The Big Night (1951) – Tuesday’s Overlooked Film

Losey-Big-Night-poster2This unusual Film Noir, based on the Stanley Ellin book Dreadful Summit (click here for my review) was the last Hollywood project for director Joseph Losey before being forced to flee to Europe to escape the McCarthy witch hunt. Set in New York but filmed in California, it’s a coming-of-age story tinged with Oedipal themes starring John Barrymore Jr.

The following review is offered as part of the Tuesday’s Overlooked Film meme hosted by Todd Mason over at his Sweet Freedom blog. I also submit it for the 2013 Book to Movie Challenge at the Doing Dewey blog – for links to the other participants’ reviews, click here.

“What’s the matter Georgie, they trying to rush your education?”

Losey’s Hollywood swansong was shot in the Summer of 1951 and released at the end of the same year. It is a sign of just how tough those times were for Liberals in this period that along with Losey being sent out into exile, blacklisted co-writers Ring Lardner Jr. and Hugo Butler were denied on-screen credit, Dorothy Comingore (so memorable as Susan Alexander in Citizen Kane) was blacklisted shortly afterwards so ending her screen career outright while Howland Chamberlain, who plays Flanagan the bartender, was blacklisted and wouldn’t be seen on the screen, large or small, for twenty years. It is tempting to try and read something of this situation into the finished film though it probably manifests itself mainly in a pronounced sympathy for the underdog in its depiction of George, its teenage protagonist.

Big-Night-Barrymore

Also, in exploring Losey’s possible intentions behind the scenes, one has to note that the film as it stands today is not quite what the director had envisaged. Losey had originally structured the film to be told in a series of flashbacks in classic Noir fashion but this was removed by the producers in post-production to create a more linear story, which is in fact much more in keeping with that of the original novel. The only evidence that remains of the director’s original plan is the opening shot of George walking through the streets at night, which comes from near the end of the story and which would have launched the flashbacks, here seen just before and the under the opening titles. But no matter what might have been – what do we actually have instead?

Big-Night-pre-titles

George LaMain is a mild-mannered youth who today is celebrating his sixteenth birthday – bullied by the kids outside the tavern that his father runs, inside he is mothered Flanagan the bartender, who has been living with them ever since his mother died when the boy was born. In one of the few instances where the film version proves bolder than the book, Flanagan (Howland Chamberlain) is played very clearly as homosexual and is one of the few completely sympathetic characters on display.

Big-Night-03

Howland Chamberlain and John Barrymore Jr in ‘The Big Night’.

Barrymore Jr, who was the son of the ‘the great profile’ and father to actress Drew Barrymore (in his later films he was billed as ‘John Drew Barrymore), stars as a teenager seeking to avenge his father’s disgrace. In the process he strives towards his own transition out of adolescence and into adulthood. In a variation on Hamlet, it’s the protagonist’s struggles to comprehend the alien space that drives a story set over twenty-four hours. This can make the narrative feel a little overly compressed in terms of plausibility. It all begins with a shocking act of violence

“Take off your shirt LaMain, I want to see some skin”

Sport columnist Al Judge, ominously swinging his trademark walking cane, comes into the tavern just as Georgie is blowing out the candles on his birthday cake – symbolically, one is left lit as Judge calls out his father name. He then has Andy take his short off and submit to a beating with his cane, which the father mysteriously endures without complaint. Following the humiliating beating, George takes his father’s gun, suit and hat and heads out to punish Al Judge. It’s a dynamic central set-up and Ellin’s background as a short story writer (it was his first novel) shows as this could work almost as a standalone story – but here we will have to wait much longer to find out what lies behind this traumatic event.

Big-Night-Foster

The narrative follows the book exactly as George heads to the family next door to get a quarter and has to look after their screaming baby (where in a disturbing juxtaposition he also practices holding his father’s gun in the mirror) before he can start hunting down Judge. At the neighbour’s store he meets a cop who knows what happened but who doesn’t want to go after Judge but rather warns George off about looking for revenge. This sets up a pattern in the film where the police and other authority figures usually turn up at inconvenient times to up the suspense. George knows the journalist will be going to the boxing bout he was meant to be seeing with his father as a birthday treat and on the steps of the arena sells the now spare ticket to Dr Cooper (Philip Bourneuf), a professor of Philosophy who also knows Judge and dislikes him. This is just one of many coincidences that pepper the plot but that don’t hurt the film too much as the compressed nature of the story inevitably suggests the need for some shortcuts. In an amusing few shots for film buffs during the boxing match sequence we can see bespectacled assistant director Robert Aldrich sit next to the pair and share his drink (shortly after he would start his own directing career that included such memorable movies as Kiss Me Deadly, What Happened to Baby Jane? and The Dirty Dozen).

