In early 1944, John Huston made a film about an infantry unit’s tortuous struggle to clear the Germans out of San Pietro, a small town northwest of Naples, and the surrounding countryside. When “The Battle of San Pietro” came out, in 1945, it was hailed for the power and the grit of its combat scenes and for its portrait of civilian misery, and Huston was praised for his courage. The film has been honored in those terms many times since. Yet, as Harris reports, the scenes in “The Battle of San Pietro” were largely re-created after the town had been taken from the Germans. Huston had access to official accounts of the struggle, culled from interviews with soldiers who had fought in it, and he used maps and a pointer to keep the American tactics and the chronology straight. But the bloody progress of the G.I.s across fields and along a stony ridge outside the town was staged; Huston’s actors were soldiers whom the Army assigned to the project. The men certainly look the part, their faces fatigued and worried. Huston asked them to stare into the camera now and then, as people do in newsreel footage. At times, the camera jerks wildly, as Ford’s camera had in Midway. Huston turned the signatures of authenticity into artifact.
“San Pietro” ends with text that demurely admits that some of the footage was taken before or after the actual battle—which hardly amounts to full disclosure. Harris has seen the mass of uncut footage, and he’s indignant about the imposture. Yet the issue remains complicated. Certainly, it’s dishonest to claim that something is authentic when it’s not. But all movies are illusions of one sort or another, and perhaps it’s best to say that some illusions are truer than others. In the case of war, what kind of representation brings you the most vivid and the most accurate sense of a terrible event? Steven Spielberg, staging the D Day landing in “Saving Private Ryan,” delivered a greater sense of the deadly turmoil on Omaha Beach than either John Ford or George Stevens, both of whom were in Normandy during the landing, with multiple crews and hundreds of cameras. Many of the cameras were unmanned or didn’t work; the footage recorded that day is largely out of focus or grisly in a fragmentary way.
The War Department wanted morale-building movies for the home front, and, under pressure, both Ford and Wyler softened their groundbreaking work. Ford added hokily reassuring dialogue (spoken by Jane Darwell and Henry Fonda) to “Midway”; Wyler included scenes of ceremonial visits to the Memphis Belle by top generals and by the King and Queen of England. In “The Battle of San Pietro,” Huston offers no such reassurance. As the soldiers advance through smoke and mist, many of them falling to machine-gun fire, the tone of the narration, which Huston himself speaks, is grim. The beautiful old town, when the Americans get there, is nothing but rubble. The survivors look exhausted—not jubilant but merely relieved that their part of the war is over. Huston not only presents the physical hardships of battle; he creates the war as a cultural and moral catastrophe. The sense of desolation is broken only at the end of the movie, by a scene of children playing in the street, their innocent faces making a minimal claim against despair. Even if the images are mostly contrived, “San Pietro” is aesthetically of a piece—and magnificent.
There’s a terrific post on John Huston over at Cinephilia and Beyond, which has quickly become one of my favorite all-time sites. They give us a 1965 interview with Huston in Film Quarterly. Dig this:
Huston: Actually I don’t separate the elements of film-making in such an abstract manner. For example, the directing of a film, to me, is simply an extension of the process of writing. It’s the process of rendering the thing you have written. You’re still writing when you’re directing. Of course you’re not composing words, but a gesture, the way you make somebody raise his eyes or shake his head is also writing for films. Nor can I answer precisely what the relative importance, to me, of the various aspects of film-making is, I mean, whether I pay more attention to writing, directing, editing, or what-have-you. The most important element to me is always the idea that I’m trying to express, and everything technical is only a method to make the idea into clear form.
I’m always working on the idea: whether I am writing, directing, choosing music or cutting. Everything must revert back to the idea; when it gets away from the idea it becomes a labyrinth of rococo. Occasionally one tends to forget the idea, but I have always had reason to regret this whenever it happened. Sometimes you fall in love with a shot, for example. Maybe it is a tour de force as a shot. This is one of the great dangers of directing: to let the camera take over. Audiences very often do not understand this danger, and it is not unusual that camerawork is appreciated in cases where it really has no business in the film, simply because it is decorative or in itself exhibitionistic.
