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Wednesday, June 7, 2017
Joseph Losey | The Big Night
by Douglas Messerli
Joseph Losey, Stanley Ellin, Hugo Butler and Ring Lardner, Jr. (based on the novel Dreadful Summit by Stanley Ellin), Joseph Losey (director) The Big Night / 1951
The burly owner of a local bar, Andy La Main (Preston Foster) is planning a special night at a boxing match for his son’s birthday, George (John Drew Barrymore); he’s even bought him a birthday cake with candles. But the youthful, book-loving George, who has just been pummeled by a local gang, can’t even get up enough wind to blow them all out, director Joseph Losey, hinting, as he does in so many of his films, that there is something a bit “different” about the likeable George, both in his seeming tenderness (babies immediately love him) and in his demeanor (he’s far too gentle, it seems, for the bar and boxing world his father inhabits). Without saying it, the director hints that his protagonist, a boy without a mother, is perhaps gay. As Losey, himself bisexual, has one of his characters express it: “I mean, each of us has got secret things deep inside, and if we don't have someone we can share them with, we usually go all haywire.”
When, a few minutes into this first scene, and after witnessing a noted sportscaster, Al Judge (Howard St. John) enter the bar with his henchman to demand that Andy bare his chest so that he might severely beat him with his cane, the boy bursts into tears. Why didn’t his strong father fight back, he demands to know from the bartender, Flanagan, who has evidently lived with the father for 16 years since Andy’s mother left. Soon after, when George pockets a gun kept for protection behind the bar and races off into the night, we recognize the subject of this film will be the discovery and vindication of the young’s boy’s manhood.
The journey he takes in his “big night,” is, quite naturally, led by an alcoholic professor, Dr. Lloyd Cooper (Philip Bourneuf), the standard pedant of anatomy fictions, who after buying George’s second ticket to attend the fight (a fight, incidentally that Losey doesn’t even bother to show us, and ends after only a few moments into the first round), takes us into the late-night noir underworld of jazz clubs and after hours bars that Cooper inhabits and where George hopes to be able to confront his father’s attacker.
Under the professor’s corrupt tutelage, the boy meets Cooper’s unhappy girlfriend, Julie (Dorothy Comingore), a corrupt cop, and a beautiful black singer (Mauri Lynn, singing Lyn Murray’s and Sid Kuller’s appropriate composition “Am I too Young”), and finally, Julie’s sweet sister, Marion (Joan Lorring), while embarrassing himself as he compliments the singer’s beauty with a racial sidebar, beginning with “despite the fact….” Clearly George is too still too young and unknowing to get along in this world; and besides, for the first time in his life he becomes drunk, awakening to be told by Marion that he has spent a long while getting to know the stairs.
Nonetheless, by the close of his big night, he does meet up with Al Judge, only to discover that the woman whom his father was seeing, Frances, who had suddenly disappeared from their lives, was Al’s sister, who committed suicide when Georges’s father refused to marry her. When Judge turns George’s shaking gun on the boy himself, it goes off, presumably killing Judge; but rather than being an intentional act, this time it is only accidental. George fails, it appears, even if he succeeds.
Returning home, he admits what he has done to his father, discovering that Andy could not marry Frances because the boy’s mother is still living and he still married to her, having refused to get a divorce. More sentimental than George has ever perceived, Andy remains in love with the woman who has left him for another man.
Inevitably, the police arrive, believing Andy has tried to retaliate for his beating, but George, finally proving himself as an adult, screams out the truth from his bedroom window, confessing to the act. It appears that, in fact, the shot only grazed Judge, without killing him. And Andy, it appears, insists that he be the one to go to jail for a short time.
Indeed, as The New York Times critic of the day, Bosley Crowther argued, the story, based on a novel by Stanley Ellin, is “presumptuous and contrived.” But I think Crowther, in the rest of his rant against the film, simply misunderstood the work.
Losey is not truly interested in the standard noir themes of strong men and their loose women, but uses the scene, rather to explore what it even means to be a man—or woman, for that matter—in a world that demands penance for being someone other. Losey’s film can easily been seen in a long line of Menippean satires filled with stock figures of both high and low worlds. George is young and gentle, a bookworm instead of a street tough; Andy, still pining for his wife, has evidently taken up with his bartender; Cooper is a man unable to face up to the cruelty of the world, and his girlfriend is a kind of sadist in her love for him; even the pure-minded Marion realizes that, despite the gentle kiss she receives from George, that she is too old for him.
In short, Losey’s film is not truly about boxing, guns, and macho wise-cracks, the staples of the genre in which he has set his character types, but about outsiders, those who truly do not fit into that world. Ultimately, it is not they who have gone haywire—although on the surface it appears they all are quite crazy—but the world around them that miscomprehends, perverts, and destroys their decency and love.
If later Losey found far more complex representatives of his vision in actors such as Dirk Bogarde, James Fox, and Michael York than in his early films of green- and blond-haired boys, it is still utterly fascinating to see how consistent his vision was. And, in the end, I admire this 1951 film for what it attempts.
Los Angeles, June 7, 2017