In this country, you gotta make the money first. Then when you get the money, you get the power. Then when you get the power, then you get the women.
—Tony Montana (Al Pacino), Scarface
J.C. Cullen (Matt Dillon) has an arm worth a million bucks. He’s lucky, and when it comes to dice, he can throw ‘em so they land on any numbers he wants. The problem is that being stuck in the middle-of-nowhere Indiana won’t bring him the kind of coin he can earn from big time gambling joints in larger cities. So he packs up his bags, and heads for Chicago. Cullen hooks up with Mr. and Mrs. Edwards (Bruce Dern and Lee Grant), a duo of professional hustlers. In exchange for getting him on the best crap tables in Chicago, they take 70% of his earnings. But Cullen—the central figure in The Big Town—has big dreams and it isn’t long before he looks to make his own way.
Cullen’s first off-the-books crap game is in a club owned by local tough guy George Cole (Tommy Lee Jones) and he manages to clean him out to the tune of $14,000. Not only that, but he also succeeds in seducing two women, Cole’s stripper wife Lorry Dane (Diane Lane) and local single mother, Aggie Donaldson (Suzy Amis). He also tries to shake down his own benefactors for a larger cut of his winnings, and in general does everything he can he piss off almost everyone he meets.
Ambition, it would seem, is unquenchable. In Cullen’s rise to the top, he summarily steps on everyone who tries to help him or slow him down. He leaves behind his mother and mentor in Idaho, never again contacting them. Cole and the Edwards become obstacles to his goal to become the biggest dice thrower in this big town. Cullen never takes a moment to assess his situation, instead rolling with the punches, and adjusting to the consequences of his actions. Never does it occur to him to include Edwards and Cole in his plan; instead, he pits himself against them. Whether these are the mistakes of youthful ambition, or the calculated plans of a ruthless future gangster, we are never quite sure. Despite this uncertainty, the set up of The Big Town is obvious. The New Kid comes to the Big City looking to make a Big Score. To add insult to formulaic injury, Robert Roy Pool’s script (based on Clark Howard’s novel, The Arm) makes Cullen particularly unsympathetic, arrogant and deceitful.
Despite its narrative shortcomings, Ben Bolt’s film does offer occasional pleasures: the pacing is particularly snappy, juggling multiple subplots with ease, a fantastic soundtrack and remarkable set design. Raymond Fleischman’s sets evoke a 1950s Chicago complete with neon signs, bold marquees, and warm diner lights awash in bursts of primary color that bring to mind the world of Warren Beatty’s Dick Tracy, which would arrive in theaters a few years later. Though not as evocative of comic book panels as Dick Tracy, Fleischman’s nostalgic design creates a world that’s brimming with life.