Philip Bourneuf and Ronert Aldrich in 'The Big Night'.

Philip Bourneuf and Robert Aldrich in ‘The Big Night’.

Cooper gets George drunk (well, it’s his first ever drink – this will be a night full of ‘firsts’) at a bar where Judge hangs out, where he also meets Peck, the man who stole the $10 Cooper gave him for the fight ticket by pretending to be a cop, leading to a confrontation in the men’s room in which George surprisingly comes out the winner; Cooper then takes George to a jazz club where they meets his girlfriend played by Comingore. She is very ticked off because Cooper is late and her sister Marion is back in town early but she takes an interest in George and takes him for a spin on the crowded dance floor. At the club we get the one bit of show-off technique when the incessant beat of the drummer makes the boy remember the savage attack on his father. This is achieved with quick cuts and super-impositions in a scene reminiscent of the rather more stylish standout sequence in Siodmak’s Phantom Lady (1944, review coming to Fedora very soon). They then head back to Comingore’s flat where George passes out and then meets Comingore’s sister, Marion, played by Joan Lorring, who really takes a shine to the young lad but is rightfully alarmed when she sees the gun he is carrying. George gets angry after she tries to hide the weapon and runs out into the night and tracks Judge down to a strangely familiar address – we now discover the reason for the beating and there will be several more revelations as George starts to to see the world as it really is.

Big-Night-Lorring-Barrymore

Joan Lorring lends a sympathetic ear in ‘The Big Night’.

This adaptation is a fascinating example of where fidelity to the original text has been respected  to a considerable degree, maintaining all major scenes, settings and characters – and yet where the impact has been blunted, largely due to the need to satisfy the censor. Thus a racial slur, crucial in the sad climax to the scene where George meets the nightclub singer, has been omitted; a reference to an abortion, the main motivation for the motor of the plot, has been excised; a beating in a restroom is toned down almost to the point of near non-existence; George’s losing of his virginity reduced to a simple couple of kisses; and the climactic gun fight omitted. And yet, as these would clearly not have been permissible under the code, what Losey and his writers do instead is provide an emotional climax emphasising the father and son relationship in a highly impressive scene shot in two unusually long takes. George explains to Marion what he wishes he could have said to his father to convey his love while, in response, she tells him that while she understands his feeling of revenge, to pursue this with a gun was completely wrong. These are at the heart of the film, as they should be, and are more than given their due weight thanks to really solid playing by Barrymore Jr – by using a medium closeup and then a tight shot with the takes lasting well over a minute, the actor has nowhere to hide and here acquits himself splendidly. The story may be a little contrived and its very nature makes for a rather dour and sad tale – but it is well told and the performances (including the inexperienced Barrymore) generally first-rate and at 75 minutes certainly doesn’t overstay its welcome.

DVD Availability: In the UK this is available as part of the Joseph Losey box set and in the US ‘made on demand’ version as part of the MGM Limited Edition Collection. Both offer perfectly acceptable transfers based on decently preserved masters with no extras at all.

The Big Night (1951)
Director: Joseph Losey
Producer: Philip A. Waxman
Screenplay: Joseph Losey and Stanley Ellin (from Ellin’s novel Dreadful Summit)
Cinematography: Hal Mohr
Art Direction: Nicolai Remisoff
Music: Lyn Murray
Cast: John Barrymore Jr, Preston Foster, Howard St. John, Dorothy Comingore, Howland Chamberlain

***** (2.5 fedora tips out of 5)

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This entry was posted in 2013 Book to Movie Challenge, Film Noir, Joseph Losey, New York, Noir on Tuesday, Scene of the crime, Stanley Ellin, Tuesday's Overlooked Film. Bookmark the permalink.

