The Big Town

March 31, 2011

If your cinematic tastes run to rain-spattered streets under neon lights, skeletal sharpies with razor-creased pants leaning against lampposts, and brassy dames dishing out the what-for, then The Big Town may be just the ticket. It delivers all of those things in aces.

On the other hand, it doesn’t do much with those things—simply wraps them around a conventional storyline. But it’s a passably enjoyable two hours, for various reasons.

The conventional storyline is the one about the small-town kid (Matt Dillon) who’s handy with dice, and who heads to the big city to make his mark as a gambler. In this case, the big city is Chicago, 1957.

This is the kind of movie in which everybody keeps telling this boy, “Jeez, kid, you’re good with the dice, maybe the best I ever seen.” It follows that the kid gets involved with the local gamblers and has an incredible streak of luck. Romantically, he’s caught in another well-worn dilemma: Does he throw his affection toward the stripper (Diane Lane) down at the Gem Club? Or toward the nice girl (Suzy Amis) who lives away from the neon side of town?

For a while, he throws his affections like dice. Eventually, he’ll come to a predictable conclusion.

The producer of The Big Town, Martin Ransohoff, is an old pro, and he knows how to mount this sort of good-looking production—the music, sets, costumes are a pleasure. He’s also gathered quite a good cast, including a bunch of notable names in supporting roles.

Tommy Lee Jones, for instance, does very tasty work as the nasty organizer of the town’s most freewheeling game. Bruce Dern and Lee Grant play Dillon’s shady financial backers; Tom Skerritt is enigmatically cheerful as a gambler who has a very old secret.

But, believe it or not, the finest work in the movie is done by Matt Dillon. During his teen years, it appeared Dillon’s sullenness would overwhelm him (even in Coppola’s The Outsiders and Rumblefish), and he’d be a goner once he outgrew his acne.

Well, the kid can act. This is the first film in which he looks like a full-fledged movie star, and it’s crucial, because he essentially has to carry the film. It’s a graceful performance, full of the nervous energy of this sharpshooter but without tics or gimmicks.

One other name to note: Suzy Amis, the good girl, will be someone. Maybe not right away, but someday. You read it here first.

The screenplay was written by Robert Roy Pool and directed by Ben Bolt, who has done nice work for TV. They don’t quite lift The Big Town into the big leagues, but they organize the action competently, which is just enough to make the thing work.

First published in the Herald, September 1987

I’m telling you, you heard it here first. But go easy on me—it is as hard to predict the careers of actresses as it is the careers of starting pitchers in the major leagues; too many things can go wrong, regardless of the raw material. So I guess Suzy Amis simply tore her rotator cuff, or its equivalent. I’m surprised my youthful self did not say more about Diane Lane, who’s hard to ignore in this movie. But Dillon deservedly gets the kudos, and Drugstore Cowboy was just two years away. The Big Town was such a flat-line that none of the good stuff, or the bad stuff, really mattered.

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Drugstore Cowboy

December 31, 2010

“It’s hard bein’ a dope fiend,” casually advises Bob Hughes, the protagonist of Drugstore Cowboy, as he begins his narration. That statement, which will be more than justified by the film that follows, perfectly captures the matter-of-factness, the funkiness, and yes, the humor of this superb film.

Drugstore Cowboy, which is based on an unpublished novel by a convict named James Fogle (currently serving a 22-year-sentence at Walla Walla), is a movie that looks at the lives of a group of addicts and thieves who rob drugstores in and around Portland, Ore., in 1971. Bob Hughes (Matt Dillon, in an excellent performance) is the leader of a crew that includes his junkie wife Dianne (Kelly Lynch), an easily influenced friend, Rick (James LeGros), and Rick’s hapless teen-age girlfriend Nadine (Heather Graham).

This group stages some pathetic drugstore robberies and tries to stay a step ahead of the Portland cop (James Remar) who dogs them. Bob dispenses street smarts as well as drugs, and he also lectures on his superstitions, such as the ill luck that accompanies a hat on the bed or the mention of a dog. In a hilariously serious speech, Bob recalls the dog that inadvertently betrayed him after a stick-up.

Drugstore Cowboy was directed and co-written by Gus Van Sant, whose first feature was Mala Noche, an interesting black-and-white film of Portland’s streets. The look of Drugstore Cowboy often seems drug-induced, approximating the artificial highs and lows of chemically altered states. Occasionally a shower of dreamy images will fall across the screen, suggesting Bob’s childlike visions while shooting up.

The story sounds unpleasant, and some of it is seamy enough. But the humor is steady and black, including, believe it or not, the smuggling of an overdosed corpse through a parking lot full of police cars. Van Sant does a remarkable balancing act in this movie, and the result is a film in which every moment seems connected to every other moment. Nothing is extraneous or wasted.

That includes the appearance, when Bob makes an attempt to go straight, of an old priest—”the most notorious dope fiend on the coast”—who is played by William S. Burroughs, the writer who created a startling vision of drug addiction in Naked Lunch. Drugstore Cowboy belongs in that company.

You will not find a “Just Say No” message in Van Sant’s film. Drugstore Cowboy isn’t interested in condemning or punishing its characters; they’re already doing that to themselves. Instead, this movie submerges itself completely in a particular world. It is utterly convincing.

First published in the Herald, October 27, 1989

October ’89: maybe that’s why Drugstore Cowboy seems like a Nineties movie. In a way, it’s about how addiction and the need to have a belief system are related; I anoint it the best film of 1989 at The Crop Duster, and say a couple more things about it there. The “Just Say No” reference is a reminder of how refreshing this movie’s approach was in the teeth of Nancy Reagan’s campaign, which, to be fair, did successfully end significant drug abuse in this country.

A 45 from the soundtrack on YouTube, an indication of the film’s subcurrent of religiosity, here.