Title: Fat City
Genre: Drama, Sport
Director: John Huston
Screenplay: Leonard Gardner
based on his own novel
Cinematography: Conrad L. Hall
Glancing with a documentary eye, John Huston’s FAT CITY opens with Kris Kristofferson’s lugubrious HELP ME MAKE IT THROUGH THE NIGHT to accommodate to a downbeat tonality, and concomitantly fills the screen with montages of the story’s locale and denizens, a rundown California town called Stockton in the 50s, and then introduces Billy Tully (a cleft-lipped and hair-receding Keach), a divorced, childless peckerwood and former boxer on the brink of turning 30, doing odd jobs from hand to mouth, he aspires to return to the ring, but both physically and mentally he hasn’t been conditioned to reclaim his glory. Meantime, a young stud Ernie Munger (Bridges), recommended by Billy, starts his professional boxing days but is he really the “one in a million” material which Billy sees in him?
The script is penned by the author of its source novel, Leonard Gardner, which warrants fidelity to a large extent but also leans more on Billy than Ernie in the narrative. The boxing scenes, to the lights of a pugilism outsider, are less vicarious and impactful than its more famed cinematic cousins and sometimes one can discern they are playacting, both Keach and Bridges are not toned up in a pro’s shape, but that might be the case here, Billy is over the hill, and the allusive reason behind his hard-earned victory is more due to his opponent’s deteriorating health than his own prowess. As for Ernie, he loses both two matches presented on-screen and has a soft belly which both literally and metaphorically implies that he is a younger version of Billy, getting married out of onus rather than love, the road ahead of him looks glum, and it speaks volumes in the final close-up where the two boxers sitting sipping their coffee in concert but inside they are miles away from each other (Billy is a lush Ernie tries to avoid), without obvious effort of fumbling for words, that silent moment could be the only time they share before parting company for keeps, no matter how similar their trajectories will be, both Keach and Bridges (at a tender age of 23) are extraordinary players of conveying connotations and embodying nuances.
A boisterous Susan Tyrrell snatches an Oscar nomination for her terrific turn as Oma, a barfly who strikes a romantic relationship with Billy, but she is a damaged goods through and through, married twice before, habitually drenched in the hard stuff, Billy might be merely a fling to her while her current lover is in the jug. The two-handers between them are coruscating with sheer communion (in the seedy bar where they engages themselves from small talk to wearing their affectionate hearts on their sleeves), or blistering intensity (in their equally mangy bedsit where Huston pulls off the most kitchen-sink spat in the American map), she is an attainable lure for a rough diamond like Billy, but she does him no good, and the vicious circle will never cease to repeat, time and again, because loneliness brings people together but it takes a helluva luck to be able to stick together.
In a word, FAT CITY is on the top rung of Huston’s corpus, a strangely disconsolate but whole-heartedly candid social critique of the stagnation and cul-de-sac facing by the have-nots, bestowed with a sublimely subdued texture with unobtrusive dexterity, but as a boxing drama, it still looks rough-hewn and conspicuously pulls its punches in terms of veracity.