I would say that there are maybe half a dozen directors who really know their camera-how to move their camera. It’s a pity that critics often do not appreciate this. On the other hand I think it’s OK that audiences should not be aware of this. In fact, when the camera is in motion, in the best-directed scenes, the audiences should not be aware of what the camera is doing. They should be following the action and the road of the idea so closely, that they shouldn’t be aware of what’s going on technically.
Here’s more on Huston’s approach to storytelling from his autobiography: An Open Book:
I read without discipline, averaging three to four books a week, and have since I was a kid. Gram used to read aloud to me books by her favorite authors: Dickens, Tolstoy, Marie Carelli. She also read speeches from Shakespeare to me, and had me repeat them to her. When I was in my early teens, we’d talk about the “style” of an author. I puzzled over the meaning of the word. Was an author’s style his way of arranging words to set himself apart from other writers? An invention, so to speak? Surely there was more to style than that! One day it came to me like a revelation: people write differently because they think differently. An original idea demands a unique approach. So that style isn’t simply a concoction of the writer, but simply the expression of a central idea.
I’m not aware of myself as a director having a style. I’m told that I do, but I don’t recognize it. I see no remote similarity, for example, between The Red Badge of Courage and Moulin Rouge. However observant the critic, I don’t think he’d be able to tell that the same director made them both. Bergman has a style that’s unmistakably his. He is a prime example of the auteur approach to making pictures. I suppose it is the best approach: the director conceives the idea, writes it, puts it on film. Because he is creating out of himself, controlling all aspects of the work, his films assume a unity and a direction. I admire directors like Bergman, Fellini, Buñuel, whose every picture is in some way connected with their private lives, but that’s never been my approach. I’m eclectic. I like to draw on sources other than myself; further, I don’t think of myself as simply, uniquely and forever a director of motion pictures. It is something for which I have a certain talent, and a profession the disciplines of which I have mastered over the years, but I also have a certain talent for other things, and I have worked at those disciplines as well. The idea of devoting myself to a single pursuit in life is unthinkable to me. My interests in boxing, writing, painting, horses have at certain periods in my life been every bit as important as that in directing films.
I have been speaking of style, but before there can be style, there must be grammar. There is, in fact, a grammar to picture-making. The laws are as inexorable as they are in language, and are to be found in the shots themselves. When do we fade-in or fade-out with a camera? When do we dissolve, pan, dolly, cut? The rules governing these techniques are well grounded. They must, of course, be disavowed and disobeyed from time to time, but one must be aware of their existence, for motion pictures have a great deal in common with our own physiological and psychological processes—more so than any other medium. It is almost as if there were a reel of film behind our eyes . . . as though our very thoughts were projected onto the screen.
Motion pictures, however, are governed by a time sense different from that of real life; different from the theater, too. That rectangle of light up there with the shadows on it demands one’s whole attention. And what it furnishes must satisfy that demand. When we are sitting in a room in a house, there is no single claim on our awareness. Our attention jumps from object to object, drifts in and out of the room. We listen to sounds coming from various points; we may even smell something cooking. In a motion-picture theater, where our undivided attention is given to the screen, time actually moves more slowly, and action has to be speeded up. Furthermore, whatever action takes place on that screen must not violate our sense of the appropriate. We accomplish this by adhering to the proper grammar of film-making.
For example, a fade-in or a fade-out is akin to waking up or going to sleep. The dissolve indicates either a lapse of time or a change of place. Or it can, in certain circumstances, indicate that things in different places are happening at the same time. In any case, the images impinge . . . the way dreams proceed, or like the faces you can see when you close your eyes. When we pan, the camera turns from right to left, or vice versa, and serves one of two purposes: it follows an individual, or it informs the viewer of the geography of the scene. You pan from one object to another in order to establish their spatial relationship; thereafter you cut. We are forever cutting in real life. Look from one object to another across the room. Notice how you involuntarily blink. That’s a cut. You know what the spatial relationship is, there’s nothing to discover about the geography, so you cut with your eyelids. The dolly is when the camera doesn’t simply turn on its axis but moves horizontally or backward and forward. It may move closer to intensify interest and pull away to come to a tableau, thereby putting a finish—or a period—to a scene. A more common purpose is simply to include another figure in the frame.
