Big Bad Night

Christopher Weedman is possibly the world expert on actor Donald Pleasence — he certainly has an unbeatable enthusiasm for that fine thespian’s work. For years he’s supplied me with fine quality movies from the US, until my shelving groans and warps beneath the accumulated weight.

In exchange I’ve been able to supply him with a few oddities, including a rare Pleasence TV interview, and the novelty Public Information Film LONELY WATER, narrated by the Great Pleasence, which so traumatised millions of kids around my age in the UK back in the ’70s. Warning: This Film Will Shit You Up Big Style.

Although intended as a gentle warning to schoolkids, and screened amid children’s programming, the short’s more natural home would be as support to Nic Roeg’s DON’T LOOK NOW… (Which would make an ideal “See Venice and Die” Fever Dream Double Feature with Schrader’s THE COMFORT OF STRANGERS.)

Anyhow, through a strange turn of events, I acquired a copy of Joseph Losey’s M (thanks, Brandon!) just as Chris was preparing to write something about Losey, and so another trade was swiftly consummated — David Ehrenstein and Dan Sallitt had both been commending THE BIG NIGHT as one of Losey’s very best US films, and Chris was able to send me a copy.

It more than lives up to the praise.

Losey’s films, to which I am only just becoming acclimatized, seem to fall into two camps: some are weird, disjointed, tonally or structurally peculiar — fascinating for their weaknesses as much of their strengths. His failures (a personal selection: BOOM!; MODESTY BLAISE; THE BOY WITH GREEN HAIR; SECRET CEREMONY; THESE ARE THE DAMNED) are more fascinating than many filmmakers’ successes. The other films are maybe still strange, but so thematically and structurally tight and well-organised, that their weirdness passes by as the most natural thing in the world. The theatrical dialogue and pacing of KING AND COUNTRY, and its tiny set, and Reginald Mill’s dislocated cutting, which drops odd inserts of pre-war life into the trenches, are part of a concept so unified and well thought-through that nothing can be questioned. The Pinter-scripted films are certainly peculiar, but the strangeness feels wholly necessary. THE PROWLER unfolds with the urgency and predestined horror of a bad dream.

THE BIG NIGHT is deeply strange, in a way that’s hard to pin down but seems very forcefully present, unavoidable. John Barrymore Jnr. plays a teenager seeking to avenge his father, who has been publicly beaten and humiliated by Al Judge, crippled sports writer. The film follows the boy through a long, long night, as he tries to track down the celebrity and confront him, seemingly with no definite plan of what to do when they meet — though he’s brought a gun along.

Complicating matters is Barrymore’s emotionally distant relationship with his father — he loves him but can’t communicate with him. Who is he avenging? Is this whole scheme just an attempt to get his father’s attention? This is very much a film about dads — JB Jnr. lived very much in the shadow of his famous father, and resembles John Barrymore caught in the act of morphing into Drew Barrymore. The fact that putative villain Al Judge is a sports writer, like uncredited screenwriter Ring Lardner Jnr’s famous dad, and the fact that the actor playing him (Howard St. John, beautifully repulsive) closely resembles Losey, and therefore perhaps Losey’s father, is all pretty fascinating.

The film positively invites one of those dull Freudian readings — bad father usurps the place of good father, and son must destroy him in order to become a man. It’s very much like the arc of Lynch’s BLUE VELVET, which author JG Ballard has subjected to a rigidly psychoanalytic reading, complete with primal scene (“Mommy loves you!”), but while the reading may be valid, and in Losey’s case quite possibly intended, to reduce the film solely to this schematic is to do it a disservice. Whatever the value of dream analysis, to translate a nightmare into symbols and archetypes is to rob it of much of its resonance and terror.

One of the odd thrills of the film is the strange way Al Judge is presented. Surrounded by goons and hangers-on (including the magnificently depraved Emile Meyer (from SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS — “C’m’ere, I wanna chastise ya!”) and regarded with fear and awe by everybody from cops to stationers (yes, even the stationers fear him!), he should be rights be a gang lord, not a sports writer. The film’s vision of the sports writer as all-powerful demi-god seems strange to me, rather like regarding The Guardian’s football columnist Russell Brand as Satan. Actually, maybe not so odd.

