a lead pipe. The two walk out into a pinball background with the dead man's cash. Just then, Shorty shows up and shoots Michael in the head with a gun that Angie gave him to finish the job before Ida chases him; the bullet is seen going through Michael's skull in slow motion. Many of the movie's characters run around in a circle and a kaleidoscope of shocking images and horrifying events proceeds before reverting to the live action story. The "real" Michael destroys a pinball machine after it tilts and walks out onto the street, bumps into the "real" Carole, and follows her into a park. The two are seen briefly arguing before they finally take each other's hands and begin dancing in the park.Joseph Kaufmann as Michael
Beverly Hope Atkinson as Carole
Frank DeKova as Angie
Terri Haven as Ida
Mary Dean Lauria as Molly
Charles Gordone as Crazy Moe
Jim Bates - Snowflake
Jacqueline Mills as Rosalyn
Lillian Adams as Rosa
Peter Hobbs as Jerry
Candy Candido as an uncredited voice
In 1969, Ralph's Spot was founded as a division of Bakshi Productions to produce commercials for Coca-Cola and Max, the 2000-Year-Old Mouse, a series of educational shorts paid for by Encyclopædia Britannica. However, Bakshi was uninterested in the kind of animation he was producing, and wanted to produce something personal. Bakshi soon developed Heavy Traffic, a tale of inner-city street life. Steve Krantz told Bakshi that studio executives would be unwilling to fund Heavy Traffic because of its content and Bakshi's lack of film experience. Bakshi directed 1972's Fritz the Cat, an adaptation of Robert Crumb's comic strip of the same name. The financial success of Fritz the Cat allowed Bakshi to produce the film he had always intended to produce, and to focus on human characters rather than anthropomorphic animals. Bakshi pitched Heavy Traffic to Samuel Z. Arkoff, who took an interest in Bakshi's take on the "tortured underground cartoonist", and agreed to fund the film.
Production began in 1972. However, Steve Krantz had not yet paid Bakshi for his work on Fritz the Cat. Halfway through the production of Heavy Traffic, Bakshi asked Krantz outright when he would be paid, and Krantz responded that "The picture didn't make any money, Ralph. It's just a lot of noise." Bakshi found Krantz's claims to be dubious, as the producer had recently purchased a new BMW and a mansion in Beverly Hills. Because Bakshi did not have a lawyer, he sought advice from directors he had become friends with, including Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, and Steven Spielberg, asking them how much they made on their films. Bakshi soon accused Krantz of ripping him off, which the producer denied. Bakshi began pitching his next project, Harlem Nights, a film loosely based on the Uncle Remus story books. The idea interested producer Albert S. Ruddy during a screening of The Godfather.
While working on Heavy Traffic, Bakshi received a call from Krantz, who questioned him about Harlem Nights. Bakshi told Krantz: "I can't talk about that" and hung up. The next day, Krantz locked Bakshi out of the studio, reportedly tapping Bakshi's phone because he was wary of his loyalty as an employee. After Krantz fired Bakshi, he began to seek a replacement director for Heavy Traffic, calling several directors, including Chuck Jones. Arkoff threatened to pull the film's budget unless Krantz rehired Bakshi, who returned a week later. During the film's production, Krantz attempted to maintain some level of control by issuing memos to Bakshi and other artists requesting various changes. John Sparey remembers being issued a memo asking Sparey to stop posting caricatures of Krantz on the middle of his door.
Ed Bogas and Ray Shanklin returned to write and perform the film's score, as they had done for Bakshi's previous feature, Fritz the Cat. Other music featured in the film included the songs "Twist and Shout," performed by The Isley Brothers, "Take Five," as performed by the Dave Brubeck quartet, and Chuck Berry's "Maybellene." "Scarborough Fair" is used as a recurring musical motif, first heard in the film's opening credits and later reappearing during the end of the film as performed by Sérgio Mendes and Brazil '66. Bogas also created several other arrangements of the song that appear throughout the film. A soundtrack album was released in 1973.
Inspiration for the film came from penny arcades, where Bakshi would often spend his time playing pinball, sometimes bringing his 12-year-old son Mark. Bakshi wanted to use pinball as a metaphor to examine the ways of the world. Heavy Traffic began a tradition in which Bakshi would write poems before beginning production on each of his films, starting with Street Arabs. According to Bakshi, "My background was in Brooklyn — my Jewishness, my family life, my father coming from Russia. All these things had to be somehow represented on film."