The camera usually identifies itself with one of actors in a scene, and it sees the others through his eyes. The nature of the scene determines how close the actors are to each other. If it’s an intimate scene, obviously you don’t show the other individual as a full-length figure. The image on the screen should correspond to what we experience in real life. Seated a few feet apart, the upper body of one or the other would fill the scene. Inches apart would be a big-head close-up. The size of their images must be in accordance with the proper spatial relationship. Unless there’s a reason: when actors are some distance apart and the effect of what one is saying has a significant impact upon the person he’s talking to, you might go into a close-up of the listener. But still his distance, as he views the person who is speaking, must remain the same. Going into a big-head close-up with dialogue that is neither intimate nor significant serves only to over-emphasize the physiognomy of the actor.
Usually the camera is in one of two positions: “standing up” or “sitting down.” When we vary this, it should be to serve a purpose. Shooting up at an individual ennobles him. As children we looked up to our parents, or we look up at a monumental sculpture. On the other hand, when we look down, it’s at someone weaker than we are, someone to laugh at, pity or feel superior to. As the camera goes higher and higher looking downward, it becomes God-like.
The conventional film-maker usually shoots a scene in full shot—a master scene—followed by medium shots, close shots and close-ups . . . at various angles . . . then decides in the cutting room what to use. The opposite way is to find the one shot that serves as an introduction to a scene; the rest will follow naturally. Again there’s a grammar to it. Once you write your first declarative sentence, the narration flows. Understanding the syntax of a scene implies that you already know the way the scene will be cut together, so you shoot only what’s required. That’s called “cutting with the camera.”
I work closely with the cameraman and with the operator, the man who actually manipulates the camera. He looks through the lens, executing what you’ve specified. At the end of a shot you look to him to see if he’s brought it off. The camera is sometimes required to take part in a sort of a dance with the artists, and its movements timed as if they were to music, and I’ve noticed that most good operators have a natural sense of rhythm. They usually dance well, play drums, juggle or do something that requires good timing and balance.
Cameramen—most of them ex-operators—are really lighting experts. They like to be known not as cameramen but as directors of lighting. Young directors are, as a rule, somewhat frightened of their cameramen. This is understandable, for cameramen often proceed in an independent fashion to light each scene precisely as they please. Lighting is their first interest, since other cameramen will judge them by it.
As an actor, it’s been my opportunity to observe the working methods of other directors. For the most part, they go by the book. Inexperienced directors put great stock in the master scene—which is shot as though all the actors were on a stage; you see everybody at once, and all the action. Their idea is that if they’ve missed something in the closer work with the camera that they should see, they can always fall back to the master shot. They think of it as a way of protecting themselves. I’ve often heard cameramen advise such a procedure, but a cameraman is not a cutter. The fact that falling back to the master scene interrupts the flow of the whole scene and breaks whatever spell has been evoked through good close-up work is of no concern to him. Obviously I am not speaking about all cameramen. There are any number of outstanding professionals who are just as concerned with getting that ideal sequence of shots—whatever the cost—as any director.
So many things can go wrong while filming a scene. If only everything bad that’s going to happen would happen at once and be over with! You’re seldom that fortunate. Instead, it’s the camera, or an actor forgetting his lines, or the sound of an airplane, or a car backfiring, or an arc light that flickers. When things of this kind occur, you simply have to start again. It can drive a director up the wall. I recall an incident involving one especially volatile director who was making a film in Africa. During one take a native baby began crying, and that stopped the scene. He started over, and a lion began roaring when it wasn’t supposed to. The director shouted: “Cut! I can see there’s only one way to get this God-damned scene! Throw the fucking baby to the fucking lion!”
