Fat City (1972) Blu Ray & DVD (Powerhouse/Indicator)
Based on Leonard Gardner’s novel, Fat City takes a look at the lives of two boxers living and working in Stockton, California. Billy Tully (Stacy Keach) is an ex-professional boxer drowning in alcohol and eking out a living via a succession of odd jobs. One day when he goes to train at the local YMCA he spots the younger Ernie (Jeff Bridges) practising with a boxing ball. When he asks the latter for an informal spar to size up his skills he’s impressed with his ability to land a punch, and advises him to go to and see Ruben (Nicholas Colasanto) and sign up for professional matches while he’s still at his physical peak.
The film follows the pair as Ernie gets his face bloodied in a series of matches and faces commitment dilemmas with his teenage girlfriend Faye (Candy Clark), while Tully meets a fellow alcoholic named Oma (Susan Tyrell) in a bar. When Oma’s boyfriend Earl (Curtis Cokes) winds up in jail after a fight the pair kick off a relationship. As the story progresses, when Tully finds he is struggling to hold down a steady income and handle the volatility of living with a fellow human being nursing her own emotional wounds, he decides to try his hand (or rather fists) at boxing once more.
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Fat City was one of John Huston’s cherished personal projects to bring novels to the big screen. It’s close in feel to his later films Wise Blood (1979) and Under the Volcano (1984). His directorial style is resolutely non-flashy, observational and studied as it keeps an almost static camera focus at mid-distance on the actors and their surrounding environments, allowing the rich details in both to speak for themselves. That said it’s still a visually impressive film thanks to the painterly compositions of cinematographer Conrad Hall, and the emphatic noir influences that Huston brings to many of the (mostly on-location) interior shots. Exteriors feature a number of documentary-like vignettes of people who appear to be genuine down-and-outs, fully engendering the film’s focus on those left on the garbage heap by the American Dream.
A feel-good Rocky-style interpretation of boxing this is not. When Tully comments in one scene that he’s close to turning 30, it’s sadly ironic that he looks and talks like someone who’s closer to 50 (incidentally, Stacy Keach actually was turning 30 years old at the time of filming). Tellingly, the boxing scenes themselves aren’t really the central focus of the film. As with everything else here they are filmed in a distant manner as if they are another banality of these bruised lives. Even when a notable victory does occur in the ring for one of the characters it feels hollow in the light of scenes we witness before and after. In a nice piece of visual metaphor, the lights are turned out in the corridor adjoining the ring, and we linger there in the darkness for some time to follow one of the characters as he leaves the building.
While Fat City isn’t as unremittingly bleak as John Huston’s later stench-of-booze classic Under the Volcano, it’s still a sad and, at times, squirm-in-your-seat uncomfortable watch. In particular, a shouty supper scene between Tully and Oma (complete with burnt steaks and uncooked tinned peas) leaves the viewer with a horrible dilemma over whether to laugh at these two hopeless souls or to feel sorry for them. There’s also a blood urination scene that will surely cause most to flinch in horror.
The performances by Stacy Keach and Susan Tyrell as the damaged, eternally-soused couple are devastatingly convincing, and nail the self-pitying hugs-and-yells dynamics of an alcohol-dependant relationship down to a tee. Both could easily have garnered Oscars had their fortunes smiled on them; sadly, while Tyrell was at least nominated, Keach was snubbed. Mind you, 1972 was an exceptional year, with Marlon Brando’s performance in The Godfather being the frontrunner. While each went on to make a few other cult favourites and they both managed to work together again in the little-seen 1976 version of Jim Thompson’s novel Killer Inside Me, neither of them ever quite reached the top league of movie actors.
Here the pair overshadow Jeff Bridges, who at this early career stage was merely a pretty solid, promising young actor rather than the seasoned veteran he turned into. Still, he’s engaging enough playing Ernie that we hope he doesn’t end up landing in the same skid row situation as Tully. His scenes with Candy Clark (in her debut) also have an effortless chemistry and touching sweetness that makes their youthful relationship believable.
Fat City is an atmospheric, pathos-laden paean to society’s losers and damaged.
Runtime: 97 mins
Dir: John Huston
Script: Leonard Gardner, John Huston
Starring: Stacy Keach, Jeff Bridges, Susan Tyrell, Candy Clark, Nicholas Colasanto, Art Aragon, Curtis Cokes, Sixto Rodriguez
Allzthings entry: http://www.allzthings.com/ShowCollectoritem.aspx?thingnumber=16174
Another great 4K restoration by Powerhouse/Indicator. The painterly quality of Conrad Hall’s cinematography is brought out with a superb richness. In a film where the background detail of the milieu is critical this restoration is exactly what the film needed. A couple of night-time scenes lack clarity, but other than that it’s great.
