Fat City


John Huston sets the bar for director-driven quality filmmaking of the early 1970s. Stacy Keach is a punchy boxing bum who teams up with the ambitious newcomer Jeff Bridges; the glowing discovery is the amazing Susan Tyrell, film history’s most convincingly caustic floozy-alcoholic, bar none. Her voice can peel paint, but we love her dearly.

Fat City
Twilight Time
Limited Edition
1972 / Color / 1:85 widescreen / 100 min. / Street Date September 8, 2015 / available through the Twilight Time Movies / 20.95
Starring Stacy Keach, Jeff Bridges, Susan Tyrrell, Candy Clark,
Nicholas Colasanto, Art Aragon, Curtis Cokes, Sixto Rodriguez
Cinematography Conrad L. Hall
Production Designer Richard Sylbert
Film Editor Walter Thompson
Original Music Kris Kristofferson, Marvin Hamlisch (supervisor)
Written by Leonard Gardner from his novel
<Produced by John Huston, Ray Stark
Directed by John Huston

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

This rewarding show is a fine opportunity to catch up on two great talents, John Huston and Stacy Keach. Many of Keach’s 1970s movies were box office no-shows, yet are highly recommended just the same. Three I’ve reviewed in good presentations are End of the Road, The Traveling Executioner and The Squeeze.

Everyone’s seen director John Huston’s classic hits, but there’s a lot more to the man. Earlier in his career Huston was often reviewed on the basis of his maverick personal lifestyle. Reports from the set of his triumph The African Queen paint a picture of a man less interested in filming a movie than running off to ‘play’ on safari. If Huston agonized over his film work, he kept his feelings well hidden. In her book on the making of Huston’s The Red Badge of Courage, Lillian Ross witnessed the destruction of a potential American classic in a studio power play. MGM so radically chopped down the film that it barely reaches feature length. But Huston didn’t sweat such trifles. Not the kind to look back, he had already moved on.

Critics cite the classic Huston theme as a celebration of glorious failure, the shining example being Treasure of the Sierra Madre. Its prospectors lose everything and then share a belly laugh at the cosmic joke played at their expense. Huston’s heroes may fail but their efforts are admired, applauded: revolutionary conspirators (We Were Strangers), jewel thieves (The Asphalt Jungle), ecological guerillas (The Roots of Heaven). There are exceptions, but even some of those are deceptive. We’re told that the attempt to sink the gunboat at the end of The African Queen was originally scripted to fail.

John Huston made plenty of box office flops yet only one or two really dull pictures. While other great directors struggled to stay employed in the new Hollywood of the 1970s, Huston adapted to new forms. His first artistic triumph of the Director’s Decade is Fat City, an unvarnished portrait of a core Huston loser, a washed-up prizefighter who gives the game another try. Critically applauded but barely seen when new, Fat City can boast a terrific cast headed by Stacy Keach and Jeff Bridges, and featuring a startlingly original performance from Susan Tyrell, a real one-of-a-kind actress.

Writer Leonard Gardner adapted his own novel for the screen. Broken-down boxer Tully (Stacy Keach) supports his liquor habit by picking crops with the migrant workers near Stockton, California. Upon meeting Ernie (Jeff Bridges), an enthusiastic novice boxer with potential, Tully is inspired to try the ring again. Both fighters are represented by manager Ruben (Nicholas Colasanto), a lover of the sport who can’t seem to choose a winner — all of his hopefuls keep getting pummeled. Ernie decides to persevere despite the misgivings of his sweet girlfriend Faye (Candy Clark), and even after his nose is flattened in his very first fight. Tully begins a relationship with the slovenly Oma (Susan Tyrell), a garrulous, argumentative alcoholic with a voice that could peel paint. Oma takes him in while her regular man Earl (Curtis Cokes) is locked up in prison. Ruben manages to get Tully a fight with a contender from Panama named Lucero (Sixto Rodriguez). Can Tully withstand Oma’s emotional onslaught, and stay sober long enough to fight?

Huston adapts ably to the character-oriented rhythms of ’70s filmmaking. His opening sequence establishes the economic stagnation in Stockton. What’s the big issue of the day? The unwashed Tully ventures out of his dingy flat in search of a match to light his last cigarette. Tully is basically a good egg, a man with few grudges. He got out of shape after being cut up by an opponent who may have hidden a razor in his boxing gloves. Booze smoothed the path to the lower depths, but he still maintains a basic sociability. At one point late in the picture Tully says that he’s turning thirty. Is he kidding himself? Or has the liquor slammed ten extra years onto him?

