Thursday, November 01, 2007

John Huston Part 3: Fat City (1972)

By William Hare

Fat City is a film involving the boxing game and as such it has been given that designation by many. It is undeniable that it falls into that category, but this should not exclude it from being classified as film noir as well. The film marked a return to familiar territory from Huston’s younger days, when he was an amateur lightweight boxing champion in Los Angeles.

Another boxing film that is frequently placed in the noir category is Robert Wise’s 1949 classic The Setup with Robert Ryan delivering his performance of a lifetime as a prideful veteran boxer nearing the end of his career who refuses to capitulate to the pressures of a mobster and throw a fight. When he refuses and wins the mobster sees to it that it is Ryan’s final bout, using the boxer he has defeated as one of a group that administers a career ending injury.

Fat City, unlike most noir entries, is in color, characteristic of the break away from black and white, which was used with noir epics of the forties and fifties. This brilliantly executed film should not be disqualified for that reason. In fact, the magnificent tapestry of the camera of skilled cinematographer Conrad Hall, who won Oscars 34 years apart for Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969) and American Beauty (2003), provides the film with a rare look at noir by day in living color.

Hall lets us see the struggling down and outers of a mid-sized California city by zeroing in with microscopic precision. Some of the greatest impact is achieved with his stunning close-ups of townsfolk sitting and standing in a decaying downtown area, seemingly devoid of dreams, groping to survive.

With Hall’s telling camera shots of bedraggled citizens standing in front of liquor stores and sitting in bars and cheap restaurants, the paintings of Edward Hopper come to mind, along with the world of Raymond Chandler’s famous detective Philip Marlowe.

Stockton in the Limelight

The city becomes one of the stars of the film. It is Stockton, located in northern California, a little less than two hour drive from San Francisco. Stockton is situated near Monterrey and the Salinas Valley, the area that became famous in memorable novels and films adapted from works of Nobel laureate John Steinbeck. The Red Pony, East of Eden and Cannery Row are notable works of Steinbeck depicting Salinas and Monterrey that were adapted to film.

The rugged side of Stockton and its inhabitants was depicted graphically in the novel Fat City by Leonard Gardner,who adapted his book into a screenplay. Gardner had fought briefly as an amateur boxer in Stockton and his life on the rugged outer edges of society is clearly observable in the book with its terse, tough-edged prose as well as in the film, showcasing clip dialogue along with Hall’s timely camera shots revealing struggling elements of Stockton’s citizenry.

Anyone concluding that Fat City is anything but a memorable noir gem should closely observe the film’s opening sequence, which sets the mood for what will follow and what the movie unmistakably represents. The tough-edged part of the city is revealed through a panning camera along with the hard luck elements that inhabit it.

The song that opens the film sets the mood. Kris Kristofferson sings his hit tune, “Help Me Make it Through the Night.” Kristofferson’s pathos engenders struggle, battling against the ruthless forces of nature, the perfect choice to open the film. Kristofferson, like Johnny Cash, gives the impression from every word and intonation of someone who has experienced life in the rough.

We then see Stacy Keach, cast as ex-professional fighter and struggling roustabout Billy Tully, rising slowly in bed. It is a small room of a dingy downtown hotel. He is shown packing a gear bag and then taking a short walk to the nearby downtown YMCA for a workout.

While Stacy Keach limbers up by shadow boxing, resembling the ex-fighter he portrays, he observes a younger man, Jeff Bridges as Ernie Munger, going through similar paces. Keach eventually asks him if he would care to engage in some light sparring.

The meeting of the film’s two main characters sets into motion the story dynamics beginning with that brief sparring session. The characters reveal differences that make their interaction through the remainder of the film instructively meaningful and clearly divisible.

