Back in 1972 a veteran Hollywood director with a decades-long track record made something of a comeback when he tackled a screenplay written by a former pugilist in which there were some guts, but very little glory. Mark Fraser revisits a film that arguably deserves to be considered part of the Seventies’ American New Wave.
WARNING: This review contains spoilers.
Washed up boxer Billy Tully (Stacy Keach) begins Fat City the same way he ends it – scrounging for a cigarette light.
Although he eventually gets by without a smoke at the start of the movie, by its closing moments he is more desperate for one than ever, thanks to the tumultuous set of circumstances which have just beset him for the past 100 minutes of screen time.
During the course of the movie Tully has momentarily put a past divorce behind him and made something of a comeback in the world of low rent boxing, along the way briefly bonding with younger wannabe fighter Ernie Munger (Jeff Bridges) as well as becoming romantically involved with verbose barfly Oma (Susan Tyrell). By the film’s end, however, everything has come apart again, throwing him back into the grim reality of a lonely day-to-day existence on skid row.
While John Huston’s 1972 Fat City is a deceivingly laid back work, the story underpinning it is far from relaxed.
Beneath the film’s leisurely-paced surface lies one of the starkest statements about the futility of achieving the American Dream ever committed to Hollywood celluloid, portraying the brutal world of boxing as a desperate grab for an independent life rather than a pathway to fame and fortune.
Aside from the fact it is terrifically directed by Huston and boasts fine performances from all of its cast, Fat City also defies generic expectations, being neither a full blown sports movie nor a buddy-buddy one.
Ultimately, the film is not about athletes reaching the top of their game; nor does it eventually establish any truly meaningful friendship between Tully and Munger.
Rather, it eschews all forms of macho heroics and sentiment, concentrating instead on “life’s futile cycle of work, drink, makeshift relations and continual defeat” (Pratley, 1977).
In essence it is a naked, albeit sympathetic, study of two flawed men (and, to a lesser extent, their respective spouses) who have either already missed the gravy train or suspect that one will probably never turn up.
Based on a 1969 American novel of the same name by former boxer Leonard Gardner (who also wrote the screenplay), Fat City is set in the poverty-stricken rural Californian river city of Stockton – which sits about 145 kilometres inland from San Francisco in San Joaquin County (and is brilliantly introduced by Huston via a series of extended moving double-exposed shots just before the movie’s opening credits)* – and more or less follows Tully as he tries to revitalise his career in the ring following a few years of self-imposed alcohol-soaked exile on the back of a permanent separation from his unseen ex-wife.
During a brief workout in a YMCA gym he meets the younger Munger, and is so impressed with the younger man’s natural athletic abilities that he suggests the teenager visit his former manager and trainer Ruben (Nicholas Colasanto) with whom, it transpires, Tully still has serious issues after an incident a few years before involving an unsuccessful fight in Mexico.
As the impressionable Munger is fooled into thinking he may have a future as a fighter, Tully hitches up with Oma after her browbeaten boyfriend Earl (a quietly-spoken Curtis Cokes) is sent to prison.
Very soon the washed out fighter convinces himself that he can make a comeback, and gets fit by working in the field as an onion picker with other members of Stockton’s itinerant labour market.
Living with the volatile Oma, however, proves to be problematic, and it eventually pushes him back to the bottle.
Meanwhile Munger – whose nose is smashed in during his unsuccessful first fight before suffering an unequivocal defeat in his second – also gets seriously distracted when he impregnates Faye (Candy Clarke) and feels obliged to marry her.
Along the way the two men meet again during a work detail and, for a moment, it seems their friendship will be cemented by their common interest in boxing.
But all of this starts fading away when Tully eventually does get back into the ring – and beats the aging worse-for-wear Mexican fighter Lucero (Sixto Rodriguez, in a beautifully understated performance) – before his disillusionment with the sport goes full circle following a post-match pay dispute with Ruben.
Thus the stage is set for Fat City’s epiphanous final act, which concludes after the two men run into each other in downtown Stockton as the drunken Tully is trying to bum a cigarette light from passers-by and decide (albeit against Munger’s better judgment) to have a cup of coffee in a nearby skid row diner.
Throughout his 46 year feature film-making career – which started with 1941’s The Maltese Falcon – Huston, who was already an established Academy Award nominated screenwriter, directed 38 movies (plus four documentaries made during World War II), with a handful of them (including the above-mentioned private eye melodrama, The Treasure of Sierra Madre, Key Largo [both 1948], The Asphalt Jungle , The African Queen  and, to a lesser extent, 1956’s Moby Dick) becoming bona fide Hollywood classics.
While Fat City pretty much slipped under the radar following its initial brief release, it remains one of his best, and surprisingly leanest, efforts**, being a wonderfully low key, straightforward and clear-headed account of life’s overwhelming burdens.
Although many critics of its day regarded the movie as something of a comeback for the veteran director – whose efforts between 1961’s The Misfits and The Kremlin Letter (1970) were not generally well-received – it is important to note that this film is totally consistent when looking at Huston’s body of work as a whole.
