This 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.
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?
George LaMain is a mild-mannered youth who on this day turns sixteen years old – 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 in childbirth. 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.
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 adult space that drives a story set over twenty-four hours (the restricted narrative period can make the movie 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 shirt 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.
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).
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 directorial 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.
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 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 it 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