The major elements of the film and point of conflict set into motion in Gardner’s script and carried into motion through Huston’s direction and solid performances follow:

1) Interacting characters revealing basic differences - When Stacy Keach and Jeff Bridges meet for the first time they are in actual terms just a little more than a decade apart, but in experience and appearance one looms as a testimony to tough living and appears older than time itself while the other possesses a fresh, vibrant youth that the older man will then admire and later envy.

The sparring session ends when 31-year-old Tully pulls a leg muscle, which he attributes to being out of shape. He assumes matter-of-factly that 19-year-old Munger is a professional boxer. When the innocent looking, youthful Munger explains that he has had no fights at all, amateur or professional, an astonished Tully advises him to see his former manager and begin fighting. He tells him not to squander his youth and to take advantage of it while he can.

2) Pursuit of love interests - Keach as Tully and Bridges as Munger develop love interests as disparate as their life experiences and mannerisms. Keach, who has a penchant for liquor, becomes friends with Susan Tyrrell, whose brilliant work resulted in the film’s lone Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress.

Tyrrell plays a tormented alcoholic with supreme gusto. Initially Keach enjoys bantering with her at a downtown bar they both frequent, but when he becomes more intimately involved with her he becomes repelled and feels a need to get away from her. He telephones his manager at one point and tells him that Tyrrell is suffocating him.

A dramatic conflict emerges after the man with whom Tyrrell lives goes to jail after becoming involved in a fight. Her lover, played by former welterweight champion of the world Curtis Cokes, one of several fighters past and present appearing in the film, is an African American. Tyrrell explains that he is a quiet gentleman but became provoked over cracks made over his interracial romance with Tyrrell.

Just as Keach reflects the manner of someone who appears to be of such a high degree of experience on the hard edge of life to the point of seeming to emerge from the crib that way, Bridges represents his polar opposite. Whereas Keach appears destined to get knocked down repeatedly as he absorbs the hard blows of life, Bridges gives evidence of being someone who will appear as perpetually young while his counterpart will loom as old and hard-edged.
Bridges’ love life becomes serious when, after a series of sneaking sex romps in his car, his girlfriend Candy Clark, who sees him as marital material, asks if he would like to be with her all the time. She indicates that it would be a good idea to begin telephoning her every day as a means of keeping in close touch.

Soon Clark makes a stronger move and reveals that she is pregnant. Bridges looks as innocent as always, but with that innocence intact he possesses an unflappability that the volatile and combustible Keach will never possess. They marry and we see the new arrival in Clark’s arms attending a fight by film’s end.

3) Contrasting boxing careers - Bridges makes the move that Keach recommended during their first meeting. He goes to see Keach’s manager, played by Nick Colasanto, who would become famous later to television audiences as a regular on the long running series Cheers.

The evening of the day of Bridges’ first workout at his gym, Colasanto tells his wife as they lie in bed prior to turning out the lights that he now has a “good looking white kid” in his stable that shows promise and could make money since whites are in numerical decline in the fight game.

Before long Keach, after a chance meeting with Bridges, decides to go back into training and resume his once promising boxing career. He might as well since he has no available career options, having been fired recently from a job as a short order cook.

The contrasting personalities and demeanors of Keach and Bridges are evident in their contrasting boxing styles. Keach, who likes to boast of a long string of knockouts, is all thunder and lightning and will always be that way as long as his combative fires remain intact. Keach is a perennial slugger.

The calm, perfectly adjustable Bridges is predictably enough a different style as he begins his amateur career. He is a boxer, unruffled by temperament, seeking to use his long reach by jabbing his opponents with his left hand and remaining on the move. Keach, on the other hand, moves perpetually forward, accepting blows if necessary to land a knockout punch.

While Bridges gains experience and does not even allow a savagely quick one round knockout ruffle him, moving steadily toward the beginning of his professional career, Keach receives an opportunity to re-launch his career in a main event before the home folks in Stockton. One senses from the outset that this fight will be his make or break opportunity.