Throughout his career the director concentrated on telling stories (usually based on literally adaptations) which involved “a mythical quest that turns out to be a wild goose chase” wherein “the failure of the hero’s pursuits become a sort of Hustonian trademark” (Coursodan and Sauvage, 1983).
“What the hero really seeks, of course, is his own identity, and whatever he finds about himself, he does through the disappointments and agonies of tracking down the elusive goose …” American Directors authors Jean-Pierre Coursodan and Pierre Sauvage wrote back in the early 1980s.
“Fat City is another Huston film about losers, about hope, struggle and failure, and in a sense it is one of the most pessimistic he ever made. The approach, however, remains understated and matter-of-fact, with no attempt at blowing up the anecdote into universal meaning, and the variety of moods is such that somehow – and despite a most downbeat ending – one doesn’t walk away from the film with a feeling of bitterness or depression, but rather a sense of wonder at the range of human experiences it encompasses.”
Given these observations, it’s arguable that Huston should be given more credit as a true auteur in the annals of American film criticism than he has thus far received.
While his movies don’t contain a distinctive visual or stylistic signature per se, they are consistent when it comes to economy of coverage and the purposeful framing of shots.
In Fat City, for instance, Huston relies heavily on conventional tripod-mounted longer takes – partly, one assumes, because they neither consciously interrupt the performances during the moments of heavy drama (such as the massive argument between Tully and Oma around the middle of the film) nor glorify the boxing matches themselves, which are quite far removed from those in other ringside films like John G Avildsen’s Rocky (1976), Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull (1980) and Clint Eastwood’s Million Dollar Baby (2004).
Additionally, his actors never play second fiddle to the mise-en-scene – everything in his films is predominantly character-driven, with tricky camerawork, fancy set designs and elaborate action sequences taking a back seat to human idiosyncrasies and interaction. Given this, it’s easy to see why Huston had a penchant for bringing literary adaptations to the screen; like his stars, he obviously enjoyed being part of the interpretation process.
In his book Easy Riders, Raging Bulls: How the Sex ‘N’ Drugs ‘N’ Rock ‘N’ Roll Generation Saved Hollywood, Peter Biskind points out one of the main features of 1970s American New Wave cinema is that it yielded a collective body of work which was “risky, high quality … that was character-, rather than plot-driven, that defied traditional narrative conventions, that challenged the tyranny of technical correctness, that broke the taboos of language and behaviour, (and) that dared to end unhappily” (Biskind, 1999).
Furthermore: “…70s movies retain their power to unsettle; time has not dulled their edge, and they are just as provocative now as they were the day they were released.”
With Fat City (along with The Man Who Would be King  and Wise Blood ), Huston’s approach to film making during the 1970s definitely reflected this ethos.
Although conventional and technically adequate (in the same way Eastwood’s movies are), this work is still as thought-provoking as any of the other ones made at the time by acknowledged New Hollywood directors like Robert Altman, Hal Ashby, Peter Bogdanovich, Woody Allen, Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg, Brian De Palma and George Lucas.
Bearing this in mind, it remains unlikely Huston was out to prove anything in particular when he made this film.
Except, of course, to come up with another quality motion picture. In this regard, Fat City easily makes the grade.
*One interesting aspect of Huston’s portrayal of Stockton, though, is the fact there’s never any firm visual acknowledgement in the film that it’s a port city (on the San Joaquin River), which provides an important shipping destination within Northern California’s trade network. Instead, the director focuses on its agricultural sector and adjoining deadbeat end of town.
**A sentiment obviously shared by English critic/author David Thompson, who once named The Maltese Falcon, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, The Asphalt Jungle, Beat the Devil (1953), Fat City and The Man Who Would Be King as “very good indeed” examples of Huston’s oeuvre (“One Hell of a Life”, The Guardian, December 2, 2006).
Gerald Pratley: “The First International Film Maker”, The Cinema of John Huston, AS Barnes and Company, 1977, pp 175-179
Jean-Pierre Coursodon and Pierre Sauvage: “John Huston”, American Directors (Volume I), McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1983, pp 132-138
Peter Biskind: Easy Riders, Raging Bulls: How the Sex ‘N’ Drugs ‘N’ Rock ‘N’ Roll Generation Saved Hollywood, Bloomsbury Publishing Plc (London), 1999, p 17
INDICATOR LIMITED EDITION SPECIAL FEATURES:
Original mono audio
Audio commentary by film historians Lem Dobbs and Nick Redman
New ‘making of’ documentary featuring interviews with stars Stacy Keach and Candy Clark
Archival interview with director John Huston on Fat City
Original theatrical trailer
New and improved English subtitles for the deaf and hard-of-hearing
Limited edition exclusive booklet with a new essay by critic Danny Leigh
UK Blu-ray premiere
Limited Dual Format Edition of 3,000 copies
Words by Mark Fraser
Top 10 Films reviewed Fat City on Blu-ray courtesy of Powerhouse. Fat City was released on dual format Blu-ray/DVD March 27, 2017.
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