Now, if you can make use of two or even three set-ups—going from one balanced, framed picture to another without cutting-—a sense of richness, grace and fluency is evoked. For example, one set-up might be a long shot of a wagon train moving slowly across the screen. The camera moves with it and comes to two men standing together, talking. Then one of the men walks toward the camera, and the camera pulls back to the point where he encounters a third individual, who stands back to the camera until the other man has passed on out of the scene. Then he turns and looks after him, in close-up. Three complete set-ups—without cutting. Of course, the set-ups must be carefully laid out and perfectly framed, and this multiplies the chances of something going wrong. But I’ve discovered that, even with the increased possibility of error, the time spent is not much more than would be spent on three separate set-ups.
Such linked shots are the mark of a good director. The scenes I have put together in this fashion have scarcely—if ever—been remarked on by an audience or a critic. But the fact that they have gone unnoticed is, in a sense, the best praise they could receive. They are so natural that the audience is caught up in the flow. This is the exact opposite of the kind of thing people tend to think of as clever—somebody’s distorted reflection in a doorknob for instance, a stunt that distracts one’s attention from the scene. It is important to say things on the screen with ingenuity, but never to belabor the audience with images that say, “Look at this!” The work of the camera with the actors, as I mentioned before, often amounts to a dance-panning, dollying, following the movement of the actors with grace, not cutting. There’s a choreography to it. Not many picture-makers are up to this. I’d say a dozen or so.
It is best to shoot chronologically. In this way you can benefit by accidents, and you don’t paint yourself into corners. However. if the picture begins in India and ends in lndia, with other countries in between, it is economically impractical not to shoot the Indian material at one time. When you are on a distant location, you do everything that calls for that location. That is a compromise, but making a picture is a series of compromises. It is when you feel that the compromise will affect—or risks affecting—the overall quality of the picture that you must decide whether or not to go along with it.
Plain, ordinary judgment plays a big part. For instance, you may well get what seems to be the ideal scene on your first take. Then you must question whether you have been sufficiently critical. Is the scene truly as good as you first thought? inexperienced directors are inclined to shoot almost every scene at least twice, in the fear that something may have escaped them. They may be blessed and not realize it—and, in trying to improve upon something that doesn’t need improving may run into these technical problems that I mentioned earlier. If the action is right and the artists have been everything you desire, then a second take will do you no good. If something is wrong with film or the lighting, it will be wrong on the second or third take, too, so that’s no kind of insurance. A director has to learn to trust his judgment.
Each time you get a good scene is a kind of miracle. Usually there is something wrong, however slight, and you must consider the importance of the error. As you repeat a scene, your demands in terms of quality tend to increase proportionately. You’ve got to watch this, and not become a fanatic.
I’ve come onto sets where a director has prepared ail the lighting and designated all the action before bringing in any of the performers. In some cases it was an inexperienced director following the advice of bis cameraman—in others, a matter of such a tight schedule that every second counted. But simply to light a set and say, “Now you sit here. You stand there,” without any preliminaries, only to embalm the scene: The actors are put into straitjackets. The best way, the only way, is to search out that first shot—that first declarative sentence which I mentioned earlier—and the rest will follow naturally. It’s not easy to come by, especially when there are a number of people in the scene. But until you get that shot you’re at sea. The answer is not simply to pull back for a fill shot. Instead, look for something that has style and visual energy, something in keeping with your ideas for the picture as a whole. You have the actors go through their paces and you still don’t see it. Now, don’t panic. Don’t worry about what the actors and the crew may think (that the director doesn’t know what the hell he’s doing!). This anxiety may force you into something false. And if you get off to a false start, there’s no correcting it. Given time and freedom, the actors will fall naturally into their places, discover when and where to move, and you will have your shot. And given all those shots, cut together, you will have your microcosm: the past on the winding reel; the present on the screen; the future on the unwinding reel . . . inevitable . . . unless the power goes off.
These observations are seldom remarked upon by picture-makers., They are so true, I suppose, that they are simply accepted without question as conventions. But they are conventions that have meaning—even for mavericks.
For more on Huston, get Agee on Film and read the great essay, “Undirectable Director.”