4) Billy Tully’s Crossroad - Colasanto contacts the local promoter, who doubles as operator of a local bowling establishment, doing his best to generate interest in a fight involving a Stockton veteran on the comeback trail. While Colasanto predictably tries the “popular local boy returns” ploy the promoter, every bit as predictable, indicates that Billy Tully has been away from boxing and it will be difficult to generate enough interest in him to headline a local fight card.

The promoter begins by suggesting that Tully make his comeback in a semi-main event. Colasanto balks, reminding him that his fighter has been a good draw in the past and holds name recognition. The promoter’s next suggestion causes Colasanto to balk anew, but not for long.
The name of a respected Mexican fighter named “Lucero” is mentioned. The promoter states that the problem of drawing a decent crowd will be resolved if Lucero fights Tully. Showing the protective side of a manager, Colasanto stammers that his fighter needs at least one or two tune-up bouts before facing someone of Lucero’s stature.

The promoter emphatically declares that if Tully is to fight a main event for him in Stockton that he must face Lucero. Colasanto then reluctantly agrees to put his fighter in the ring with the notable Mexican boxer.

We later get a quick look at Lucero in a revealing sequence where an all-intrusive camera provides silent insight into the fighter who will face the Stockton favorite. Lucero is initially seen exiting a bus. Tall and lithe, Lucero is played by another of the numerous boxing contingent appearing in Fat City. He is played by Sixto Rodriguez, a middleweight and light heavyweight headliner of the middle and late sixties in Northern California.

Lucero walks past a store window where a poster of the fight is displayed. After that he is seen inside a small room of a seamy hotel. Lucero takes some pills at one point. Then he is seen in the bathroom, a scene that understandably does not appear in regular television showings of the film.

The veteran boxer is shown passing blood. He has clearly fought recently and will be participating in a bout that he should not engage in at all before his wounds have healed. The message is that Lucero will do whatever it takes to survive in a brutal world. Harkening back to Kristofferson’s lyrics, “Help me make it through the night” must be applied to the day as well.

Win or Loss?

It started out as Billy Tully’s big opportunity, but the point that is ultimately made is that winning is neutralized by losing and things come out virtually the same at the end. Such is the culmination of Tully’s crossroad.

The fight takes place and Tully is knocked down by Lucero. The savage force of the Mexican boxer’s fists is sufficient to where, after Tully has worn him down with body shots and knocked him out, Keach asks Colasanto if he had been the losing fighter.

The omniscient audience knows what the principals do not; that Lucero walked into the ring with a handicap and its successful exploitation is what yielded Tully his hard-earned victory. The question that then needs to be resolved is just what precisely the returning ring veteran has achieved.

Stacy Keach provides excellent internal acting to demonstrate the inner frustration of someone who has returned to the ring in pursuit of his dream of success, but is then slapped in the face by the same brutal reality he seeks to leave behind.

When Keach learns from Colasanto how little he made from his fight after deductions he erupts, nearly being run over by a passing truck as he attempts to bolt across the street to the hotel room he occupies. The manager nervously explained that he had been taking care of the fighter after he called him drunk one night from a bar and explained that he could not stand living with the confused and embittered alcoholic Tyrrell.

The conversation with Colasanto reminds Keach once more of why he resents his manager. He tells him bitterly about the time that he had his big chance to go to Panama and fight the number 5 ranked contender. To cut down on expenses the manager did not accompany him to Panama and he lost the bout, his biggest chance to grab that seemingly elusive golden ring. He was cut over the eyes by razor blades by a corner man with tactical precision to make him bleed enough so that the fight would be stopped.

Giving Him the Shirt off His Back

In his frustrated state, still smoldering from his conversation with his manager and realizing how little money he made from his bloody toil, Keach puts his gear bag in his hotel room and sets out for Tyrrell’s residence. One senses that under the circumstances he will be at least temporarily glad to be with her again.