Howard St John gives the performance of the film, and of his life-time, a seething portrait of wickedness which surprises just because it’s so unconnected to his perfectly plausible psychological motivation. Judge, whose name comes to feel symbolic, but not in a CLEAR way, is awful out of all proportion to his situation, just as he’s powerful out of all proportion to his role in society. The journey to face him is frightening and suspenseful in part because we already have an idea how bad he is, and it pays off dramatically when he proves himself even worse than we suspected.

And when the villain turns out to have a pretty strong motivation for his foul act, yet still acts like a depraved sleazoid, we’re in Lynch territory again — some people are just EVIL. While the rich and powerful turning out to be corrupt and vicious seems understandable in a film made by left-wingers, the pervading sense of cruelty and viciousness in the film lacks any obvious motivation. We first meet the Great Profile Jnr. being bullied by other kids, and the barflies in his father’s joint seem like rubberneckers at an accident during and after the beating, and the news quickly spreads to the stationer’s next door, where one weedy customer clearly regards it as a Big Joke. Cops are corrupt and the only intellectual is a weak and unreliable drunkard.

Adding to the oddness is the shoehorning of other issues into the narrative, with singer Mauri Lynn as The Tragedy of Race in America. Her role comes from nowhere and goes nowhere, but allows for a beautiful scene, and if it doesn’t really belong I can’t fault the filmmakers for wanting to raise the issue — certainly nobody was going to invite Losey and Lardner to make a whole film about the subject.

There’s Dorothy Comingore, too, soon to vanish from the screen as the McCarthy era began in earnest. Directors and writers could more easily work abroad and under pseudonyms (Losey’s included Andrea Forzano, Terence Hanbury, Joseph Walton), but film actors, whose faces were their fortunes, could be totally eradicated by blacklisting, especially if they lacked experience in theatre. Comingore’s gentle yet somewhat bitter performance here, far more modulated than her similar drunken good-time gal in CITIZEN KANE, is a sad reminder of the kind of talent the film industry squandered.

The movie isn’t your typical noir – the teen hero differentiates it at once, and Losey’s sympathy for the young man straining towards adulthood connects him to his fellow Wisconsonite Nick Ray and REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE — both films are unusual 50s stories for the seriousness and sympathy they apply to the problems of the young. Losey’s own fatherly concern for Barrymore was grotesquely betrayed when JB confessed, much later, to having followed Losey around, reporting to the F.B.I. on any suspiciously commie activities.

In his leading role here, John Drew Barrymore’s not exactly charismatic — he’s not his father or even his daughter — but he starts to exert a curious counter-charismatic appeal. He’s authentically awkward and self-conscious. The performance seems to mature as the character does. He ultimately seems more affecting and honest than a more slick or handsome boy might have been. And his very unsuitability for leading man status is appropriate to a film as off-centre, unglamorous and unpredictable as this.

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24 Responses to “Big Bad Night”

  1. Losey knew they were greasing the skids for him when <i.The Big Night went into production. But frankly, even if he hadn’t been a Communist, this film was grounds for throwing him out of the country. It’s poised righteous anger at the sheer unadulterated rottenness of America pors through every frame. Mauri Lynn is there to make sure this country’s racism isn’t overlooked — as it always is to this very nanosecond.

    The connection to Sweet Smell of Success is marked not just for the rpesence of Howard St. John, but the fact that Al Judge, though nominally a psorts right, has the power Wincehll had at the time (it has waned when Sweet Smell came along) and he is treated accordingly.

    Needless to say John Drew Barrymore had his own Daddy Problems, and Losey utilizes this fact with great sensitivity. In Michel Ciment’s book Losey says that many years later John Drew visited him in Europe and sobbing begged forgiveness. it seems the FBF ordered him to spy on Losey during the film’s shooting in case any Commie hanky-panky went on. Losey told him his forgiveness plea was unnecessary. He had no alternative as Losey well understood.

    Had he not been forced to get out of Didge, Losey would have directed . . . (wait for it)

    High Noon

    Do not forsake me Dirk my darling!

    As for that failure list of yours I most certainly disagree with your selection of Modesty Blaise, as it’s my very favorite. Bogarde, aided and abetted by Rossella Falk, takes camp beyond the stratosphere

    Boom is of course Losey’s Cobra Woman. But Secret Ceremony isn’t all that bad, and These are the Damned is a teriffic genre piece with one of the most hauntingly sad endings ever.

    I’d place A Doll’s House, Steaming, Figures in a Landscape and Les Routes du Sud in the “debit” column.

    “Yes we should have,
    And we could have
    P’rhaps we can….”