So you say to yourself, this Fat City is pretty damn realistic, even if you know in your heart that “realistic” and Hollywood should not be printed on the same page—otherwise paper ignites. Still, you’re marveling at it, until Oma sits down at a bar counter and starts to talk to Billy. She is going to be what is called his “love interest” or the woman he fucks, but any part of you that feels for Billy is telling him to get out just as we all might remember we have something else to do a long way away if Oma sat down next to us. Except that she is ravishing and inescapable in her downright wildness and unpredictability. She’s in the book, but just try telling yourself that she’s working to a script. And wonder how she ever got in front of the camera.
Maybe she was twenty-seven, but—it’s no lie—she could have been seventy-two. In bars in classier places, like Las Vegas or Los Angeles, you can find women who have had Botox and liquor enough to look like worn-out balloons. Oma is overweight, over-loud, blowsy, unwashed, out-of-line, trashy, drunk, beaten up, tough but self-pitying. She’s like a plate of hot chile, half-eaten, that has gone cold on the table. She is an astonishing creation, dangerous and pathetic, endearing and loathsome. Tyrrell got nominated as best supporting actress, and lost to Eileen Heckart in Butterflies Are Free, a film I refuse to remember. She was nominated by the New York Film Critics Circle, too. Not that winning any award could have made any difference, except that she might have caused a great scene at the Oscars and had to be dragged off stage. Even in 1972, that show needed juice.
She kept on acting, though she admitted that she only worked when she had run out of money. She was in The Killer Inside Me, a lot of TV, many movies you’ve never heard of and in John Waters’ Cry Baby. A little over ten years ago, she had a rare illness—it must have come from thrombocytosis—whereby she had to have both legs amputated just below the knee. I suspect that if she had been thus afflicted in 1972, the fascinated Huston would still have cast her, and let her roam as she wished. He had a true instinct for wild animals, and I can pay the actress no higher compliment than to say that in Fat City she is not just something the cat dragged in. She is the cat.
Prizzi’s Honor lives that most uncomfortable space – the black comedy. It’s uncomfortable because to set and maintain the proper tone, the entire production operates on a razor’s edge. If any part of the process falters, from John Huston’s direction all the way down to the selection of condiments at the craft services table, the delicate artifice collapses.
Most important of all is the acting. For a black comedy to succeed, the actors must maintain constant earnestness with the comedy not coming from punch lines but from something inherent in the character himself.
When a black comedy fails, it’s almost always easy to pinpoint the culprit. But when it succeeds, it’s possible to glide right past the great performances that made it so. Jack Nicholson’s Charley Partanna in Prizzi’s Honor is just such a performance.
Partanna is gruff, almost monosyllabic. But he’s not stupid, he just knows that talking too much often leaves you overextended. He’s a competent gangster on the way up and he’s centered in that world with a heavy anchor. And as the movie unfolds, and absurd situations ripple the surface, he never strays far enough from the boat to get lost. He surprises us with literacy, curiosity, passion and ingenuity along the way, but without deviating from his solid base.
Bouncing off Jack’s steady foundation are Angelica Huston and Kathleen Turner. Irene Walker (Turner) pretends to be an outsider, but she’s busy trying to run scams on gangsters. Huston took home an Oscar for turning the screws behind Partanna’s back as Maerose Prizzi. Maerose is the one character in the movie that really seems dangerous.
I remember this movie from my childhood because of William Hickey’s strange voice. His Don Prizzi stretches words like hand-pulled noodles until the innocuous is threatening. But Jack’s Partanna isn’t just holding up the tent for these fine supporting characters.
He seems a poor match for Irene on the exterior, but his devotion, shot straight, wins her over. We’re not sure where Partanna fits in the hierarchy of the Prizzi family at first, but his intelligence and resourcefulness prove his worth.
Alex loves Jack’s line, “Marxie Heller so fuckin’ smart, how come he’s so fuckin’ dead?” Not only is it a fantastic reading, an argument ender but spat out of the side of his mouth, it’s also the start of the slow leak leads to disaster for Partanna and Irene. Partanna has killed Irene’s husband, Marxie Heller, before learning of the connection. Irene swears she was going to leave him anyway, but she has enough nice things to say about the guy to get under Partanna’s skin and cause that great line.