19 Responses to The Big Night (1951) – Tuesday’s Overlooked Film

  1. Sergio – I’m not at all an advocate for ‘dressing up’ a film with extra slurs, brutality and other such things just for effect. To my mind that strategy is all too often used to ‘cover up’ a lack of plot and/or characterisation. But that said, there are indeed times when an offensive word, a violent act or something else controversial is an essential part of a story. In those cases I don’t know that such things should be censored. Certainly people should be made aware of them so that they can choose what they want to see, just as people should be made aware of, say, explicitness in books so as to make informed choices. But beyond that, I always like it best when those major ‘flash points’ of a novel are preserved in a film. Thanks as ever for an excellent, thoughtful review and some interesting ‘food for thought.’

    • Thanks Margot – obviously, being 1948, this is a film that tries to push the envelope a little bit but within very strict confines and is all the more intersting for that, though it is undeniably still a small film (and a dour one at that), but at least with some big ideas behind it (granted, most of them from Ellin’s original novel).

  2. Colin says:

    Really ought to catch up with this one Sergio. I’ve said before that I’m not Barrymore’s biggest fan but anything by Losey is worth checking out.
    By coincidence, I just watched one of Losey’s early British films – Finger of Guilt – the other day.

    • Well worth catching up Colin and it may be Barrymore’s greatest role. I haven’t watched Finger of Guilt (aka Intimate Stranger) in a very long time – thanks for that chum, shall be looking it up very shortly!

      • Colin says:

        It was up on YouTube so shouldn’t be too hard to locate.

        • I did spot that actually but worried as always about provenance, so I wasn’t going to draw attention to it – but I can’t spot an easily available DVD version, so what the hell – thanks as always Colin:

          • Colin says:

            Worth a look for sure. Basehart & Murphy are very good but Faith Brook is weak as Basehart’s wife. The whole thing’s a nice subversion of the usual “woman doubting her sanity” angle.

          • Been much too long since I saw it as my memory is pretty hazy I must admit though I always liked Basehart – thanks again for the reminder.

  3. Patti Abbott says:

    I thought this would be the Stanley Tucci film. Not quite.

  4. John says:

    Funny about the title. I thought the same thing as Patti. I remember Barrymore in HIGH SCHOOL CONFIDENTIAL (ten years too old to be playing a high schooler!) but can’t recall seeing him in anything else. Oh! imdb.com tells me he was in WHILE THE CITY SLEEPS but I only remember Dana Andrews. After seeing THE PROWLER I have to agree with Colin that almost anything by Losey is worth seeing. One caveat: I really can’t stand that Modesty Blaise movie adaptation he made. I’d love to see his remake of M! Will check out both this and FINGER OF GUILT. Thanks for the YouTube link to the other movie though I know it probalby was a thorn in your side to do so. :^)

    • Thanks very much chum and yeah, it pricked my conscience, but only fleetingly John! I think Modesty was the first of his that I saw as a kid and I loathed it too – Losey had virtually no sense of humour, though there are some wickedly dark lines in Pinter’s scripts for Accident, The Go-Between and of course The Servant, but I love his work – even overblown films like Boom have an extraordinary control about them that to me is really seductive. Barrymore plays the killer in While the City Sleeps and it’s a pretty thankless role. Speaking of Lang, it’s been ages since I saw the remake of M – my recollection is that it stands up on its own but is best not compared!

  5. John says:

    I was just reviewing which films I have yet to see of Losey’s and discovered that one of them — STRANGER ON THE PROWL (1951) — is based on the same short story by Noel Calef that later became the source for TIGER BAY! Now I have to track down that movie.

  6. TracyK says:

    I still haven’t read any books by Stanley Ellin and someday I am going to have to do something about that. And in this case I will stick with the book, not the movie. Lots of interesting information about the people acting in and producing the film, related to blacklisting. I don’t think I knew that about Dorothy Comingore, although my husband might have told me. Citizen Kane is a favorite movie in our house.

    • Ah, well, once again you prove what good taste you have TracyK – Citizen Kane is officially the best film ever made in our house so we’re both somewhere on the same page. Really hope you get to sample some E;in – his short stories and novels are criminally neglected these days!

  7. Pingback: Joseph Losey’s crime movies | Tipping My Fedora

  8. Pingback: Blind Date (1959) – Tuesday’s Overlooked Film | Tipping My Fedora

  9. Pingback: 2013 Book to Movie Challenge – completed | Tipping My Fedora

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