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.