Partanna could never trust Irene completely. Did she come with him because she loved him or because all her other plans were turning to crap and he represented her best chance at survival? He couldn’t answer the question satisfactorily so when stab came to shoot, he hurled a knife through her throat.
The movie works because Jack is great. But Jack is great without doing a lot of the things that he’s usually great at. He’s neither hip, cool nor sarcastic. He’s a lug. And he plays the lug straight up and down the edge without ever missing a step.
From The Age of Movies, here’s Pauline Kael on The Iceman Cometh (1973):
The Iceman Cometh is a great, heavy, simplistic, mechanical, beautiful play. It is not the Eugene O’Neill masterpiece that Long Day’s Journey Into Night, the finest work of the American theater, is, but it is masterpiece enough–perhaps the greatest thesis play of the American theater–and it has been given a straightforward, faithful production in handsome dark-toned color in the subscription series called the American Film Theatre. A filmed play like this doesn’t offer the sensual excitement that movies can offer, but you don’t go to it for that. You go to it for O’Neill’s crude, prosaic virtuosity, which is also pure American poetry, and, as with most filmed dramas, if you miss the “presence” of the actors, you gain from seeing it performed by the sort of cast that rarely gathers in a theater. John Frankenheimer directly fluently and unobtrusively, without destroying the conventions of the play. The dialogue is like a ball being passed from one actor to the next; whenever possible (when the speakers are not too far apart), the camera pans smoothly from one to another. We lose some of the ensemble work we’d get from a live performance, but we gain a closeup view that allows us to see and grasp each detail. The play here is less broad than it would be on the stage, and Frankenheimer wisely doesn’t aim for laughs at the characters’ expense (even though that O’Neill may have intended), because the people are close to us. The actors become close to us in another way. Actors who have been starved for a good part get a chance to stretch and renew themselves. In some cases, we’ve been seeing them for years doing the little thing passes for acting on TV and in bad movies, and their performances here are a revelation; in a sense, the actors who go straight for the occasion give the lie to the play’s demonstration that bums who live on guilt for what they don’t do can’t go back and do it.
And The Dead (1987):
The announcement that John Huston was making a movie of James Joyce’s “The Dead” raised the question “Why? What could images do that Joyce’s words hadn’t? And wasn’t Huston pitting himself against a master who, though he was only twenty-five when he wrote the story, had given it full form? (Or nearly full–Joyce’s language gains from being read aloud.) It turns out that those who love the story needn’t have worried. Huston directed teh movie, at eighty, from a wheelchair, jumping up to look through the camera, with oxygen tubes trailing from his nose to a portable generator; most the time, he had to watch the actors on a video monitor outside the set and use a microphone to speak to the crew. Yet he went into dramatic areas that he’d never gone into before–funny, warm family scenes that might be thought completely out of his range. He seems to have brought the understanding of Joyce’s ribald humor which he gained from his knowledge of Ulysses into his earlier work; the minor characters who are shadowy on the page now have a Joycean vividness. Huston has knocked the academicism out of them and developed the undeveloped parts of the story. He’s given it a marvelous filigree that enriches the social life. And he’s done it all in a mood of tranquil exuberance, as if moviemaking had become natural to him, easier than breathing.
I can’t make it, dang it, but man, it should be a good time.
Did you ever rent a movie and then return it without watching it?
I’ve rented John Huston’s Fat City at least twice in my life but never watched it. I can’t explain why. Chalk it up to my mood at the time. After all, Huston is one of my favorite directors and Jeff Bridges one of my favorite actors.
Fat City is based on Leonard Gardner’s novel of the same name. The book is less than 200 pages long, and the story is almost unbearably grim. It is about boxing and drinking in Stockton, California. It is about losers losing. And although the prose is lean and clear, it is also dense–you can almost feel how much effort went into making it so direct and spare.