Unlike the semi-docu On the Bowery or Barbet Schroeder’s inebriate’s epic Barfly, Fat City doesn’t condemn, mock or pity the drunks at “the bottom.” Tully finds a new colleague in Ernie, and both boxers have a loyal friend in their manager. Ruben is not a particularly able boxing manager, as he tends to transmit his personal nervousness to his clients. But no manager cares more about “his boys.” A hilarious pre-fight scene sees Ruben’s young fighters desperately trying to psych themselves up for victory. Post-fight, with every one of them bruised or bandaged, Ruben hands out the beers and assures the troupe that everything will be fine the next time.

Due to the punishment he’s taken and his daily consumption of alcohol, Tully is beginning to show signs of boxer’s dementia. He continues to drink, whether training or picking crops in the intense heat of the fields. But the caustic Oma is even tougher on his overall morale. The woman either drowns Tully in affection or lashes out with complaints and abuse. Her hair a mess, her makeup running down her shiny face, Oma is a total mess. Of the three leading characters Susan Tyrell’s is by far the most original. Her Oma is nobody’s idea of a fallen woman with a heart of gold — yet our heart goes out to her anyway.

Oma and Tully have a couple of domestic scenes that are amazingly believable, pathetic clashes that make them seem like Blondie and Dagwood caught in a skid row Hell. The emotional whiplash has the normally unflappable Tully throwing temper tantrums of his own. Come the big fight with the pro from Panama, Ruben must rush to dry Tully out. He enters the ring exhausted and disoriented.

Gardner and Huston emphasize the loneliness and isolation of failure. The film’s big match is between two pathetic pros on the verge of collapse. The Panamanian boxer Lucero is revealed to be in even worse condition than Tully: something is wrong with his kidneys, as he urinates blood. The man walks slowly into the stadium, dignified but always alone; it’s clear that he’s just hoping to collect some money and go home. Lucero’s nose was broken long ago, and lies flattened to one side. That’s show business.

Fat City was Jeff Bridges’ follow-up film after his breakthrough in The Last Picture Show. Ernie’s likeable and self-assured as a decent, if not-too-bright young athlete. He barely listens to his girlfriend’s hints about marriage; he’s capable of concentrating on only one topic at a time. Candy Clark’s Faye is a precursor to her marvelous performance in the next year’s American Graffiti. It’s clear that Faye will keep Ernie and make him happy.

The amazing Susan Tyrell can’t be blamed if the right parts didn’t come along — there simply aren’t any more like her around. An utterly unregenerate character like Oma couldn’t be properly portrayed in American movies until the retirement of the old Production Code. Had Hollywood remade the classic loser noir Detour, Susan Tyrell would have been the ideal candidate to fill the shoes of Ann Savage as the ferocious Vera.

With the accomplished Conrad Hall as lighting cinematographer, Fat City’s look is raw and naturalistic, yet never distractingly crude. Street and bar scenes are filmed from static setups but the camera moves fluidly during the fight action. Proving that a choice film assignment heals all relationships in Hollywood, Huston’s supervising editor is Margaret Booth, formerly Louis B. Mayer’s editorial hatchet woman. Booth spent a long career enforcing the editorial quality of MGM pictures, which ending up giving the Metro house style a homogenized sameness. According to Lillian Ross, she presided over the dismembering of Huston’s The Red Badge of Courage twenty-one years before. No one ever doubted that Ms. Booth was a brilliant editrix. She does quite well with the relaxed, sometimes purposely slack pace of Huston’s character-driven mini-masterpiece.

The Twilight Time Blu-ray of Fat City is truly wonderful, a beautiful copy of a movie that took full advantage of the new freedom of the screen. Conrad Hall’s work fares much better with the greater contrast range of HD. Older prints and discs all leaned toward greenishness, so it’s great to see the colors better balanced. Characters placed in dark parts of the frame are shadowed, not obliterated. The grain goes up only for a couple of opticals, as happens with a push-in to Tully’s face in the last scene — as perfectly timed a last scene as there ever was.

Nick Redman and Lem Dobbs offer a chatty commentary, rambling on about John Huston’s personality, working methods, professional relationships and various scandals, or near-scandals. Huston is an interesting guy no matter what terrible stories one learns about him. He had an eye for great talent combinations — just by setting Keach and Tyrell in motion together, he did his job well.

Just as useful is Julie Kirgo’s liner note essay, which has more to say about the author Leonard Gardner, and Huston’s working relationship with Ray Stark on four high profile movies, none of which was a breakout hit. An original trailer is included as well.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Fat City Blu-ray rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: Isolated score track, audio commentary with Lem Dobbs and Nick Redman, trailer, Julie Kirgo liner notes
Deaf and Hearing Impaired Friendly?
YES; Subtitles: English
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: September 14, 2015

Text © Copyright 2015 Glenn Erickson