Instead of being greeted by Tyrrell, his knock instead summons Curtis Cokes, who was released during the interval between Keach’s unannounced departure from their joint masochistic union and fight night. Keach, plainly nervous over seeing Cokes back in Tyrrell’s life, explains that he has returned to pick up his belongings.

Cokes, on the other hand, exudes the kind of carefree nonchalance that Bridges displays as cool survivor Ernie Munger. He tells Keach that he is wearing his T-shirt and removes it immediately, despite Keach’s embarrassed reply that he can keep it. When Cokes hands the T-shirt back to Keach it is a symbolic gesture that all is complete between Keach’s association with the premises and his live in girlfriend.

If Keach believed that Tyrrell would display any feeling for him after his quick and unannounced departure he was correct. She displays emotion but for Keach it is the wrong kind as she hurls nasty, insult-ridden invective at him.

“Don’t pay her no mind,” Cokes tells him in his breezy, unflappable manner. “She’s a juice head so don’t pay her no mind.”

Cokes seeks to display a measure of communicative warmth toward Keach, but in doing so only reminds him of the sad dilemma life’s latest downturn has rendered to him. “Looks like you been in a fight,” Cokes says after noticing fresh marks of combat on Keach’s face.

After Keach acknowledges the statement to be true, Cokes smiles and tells him that he has seen Keach’s face on fight posters around town. The gleam reveals delight in conversing with a local celebrity.

The irony is that Cokes believes he is being sociable and that Keach should be pleased while in reality someone who earlier in the evening hoped he had his downward spiraling life back on the right track was feeling just the opposite. His former girlfriend hooted angry insults at him while her former live in boyfriend was back and closing off any prospect of Keach returning to the scene, to the point of handing him back his T-shirt that he had been wearing.

The parting comment from Cokes extends the irony further as he beams a smile and tells Keach that he likes to watch a fight occasionally, concluding with, “Maybe next time I’ll see you.”

On that note Keach leaves. With his current frame of mind given the small amount of money he has taken for being beaten savagely enough to where he did not know when the fight was stopped whether or not he had been the victim, another bout before the Stockton locals is something he does not wish to contemplate.

Given Keach’s downtrodden state of mind, what can we expect next? We need not wait long as we flash forward to the closing sequences of the film, when we learn the fates of the film’s two leading characters at Fadeout.

5) One Final Meeting - The film’s closing phase begins as Jeff Bridges arrives in downtown Stockton in his truck. He observes the staggering form of a disheveled, bedraggled Stacy Keach moving slowly toward him on the sidewalk.

Bridges is hopeful of getting away before his former boxing stable mate sees him, but is unsuccessful as Keach spots him. Keach smiles as if he has won the lottery. He straightens up and moves with a sudden jauntiness in his step toward Bridges, the young man he had persuaded to take up boxing.

After enthusiastically greeting Bridges, Keach suggests they have a drink together. Bridges declines. Eventually Keach talks him into having a cup of coffee with him. It is obvious that Bridges is relenting only out of sympathy for Keach, perhaps remembering that he was the catalyst that sparked a professional boxing career for him.

During the sequence while they stand on the sidewalk, before going into the restaurant for coffee, Keach displays his jealous resentment toward the younger man, someone with a family and steady, purposeful resolve, traits and circumstances he has reason to envy.

After asking Bridges if he is still a professional fighter, the younger man reveals that he had won his most recent bout. When he relates that he won by decision Keach sees an opening. The jealous Keach, by then reduced to bar fly status, boasts about the string of knockouts he had once achieved.

Keach then seizes an opening in the manner of a fighter. He asks Bridges if he can be frank without him taking offense. Bridges states that he will be offended. Keach then delivers a verbal low blow by telling Bridges that the first time that they met and sparred briefly at the local YMCA that he was a little soft in the heart, lacking the level of courage it took to become a top notch fighter.

