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The Big Night

Posted by martinteller on November 3, 2012

“Down on your hands and knees, La Main.  Let’s get this over with.”

George La Main (John Drew Barrymore) lives with his single father (Preston Foster), a bar owner, and Flanagan (Howland Chamberlain), the bartender and an old family friend.  George is a teenager, and a classic milquetoast.  Every one pushes him around, tells him what to do, humiliates him.  And — on George’s birthday, no less — he watches his father get humiliated, savagely beaten by the bullying sports reporter Al Judge (Howard St. John).  George sets out on a quest for vengeance, on a night that will bring him to boxing rings, seedy nightclubs, strange apartments… and harsh revelations.  Along the way, he’ll meet a lush journalist (Philip Bourneuf), an intimidating con man (Emile Meyer) and a sweet girl (Joan Lorring).

Joseph Losey directed four American noir features before being blacklisted.  The most highly-regarded of these is The Prowler, a film held in high esteem by most noir fans, but one I found merely okay (I should make a list of these, there’s a number of them).  The other two — a remake of Fritz Lang’s M and the social message movie The Lawless — were more underwhelming, though not without some intriguing qualities.  The Big Night is easily my favorite of them, and my favorite Losey so far behind The Servant.

But let’s deal with the negatives first.  The musical score is sometimes overblown.  Bourneuf’s performance is mostly annoying, stereotypical pompous journalist at first and then stereotypical slurring drunk.  Only in his final scene do we get something good out of him (one of George’s many harsh lessons of the evening).  And then there’s Barrymore, whose poor-man’s-James-Dean act can get a little tiresome as he keeps brooding and sulking throughout.

But Barrymore does pull off some fantastic moments.  For instance, when he puts on his hat and far too large jacket and sizes himself up in the mirror, trying out the tough guy talk he’s going to lay on St. John.  Or, in the film’s most heartbreaking moment, when he shyly tells an African-American lounge singer (Mauri Lynn) “You’re… you’re so beautiful.  Even if you are a….”  and stops himself, but too late.  The offense has already landed, the hurt has registered on her face.  He achingly protests “I didn’t mean to say it” over and over, but he’s seen an ugly side of himself he didn’t know was there.

That brings us to the main thrust of the film, George’s realization that the things he thought were black and white are all just different shades of gray.  The movie is short on violence (though Foster’s beating is pretty harsh) and those looking for a tight, gritty crime thriller may be disappointed to find a somewhat meandering coming-of-age story instead.  But the cynical sensibility behind it is the stuff of noir.  George becomes a man not because he wears a hat and carries a gun, but because he learns that people aren’t always what they seem… your heroes may have dark secrets, and the evildoers may have good reasons.

The cinematography is very good, as is usually the case with Losey.  The angles are chosen wisely, bringing dramatic flair in the positioning of characters and objects.  One particularly nifty bit is when George stares at a candle and it morphs into the birthday cake that languished on the bar as his father was being walloped with a cane.  Another intriguing bit about this scene is that it’s a drum solo that sets off this hallucination, the rhythm reminding him of the beats on his father’s back.  It might make a good companion piece to Phantom Lady, featuring Elisha Cook, Jr.’s orgasmic drum solo.  Also interesting to note that the story takes place entirely in one night, with no flashbacks.  Not unheard of in noir, but fairly uncommon.  There’s also a considerable amount of restraint shown in holding out so long before revealing why a sports reporter would want to assault a bar owner.

It’s not a movie that will appeal to all noir aficionados and there are certainly some flaws, but I found it quite compelling.  Rich nuance and artful execution.  Rating: Very Good (86)


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