To the best of my knowledge ‘The Big Town’ is the only feature film helmed by prolific TV director Ben Bolt. Which is a shame since it’s one of the better American movies of the ’80s, free of the artificial visual stylisations which render much of that decade’s filmic fare hideously outdated. To indulge in a sweeping generalisation, it was a decade marked by high-profile directors seeming hell-bent on generating indulgent and excessive throwbacks to the Hollywood of old – ‘The Cotton Club’, ‘One From the Heart’ and ‘Heaven’s Gate’ spring to mind – and ending up with costly flops that marred reputations and even bankrupted studios.
‘The Big Heat’ pays homage to old school Hollywood – the films noir of the ’40s – but manages to be small scale, reined-in and focussed on telling a pacy story. Bolt’s direction is clear-sighted and unpretentious. He loses no time in establishing character and location. The opening credits, playing out to Johnny Cash’s mournful rendition of ‘Home of the Blues’, sets up not-quite-hero-not-quite-anti-hero J.C. “Cully” Cullen (Matt Dillon) as a small-town boy from a farming community, holding down a grease-monkey job in an auto shop by day and proving himself a craps shooter extraordinaire by night.
Equally swiftly, Bolt and scripter Robert Roy Pool (adapting Clark Howard’s novel ‘The Arm’ have him blow Nowheresville for the big town (Chicago). Sponsored by hard-nosed businesswoman Ferguson Edwards (Lee Grant) – whose embittered husband, referred to only as Mr Edwards (Bruce Dern), was a renowned dice shooter until he was blinded in an acid attack by a vengeful opponent – Culley breaks every game in town, strikes up a non-committal romance with hometown girl Aggie (Suzy Amis), and enjoys the easy money, flashy clothes and the cachet that comes with the Edwards’s protection.
But it isn’t enough. Cleaning up with their money is one thing, but Culley wants to make a big score with his own stake. He hears tell of a game run by club-owner and mobster George Cole (Tommy Lee Jones). He attends, flashes his money around and wins big. In doing so, he rubs Cole up the wrong way. In a further complication to his continued personal safety, he falls hard for Cole’s exotic dancer mistress Lorry Dane (Diane Lane). They are soon conducting a full-blown affair.
With Cole out to bring Culley down a peg or two, and Lorry leading him a merry dance, into the picture comes Phil Carpenter (Tom Skerritt) who swiftly replaces the Edwards as a mentor of sorts. But is Carpenter the man Mr Edwards has been dreaming of revenge against all these years? And to what lengths will he go to get that revenge?
With its naïve but corruptible protagonist, duplicitous femme fatale, sardonic gangster, tangle of divided loyalties and milieu of back rooms, bars, shadowy streets and gaudy neon, ‘The Big Town’ is straight-up film noir. Perhaps only the ending, where Culley at least gets one of the girls (as well as the chance to resume his old life), hits a wrong note – the happy ending. The rest of it, though, is compellingly cynical, particularly when Culley realises just how thoroughly he’s been used.
Dillon captures both sides of Culley: the wide-eyed country boy suddenly exposed to a flashy, addictive lifestyle; and the inveterate money-grubber for whom materialism is everything. Jones, Skerritt and Dern are on top form. Suzy Amis, in only her second film appearance following a bit part in ‘Fandango’, is luminous as the romantic heroine with a chequered past.
And then there’s Ms Lane: seductive, smouldering, fantastically foxy in her show-stopping fan dance. In the pantheon of great burlesque routines in the movies – after singling out Rita Hayworth’s immortal “Put the Blame on Mame” turn in ‘Gilda’ for the number one spot – Lane’s fan dance is definitely Top Three material alongside Lolita Davidovich’s voluptuous bit of bump ‘n’ grind in ‘Blaze’*. She’s everything a femme fatale should be, viz. enough to make a priest kick a hole in a stained-glass window.
*Davidovich (billed as Lolita David) has a small role in ‘The Big Town’ as, presciently enough, a stripper.
Tomorrow on the Diane-fest: ‘Hollywoodland’.