How does Bridges react? In his customarily unflappable manner, Bridges does not reply, unperturbed by a man at the low end of Stockton society seeking to gain cheap delight by taking a verbal blow at a younger man who knows serenity and contentment that he fears he will never possess and can only envy from a distance.

Are We All Happy?

The final scene occurs in a crowded restaurant where the two men have coffee. Keach takes a long look at the ancient looking, slow moving man who served them.

“How would you like to wake up in the morning and be him?” Keach asks grimly. He clearly fears such a fate looming for him.

After having shuffled slowly back to the kitchen area the man looks at Keach and Bridges. He flashes a broad, happy smile of contentment.

“Maybe he’s happy,” the cool, unflappable Bridges says.

Keach then delivers the ideal closing line of the film:

“Maybe we’re all happy.”

Wily veteran Huston then proves his point through using the camera in an adroit and creatively unique fashion. It freezes the action momentarily while Keach looks out at the throngs of weather beaten men at tables, individuals who have experienced life in the rough, he takes note of them with a troubled expression.

The camera ultimately spoke the most powerful words of all through the faces of the men in the packed, brightly lit restaurant. The men of the night seek solace from its darkness in a well lighted place where they can commune with others of the same circumstance.

From there it is on to Fadeout and the voice of Kris Kristofferson and “Help Me Make it Through the Night.”

One can imagine that if Jean Paul Sartre and Albert Camus had been around to see Fat City together what might happen. At the film’s close one can see the lights flashing back on in a small theater on Paris’ arty Left Bank.

Sartre, the older man, looks at Camus and nods knowingly.

“That’s the way life is,” Sartre matter of factly observes.

“Absolutely,” Camus replies.

They slowly walk out of the theater as the lights begin to dim. The two most prominent author-philosophers in France move out onto a small, darkened street and walk toward a café next door where they will discuss Fat City in detail while they sip glasses of wine.

Sartre and Camus would certainly discuss the fascinating contrasts of lead characters Keach and Bridges. The younger, uncomplicated Bridges would continue to endure with seeming ease. As far as the troubled Keach is concerned he was 19 when he met him and would look 19 even 30 years later.

As for Keach, what could we expect? At the film’s close he had been able to concede, “Maybe we’re all happy.”

That constitutes a start!

Destined for Noir

One colorful figure from the boxing ranks that appeared in Fat City was a long time Los Angeles legend whose career ended in the late fifties, but who maintained a presence thereafter, getting his greatest film exposure in John Huston’s masterful work showcasing the fight game.

Art Aragon was known as “the Golden Boy” and generated packed audiences in L.A.’s fight arenas with cocky, pre-fight banter that prompted him to complain later that Muhammad Ali had stolen his act.

Aragon, who fought for the lightweight title against Jimmy Carter and appeared against former welterweight and middleweight champion Carmen Basilio outdoors in Wrigley Field in a memorable 1958 bout, generally played himself in bit parts of fight films. In Fat City Huston gave him an important feature role cast as Nick Colasanto’s faithful trainer.

After Aragon’s fight career he went into the bail bond business. His famous advertising line was “I’ll get you out if it takes 10 years.”

With such a unique demeanor and penchant for one-liners, John Huston made a great move in casting Aragon. The witty ex-boxer appeared destined for film noir. The director was also astute in developing a story centered around a tough sport whose participants operate around the tough edges of society and live to beat the odds by enduring.

Survival remains the key element in understanding Fat City. Survival within the confines of a boxing ring is magnified by the much larger world existing beyond its confines. How do we endure in this world?

The message to be ultimately derived from Fat City is of a complicated man in Keach who will perpetually ask “Why?” while Bridges coolly moves on, assuming life’s challenges without the necessity of seeking answers.



  1. Great review of an often neglected noir. Stockton's location though is in the Central Valley, over 125 miles northeast of Monterey.

  2. my question is, is the Kris Kristofferson song written specifically for the film? I notice that the female lead wears ribbons in her hair, after all.