Stockton, California, the late 1950s; twenty-nine-year-old Jimmy Tully (Stacy Keach, marvelous), a washed-up palooka who once showed promise in the ring, befriends also-white eighteen-year-old Ernie Minger (Jeff Bridges, the least gifted of his clan, minimally effective here), whose brief career as a prize fighter lies ahead of him. As Jimmy puts it, Ernie is “soft at the center.” The two men share in common trainer, manager and promoter Ruben Luna (Cheers-bound Nicholas Colasanto, giving the performance of a lifetime), a self-centered bastard convinced of his own compassion—and yet he won’t let his wife get a good night’s sleep—who is ever pursuing the racist dream of another “great white hope.” Capitalism cloaks his spirit; “I have nothing against coloreds,” he explains, but white people prefer to watch “their own kind” fight and will more readily pay to see this. Ruben is right, of course; but a society’s racism hardly justifies the racism of a member of that society.
Leonard Gardner has efficiently adapted his 1969 novel, which John Huston, a former palooka during the Depression, directed. The film opens with a stunning montage of Stockton’s seedier section: short, elliptical moments on and around a street; superimpositions, perhaps inspired by those during the camera’s journey down Main Street in Orson Welles’s The Magnificent Ambersons (1942) denoting progress that leaves people behind who can’t catch up. But Huston’s urban environment is desolate; it admits no progress, only the frayed ends of human lives. A glimpse of the Stockton Rescue Mission reveals that it is vacant and up for sale—an ironical encapsulation of the hard-luck stale atmosphere everywhere here. Jimmy returns to the ring only because he cannot hold onto any other sort of job.
Things are confused in this world; “Did I get knocked out?” Jimmy asks after he has scored, in fact, a technical victory against (we know) a very, very sick opponent. And things evaporate, such as Jimmy’s past marriage and current live-in affair with Oma (Susan Tyrrell, flamboyantly awful—and Oscar-nominated). Jimmy: “There are women who love you for yourself, but that doesn’t last.” Apparently, for Jimmy, neither does anything else.
Keyed to Kris Kristofferson’s achingly downbeat “Help Me Make It through the Night,” Huston’s film cannot sustain the brilliance of its opening movement, but (despite Conrad Hall’s overly refined color photography) it holds our interest and moves us, and finishes with a knockout scene at a working-class café counter where, side by side, Tully and Minger drink coffee and do not converse, and Tully’s mind numbs for a moment, life having come after him with just too many blows.
Tags: John Huston/Grunes