It was a tough book for me to get through, even though it wasn’t long. I read it because I thought it would be good for me not because I enjoyed it. I admired the artistry–the writing was superb, but I found the story bleak and depressing. When I finished it, I thought, Now, there is a world I don’t need to visit again. No wonder I never watched the movie.
I felt compelled to read the book because Huston’s movie started a two-week run at the Film Forum last night. George Kimball and Pete Hamill introduced the movie and then stuck around to answer questions when it was over. Hamill said that Gardner’s novel is one of the three best boxing novels ever written, along with The Professional by W.C. Heinz, and The Harder they Fall by Budd Schulberg. Kimball who is a walking encyclopedia of boxing knowledge talked about how Huston cast boxers and non-actors in the movie, how he insisted that it be shot in Stockton to preserve the book’s authenticity, how the producer Ray Stark wanted to fire the DP, the great Conrad Hall, because the scenes inside the bars were so dark.
Kimball also tried to explain the biggest question about Gardner (one that Gardner is probably asked daily)–why was Fat City the only book he ever wrote? Gardner continued to write short stories and journalism–I remember reading a piece he did for Inside Sports on the first Leonard-Duran fight–and eventually went to Hollywood to write for television. David Milch taught Fat City when he was at Yale and got Gardner work on NYPD Blue, which proves that Milch isn’t all bad (although he famously ripped-off Pete Dexter’s novel Deadwood for his TV series).
Kimball didn’t know the exact reason why Gardner has never written another book. He said Gardner’s never offered a reason and he’s never pressed him for one. Kimball’s guess is that Gardner wrote such a perfectly realized book in Fat City that he figured could never reach that height again. So why bother trying? Kimball said that Fat City was 400 pages long and Gardner kept honing it, pairing it down, like a master chef making a reduction.
Whatever the reason, it is easy to see why Huston was attracted to the story. Hamill said that Huston spent his life making one movie for the studio and then one for himself. And this was one of his personal movies. He has great affection for the characters and the place and while he captures the unhappiness of Gardner’s book, I think the movie is has far more humor. There was some funny banter in the book but it didn’t come across as amusing to me. But the moment we see Nicholas Colasanto (better known to my generation as Coach from Cheers), the sound of his voice is warming, and cuts into the despair. So does the soundtrack.
Huston’s directorial style is also an ideal fit for Gardner’s prose. I remember once reading an article about Huston in American Film when he was making his final film, The Dead (another personal project). His son Tony was surprised at how skilled his father’s camera technique was. And the old man said, “It’s what I do best, yet no critic has ever remarked on it. That’s exactly as it should be. If they noticed it, it wouldn’t be any good.”
In Huston’s movies–The Maltese Falcon, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, Prizzi’s Honor–you don’t notice the style, you follow the story. Gardner, who wrote the screenplay with Huston, was blessed to have this man in his corner. The boxing scenes are strong. You feel close to the action, but nothing is forced or stylistic–it’s not like the Rocky movies or Raging Bull. In fact, you can see the ropes in the frame often, putting us just outside of the ring. The boxers sometimes look clunky but since they aren’t supposed to be great fighters, it works. And in Keach’s big fight scene you can feel the fighter’s exhaustion, their bodies getting heavy, by the second round.
Stacey Keach and Jeff Bridges are terrific (so when is Bridges not terrific?). There is a dignity to the characters, no matter how laid-out they are. There is a tremendous shot, a long take, when Keach and his trainers and their wives leave the arena after a fight, followed by a broken-down Mexican fighter that illustrates this beautifully.
Keach wears a silver braclet in the movie that was exactly like the kind my father wore during that period, when I was a young kid. But my old man was a middle-class drunk, so the comparisons end there. However, the bar scenes, the life of drunks, rang true and reminded me of my father’s alcoholism. There is a lot of drinking during the day, and Kimball remarked on the blinding light that greets you once you stumble out into the daylight. Like when you come out of a movie theater in the middle of the day–but more woozy and disorienting.
It is that kind of touch that makes Huston’s movie effective. Nothing much happens in the story. But it feels authentic, taking the essence of Gardner’s book and making it into a story for the screen.