The authentic-sounding dialogue comes across well in the audio mix, as does Kris Kristofferson’s poignant “Help Me Make It Through The Night”.
The enclosed booklet features an essay by Danny Leigh, a Sight & Sound review by John Russell Taylor, some of John Huston’s quotations on the film and a 2015 interview with Stacy Keach from thefilmstage.com. The Danny Leigh essay takes a look at John Huston and Leonard Gardner’s experience with the world of boxing, along with various pieces of casting and production trivia. We learn that Marlon Brando was the first choice for Tully, and Jeff Bridges’ older brother Beau the first choice for Ernie. He also reveals that, despite the milieu, Huston wasn’t aiming to make the film about the boxing itself - a divulgement that shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone watching the film. Sight & Sound’s literate contemporary review is well worth a read as it looks at the film’s unromanticised nature and intriguing casting. Huston’s observations on the world of boxing are also interesting. Best of all is the interview with Keach, who reveals that he was told by his sparring partner in one sequence - real-life boxer Sixto Rodriguez - to hit him for real. When Keach did that Rodriguez hit him back as a natural reaction, knocking him out cold. The resultant shot was used in the film.
On the disc itself are the following:
Audio commentary by Lem Dobbs and Nick Redman
Yet again, Lem Dobbs and Nick Redman supply commentary for a Powerhouse/Indicator release - albeit this time without Julie Kirgo. They talk about how the film was a critical and commercial comeback for director John Huston, as well as being personal due to his own experience with the world of boxing. They also discuss the similarities and differences between film and book, and talk about the impoverished state of the town of Stockton both then and now. We also hear that producer Ray Stark almost fired Conrad Hall as he didn’t like his dark shooting style, which would have made it a difficult sell to drive-in theatres since it wouldn’t have been clearly visible in such a screening environment.
One of the most chilling snippets of trivia revealed was that Susan Tyrell claims that John Huston forced her to have sex with him in exchange for landing the part. It’s another excellent commentary and well worth rerunning the movie to hear.
Sucker Punch Blues
A documentary on the film featuring Stacy Keach, Candy Clark, casting director Fred Roos and assistant cameraman Gary Vidor. The back of the box lists the runtime as 55 minutes, but the documentary stops after 37, cutting out partway through Keach talking. Clearly, a mistake had been made during the mastering of the Blu Ray. Up until that point it’s an excellent documentary as Keach and Clark talk about their casting, the Stockton location and their experiences working with Susan Tyrell, John Huston and Conrad Hall. The section discussing Stockton is arguably the most interesting, as Candy Clark describes the parks as being full of various wayward homeless types and piped classical music from speakers. Keach also mentions that the local council cut down the trees around the time of their shoot so as to encourage the homeless people to move on, something that caused a huge protest in the city.
N.B. I've just been informed by Indicator that the Sucker Punch Blues documentary has been fixed on a new version of the disc. If your copy has this problem, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org
John Huston on Fat City
A 1972 interview with the director filmed for the French TV show “Pour le cinema”. The most revealing moment of this short interview comes when the director is asked what the favourites of his films are. He admits that he is biased towards his most recent (at that time Fat City and The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean) but also mentions Reflections in a Golden Eye, despite its lack of success at the time.
An American Classic
An audio recording of Leonard Gardner discussing the novel Fat City with Max Larkin for Radio Open Source, Boston, USA, accompanied by stills and clips. He talks about the world of boxing and how he got into it. He also reveals that he reread his own novel recently and found it darker in tone than he originally felt it was at the time. He makes for a fascinating interviewee, and his anecdotes about the world of boxing highlight how realistic John Huston’s movie adaptation is.
The John Player Lecture with John Huston
An 88-minute audio Q & A interview conducted by John Baxter at the National Film Theatre, August 1972, on he day after the film’s premiere at the Edinburgh Film Festival. As with most recorded Q & As the audio quality makes it difficult to follow at times. Nonetheless there are some worthwhile snippets here, such as when he talks about the documentaries he shot during WWII (some of which were withdrawn for showing the ugly side of armed conflict a little too clearly), his philosophies in working with actors and the troubles he encountered during a number of his productions, both during shoots and after release (where he discovered the films were often butchered by producers). His descriptions of the chaos involved in shooting The Roots of Heaven with Errol Flynn (shortly before the actor’s death) is perhaps the highlight.
The film is a sombre and atmospheric gem, well worth seeing.