  2. How can you NOT love this number?

    Well Terrry Stamp didn’t. He recalls the shooting as a nightmare. But the proof is in the cinepudding.

  3. I do remember liking the song. Although the weather looks a bit grim, maybe Losey had it imported from England.

    Need to revisit MB when I can get a decent DVD (or if somebody screens it here, fat chance). My memories of it suggest “less than the sum of its parts” but that was before I was into Losey. Starting from a sympathetic position can make all the difference.

    “The last word anybody would associate with Joe Losey is ‘zany'” ~ Richard Lester.

    But remember, I listed all those films as “interesting failures” — it looks like there are others that are just failures. Although there’s a certain graititude that Steaming allowed the great Dors to end her career with at least a halfway respectable film, after too many supporting roles in cheap softcore porn.

  4. @0th Century Fox put outa mass market DVD a couple of years back.

    Another great touch — when Modesty/Monica shows her passport photo it’s a still of her in Red Desert

  5. saw Shine a Light on Friday. Fantastic though more a concert film than a doc – less archive than I would have hoped for and could have done without Chritine Aguleria… however you spell her name. Nice bit at the beginning shot by Albert Maysles about Scorsese trying to put together a doc about the Rolling Stones.

  6. Mike Grost Says:

    Have never had a chance to see “Big Night” – would really like to.
    John Drew Barrymore gives creditable performances in “While The City Sleeps” (Lang),
    High School Confidential! (Jack Arnold), and “One Killer on Ice” (Joseph H. Lewis). The last is one of two episodes Lewis directed of “Gunsmoke” in 1965, and the only one available on DVD. It is full of Lewis touches.

  7. Mary: I think it’s spelled “Cretina Angular.” Yeah, I was hoping it would be on in Imax somewhere (IS there an Imax cinema here anymore?) but will have to settle for the reliable old Cameo.

    David: The Modesty Blaise DVD is available secondhand on UK amazon but it’s a mite expensive. I’ll ask around. Meanwhile, I have The Lawless and Finger of Guilt to look at…

  8. Mike — more than happy to trade you Big Night for a rare Lewis, if you can recommend a good one. I have greatly enjoyed My Name Is Julia Ross, Gun Crazy, Terror in a Texas Town. I mean to write something about Invisible Ghost sometime — an amazing piece of work crafted from a super-inane script.

  9. there might be one at the science place in glasgow?

  10. Christopher Weedman Says:

    Thanks for the kind words David! If only being the so-called “world expert on actor Donald Pleasence” was a paying gig. A very interesting critique of THE BIG NIGHT, which I am totally unprepared to comment on at the moment. The film is still in my “to be watched pile,” but this summer I will be going into full Losey mode.

    Currently, I am writing on APOCALYPSE NOW for a literary theory course that I am taking. This evening, I was sampling the additional cut scenes from the APOCALYPSE NOW: THE COMPLETE DOSSIER DVD set. One of the scenes “Letter from Mrs. Kurtz” features Willard reading a letter from Mrs. Kurtz to her husband. I discovered that the letter is actually the verse of a Jim Morrison poem. It makes an interesting parallel to the Doors song at the beginning of the film.

    Hope all is well.

    Christopher Weedman

  11. Good discovery!

    I have an early edit of Apoc Now with many such scenes, but I bet they’re all in the Dossier.

    I attended a talk by Walter Murch where he revealed some of the secrets behind his sound work — if it’s any help I can send you what I remember in an email.

  12. [...] a figure the hero is. This really works. Not only is the man faced with a horrific deadline (like THE BIG NIGHT, this film compresses its narrative into a tight frame), but he’s hopelessly ill-equipped, [...]

  13. What an interesting, offbeat film!

    1.) John Barrymore Jr. looks like Sean Penn in this.

    2.) Note that he doesn’t get his first kiss from the schoolgirl blonde at the beginning of the film, but does by the blonde during his film noir evening.

    3.) That whole father and son thing has a fairly ghastly real life story associated with it. Go to the IMDb bio for John Barrymore, Jr. and read about his exploits with his father’s decomposing carcass. Bizarre.

    4.) I consider this film as a sort of companion piece with “The Window” (1949) as a treatise of how young men grow up in the Dark City.

    5.) Did you notice the beer that the guys are unloading from the truck at the beginning of this film? It’s Pabst Blue Ribbon! There is also a great chase scene through a PBR factory in “The Human Jungle” (1954). Perhaps there exists a film noir sub-genre… Pabst Noir.

