FAT CITY scored a welcome 1972 knockout for critics and fans of director John Huston. While it came in 99th among earners, a small scale production and low cost ensured a profit, and the universal praise from reviewers & peers was the best the rascally maverick auteur had received in a long while. It also gave a big leg up to four offbeat, arresting newcomers: Stacy Keach, Jeff Bridges, Susan Tyrell (Oscar nominated) and Candy Clark. *
Washed up at 29, punched-out, alcoholic tank town boxer Keach tries in feeble vain for another shot at something better than life as a day laborer, hiring out of skid row in Stockton, California. Naive young-blood Bridges (with a kid on the way from his sweet but dim-bulb hookup Clark) makes his acquaintance and becomes the newest protégé of Keach’s manager, played to perfection by the inimitable Nicholas Colasanto. The handler, a decent guy like his fighters, isn’t much more on the ball than they are, at least when it comes to judging talent, as he’s basically guiding their limited skills and fragile dreams further into the environs of Palookaville.
“The job I’d really like hasn’t been invented.”
Penetrating, quietly searing, often as ruefully funny as it is achingly sad, it’s not so much an examination of the bleak underside of the desperate sport as a gripping, compassionate, utterly convincing study of the can’t-win plight of “born losers” in general. Superbly directed by Huston (an amateur pugilist back in his freewheeling youth), beautifully scripted by Leonard Gardner from his acclaimed 1969 novel (the dialogue is spot on), brilliantly acted to a fault by everyone. Not a happy story by a mile, with no convenient escapist ending; the arc is downbeat all the way and true to the last. But downbeat doesn’t equal downer, since Gardner & Huston’s portrait of these victims (of personal caprice as well as social class) and their drab and shabby milieu is so richly observant, non-sensational, humane and forgiving.
Keach, 29 at the time, regarded this as his best work: it’s no slight to his many subsequent top-notch performances to say that he was never better than in his nakedly honest turn here. Tyrrell, 26 in her second film appearance, as Keach’s castoff, sherry-swilling albatross of a quasi-girlfriend is flawless: the scenes between his clumsily gallant, well-meaning stumble-bum and this wretchedly messed-up gal are achingly accurate portraits of battered souls without any hope that extends much farther than the next slug of cheap swill or a spout of hollow defiance.
The realistic, effectively punishing fight sequences include two scenes where Keach and Bridges’ bloody and dazed reactions are the real thing, as the actual boxers they were fighting didn’t fully pull their punches. Whoever trained the two helped them move with enough skill that they convince as guys who could cold-cock you in a bar or barely hang tough in cheesy arenas like the film displays, but are not anything like talented enough to move into the game with lethal pros. The dank, atmospheric sets and bleak, unadorned locales are splendidly evoked in the gritty, grainy look captured by Conrad Hall’s cinematography. Huston said “The picture was supposed to look poor, but not seedy. There’s a big difference between photographing a hovel so it looks to be a hovel and doing it so it looks like bad photography.” **
Kris Kristofferson’s plaintive “Help Me Make It Through The Night” finds a poignant niche in the wisely sparse soundtrack. With Art Aragon, Curtis Cokes and Sixto Rodriguez.Box-office take came to $2,600,000. 96 minutes. An Americana classic.
* It had been eleven years since Huston’s last film shot in the States, The Misfits. Critics hadn’t been kind to his diffuse output, apart from 1964s The Night Of The Iguana. Both The Bible and Casino Royale made a pile of money, but his other efforts had flopped at the registers as well as with frustrated (and unkind) reviewers. It was Candy Clark’s debut film, at 24: her next gig was the immortal ‘Debbie’ in American Graffiti, snagging an Oscar nomination. The bizarre, fearless, one-of-a-kind Tyrrell, who went up for the Supporting Actress statue for her magnificent skank in this story, quoted her mom: “The last thing my mother said to me was, ‘SuSu, your life is a celebration of everything that is cheap and tawdry.’ I’ve always liked that, and I’ve always tried to live up to it.” Her nomination lost out to Eileen Heckart’s turn in Butterflies Are Free. Keach should have been nominated for his stellar work here.
** The novel was set in the 50s, the film updated to the 70s, but the Skid Row look was still a feature of urban landscapes that seemed unchanging. Stockton’s derelict area shown so well by Huston & Hall was demolished to make space for a freeway. In so many parts of the country, the perennially depressed underclass have now been cast off even from their traditional beat-to-Pete flops, torn up for gentrification to further enrich those that already have it all. Now the human residue that couldn’t/can’t/won’t-ever make the next rung on the Horatio Alger fiction-ladder are scattered among us all in tents and sleeping bags under every overpass, parking lot, sidewalk indent and untended bush they can claim. American Heritage delivered to your doorstep.