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Sex, Race, and Violence: 'The Big Night' (1951)

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Friday, Jul 6, 2012
A minor movie of modest means and tightly focused perspective.
cover art

The Big Night

Director: Joseph Losey
Cast: John Barrymore Jr.

(USDVD release date: )

Joseph Losey directed this compelling, low-budget, independent noir scripted by himself and Stanley Ellin, the noted writer of crime stories. Based on one of Ellin’s novels, it’s a short, quickly-paced story that conveys the impression of taking place almost in real time over the course of one desperate evening for anguished, wet-behind-the-ears, sullen 17 year-old (John Barrymore Jr.).

In a carefully set-up opening scene full of tonal shifts and ambiguous details of behavior and the relations between characters, the kid witnesses a senseless, traumatic, seemingly inexplicable act of violence against his beefy, taciturn father (Preston Foster). Both son and father have been passive recipients of public mockery without fighting back, and now the son goes to a boxing match gunning for a celebrated sports writer (Howard St. John), a dapper gimp with a cane, for explanation and payback.
With Losey’s typical architectural attention to interior spaces, stairwells, doorways and windows, all captured in gliding, deep-focus, black and white, claustrophobic urban compositions by photographer Hal Mohr, the movie creates a many-peopled world defined by uncertainty and shifting perceptions of guilt and blame, new rationalizaitons and understandings, all adding up to a statement on violence vs. the wisdom of “taking it”. The ending is a bit of a let-down, though it’s hard to be sure how pat it really is.

From a dramatic point of view, the scene with an African-American nightclub singer is gratuitous, yet the sequence in which a choked and inebriated Barrymore tries to tell her how beautiful she is and turns it into a racially hurtful moment is one of the most vivid and unexpected moments, and key to the movie’s program of exposing everybody’s thoughless, hurtful propensities against their fellow creatures. He’s finding the courage to cross a line society tells him he shouldn’t, and his method of acknowledging that puts his foot in his mouth. It embodies a deeply thoughtful critique of the personal and accidental effects of a racist society. I’m not familiar with Ellin’s novel and can’t help wondering if this scene was injected by Losey.

So this is a movie with sex, race, violence, spectacle, music, adolescent angst (in an era jittery about juvenile delinquency), families, honor, manhood, authority, and America, and if it contains a single message, it’s that all these things are messed up and hard to figure out. Maybe it’s a minor movie of modest means and tightly focused perspective, but its ideas aren’t small.


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