    6.) Too Bad Frank Cady didn’t play the family friend of the barkeeper father. But this guy was a Frank Cady type.

    7.) Any film with Emile Meyer is worth watching. I think the guy who said “Keep the change, ya filthy animal!” in “Home Alone” was channeling Emile Meyer.

  14. My God, did anybody NOT interact illicitly with John Barrymore’s corpse?

    Hope to write something about The Window for Woolrich Week.

    Pabst is name checked in Blue Velvet, but I can’t recall if it’s Kyle McLachlan or Dennis Hopper’s preferred brand. It does seem to be the noir (and neo-noir!) beer of choice…

  15. Steve Brown Says:

    Where in the US is “The Big Night” available? I’ve seen it twice, long ago when it was in theatrical distribution.

    I was just on the phone with Netflix, questioning why they can’t use their heft to rescue “abandoned” films at least for streaming if not for conversion to American DVD.

    The conversation in this forum reminded me of “The Window,” which I’d also like to see again.

    Others on my mind are Philippe De Broca’s three black and white “love comedies” (“The Five-Day Lover,” “The Love Game” and “The Joker,” available only on European DVD. Stanley Kaufman’s review in “World on Film” is remarkably evocative of them.

    I’d love to see Paul Henreid’s black and white “For Men Only” (he directed and starred), a college hazing expose with the first example I’d ever seen on American film of an erotically charged relationship between a mature and devoted married couple (college professor Henreid and wife).

    And “Sammy Going South” (originally released in 1963 as “A Boy Is 10 Feet Tall” and apparently just placed on DVD in the U.K. A taut premature “coming of age” of a 10-year-old.

  16. As far as I know, The Big Night isn’t available in legit form anywhere, except maybe TCM screenings.

    The Window is reviewed elsewhere here, I think. As part of Cornell Woolrich Week.

    If the ridiculous system of region coding could be abandoned, it wouldn’t matter what films were available where (as long as subtitles were provided) as long as they were available SOMEWHERE. Aren’t we supposed to be aiming for one big world market?

    Sammy Going South is remarkable, almost unbearably powerful at times. Producer interference kept it from being as effective as it might have been, but the good stuff is more than enough to make up for the moments of confusion or weakness. It’s a 3/4 masterpiece.

  17. Michael Comingore Collins Says:

    I’m Dorothy Comingore’s son and saw The Big NIght once at the L.A. County Museum….I’m currently writing her bio and would love to get a copy of the film if available….Thanks

  18. Oh wow — I’d be honoured to help out. And if there are any other films you’re after I’ll do what I can to locate copies.

  19. Chris D. Says:

    THE BIG NIGHT is available from a French DVD company, and you can find it on Amazon France. I live in the U.S. and it was my only recourse if I wanted to see it. Just watched and was frankly stunned how good it was. It kept surprising me all the way through, even though I basically already knew the storyline. I’ve read Conversations with Losey by Ciment several times. I have to write something on his noir films over the summer, so have been going through everything by him, including his later pix (most of which I’ve seen and loved).

  20. Oh, I ought to upgrade my off-air recording. It’s a superb, superb film. Alongside Cy Endfield’s Try and Get Me it really shows what Hollywood lost via the blacklist. Dassin, Endfield and Losey were all approaching the height of their powers when they were driven from their country and forced to start over.

  21. “The Big Night” is now available in the U.S. via MGM’s manufacture-on-demand service. It looks just fine, and it occasioned by first chance to see the film, which I think is superb, roiling with anger and anxiety and disappointment with… well, all authority. Growing up in America means discovering that your heroes and the authority figures you are taught to respect are not merely flawed, but often corrupt, petty, and unreliable. And discovering that in yourself doesn’t make it any easier to take.

  22. Very glad to hear this one’s now available, it’s been a kind of hidden classic-in-waiting. With this and the equally obscure M added to The Prowler, Losey’s American accomplishments suddenly loom awesomely large.

  23. The Big Night is available on a Region Two box-set, The Joseph Losey Collection’, along with Losey’s three Dirk Bogarde collections, and four other films.
    I’m watching tonight,for the first time, having just watched the very wonderful “Time Without Pity” last night.
    I love ‘The Prowler’, also
    And ‘The Criminal’, slightly less so

  24. The Big Night is PRIMO LOSEY — hope you enjoy.

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