Because Bakshi wanted the voices to sound organic, he experimented with improvisation, allowing his actors to ad lib during the recording sessions. According to James Bates, the voice of Snowflake, "I said, 'How about a little Wolfman Jack, Charles Nelson Reilly, Pearl Bailey and a little Truman Capote?' Ralph couldn't believe it. We ad-libbed a lot, and he usually got what he wanted in three or four takes. We worked hard and not for much coin, but it was a blast."
As with Fritz the Cat, Bakshi and Johnnie Vita took location photographs for the film's backgrounds. Instead of tracing the photographs onto backgrounds, as they had done in Fritz the Cat, the film uses actual photographs and live-action stock footage as backgrounds for much of the film. Bakshi and Vita were also experimental in their photography: Bakshi requested that the lab technicians produce several prints for every photo, each print increasingly out of focus, giving the backgrounds a fuzzy quality. Bakshi states that "We didn't want to risk shooting [out of focus] on the spot. That could have meant making some expensive mistakes."
According to animator Mark Kausler, Krantz was so nervous about showing too much nudity and sexual activities that he had several versions of some sequences animated, for instance, in the "Maybellene" animation sequence. Kausler says that a sequence was animated in which the viewer sees "the key in the ignition metamorphose into a penis entering Maybelline's vagina." This sequence was deleted from Heavy Traffic, but the same action appeared in the film Down and Dirty Duck. Kausler also states:
"I covered this scene with another one of the key changing into the fat black guy, and the ignition slot turning into Maybellene. I covered a lot more cartoony foreplay scenes with a simple close-up of the fat black man's face with his hand covering his eyes. You can get a sense of how many scenes had to be altered, by how many times this close-up drawing was used. It got used a lot! At one point the original version "A" of Maybellene existed. Ralph had a print of it, but I have not seen it since I worked on it. We did versions "A," B", and "C," with "C" being the tamest and that is what got into the so-called "X" version of Heavy Traffic. Another scene I can recall doing multiple versions of was the guy in the racing cap, pissing on the fat black guy's ass. This was completely eliminated, causing a jump in the action."
Edward Hopper's famous 1942 painting Nighthawks was used as a background in one of the film's sequences. Several animation sequences appear as rough sketchbook pages, including a dream sequence influenced by the work of Otto Messmer and a George Herriman-influenced sequence set to Chuck Berry's "Maybellene".
The film's score was composed by Ed Bogas and Ray Shanklin. The soundtrack was released by Fantasy Records and Ampex Tapes in 1973. The album was released on compact disc in 1996 as part of a compilation that featured both the soundtracks to Fritz the Cat and Heavy Traffic on the same disc. The film also featured songs by Sérgio Mendes and Brasil '66, The Isley Brothers, Dave Brubeck, and Chuck Berry.
Although Heavy Traffic received an X rating from the Motion Picture Association of America, more theaters were willing to screen adult-oriented animated features because of the success of Fritz the Cat, and Heavy Traffic was a box office success. Ralph Bakshi was the first person in the animation industry since Walt Disney to have two financially successful films back-to-back. The film is considered to be Bakshi's biggest critical success. Newsweek wrote that the film contained "black humor, powerful grotesquerie and peculiar raw beauty. Episodes of violence and sexuality are both explicit and parodies of flesh-and-blood porn [...] a celebration of urban decay." Charles Champlin wrote in The New York Times that the film was "furious energy, uncomfortable to watch as often as it is hilarious." The Hollywood Reporter called it "shocking, outrageous, offensive, sometimes incoherent, occasionally unintelligent. However, it is also an authentic work of movie art and Bakshi is certainly the most creative American animator since Disney." Film website Rotten Tomatoes, which compiles reviews from a wide range of critics, gives the film a score of 89%. Vincent Canby ranked it among his "Ten Best Films of 1973". The film was banned by the film censorship board in the province of Alberta, Canada when it was originally released.
Roger Greenspun of The New York Times wrote in his 1973 review "People who felt that his earlier feature, Fritz the Cat, merely debased a cherished original, can now judge Bakshi's development of his own material. I think that development is as brilliant as anything in recent movies—as brilliant and, in its own improbable way, as lovely and as sad."
Michael Barrier, an animation historian, described Heavy Traffic and Fritz the Cat as "not merely provocative, but highly ambitious." Barrier described the films as an effort "to push beyond what was done in the old cartoons, even while building on their strengths."
An R-rated version was released on VHS and Region 1 DVD by MGM Home Entertainment in 1999. On July 16, 2013, Shout! Factory and MGM released Heavy Traffic on Blu-ray for its 40th anniversary.