Big Night, The (DVD Review)2 Apr, 2012 By: Mike Clark
Manufactured on demand via select online retailers
Stars John Barrymore Jr., Preston Foster, Joan Lorring.
No, this isn’t the great 1996 restaurateur comedy with a Louis Prima subplot; that’s plain old Big Night minus the “The.” In rather significant contrast, the one here is the fifth and final Hollywood movie that Wisconsin-born Joseph Losey directed (in pretty much anti-Hollywood style in 1951) before he took refuge in British cinema during the HUAC witch hunts. It was a situation much like the one facing the filmmaker Martin Scorsese plays (as an actor) in Irwin Winkler’s 1991 Guilty by Suspicion. In fact, many have speculated that Losey was the direct inspiration for the Scorsese character.
Of these five movies, one is pretty close to a rediscovered classic from the same year: The Prowler, whose UCLA restoration has helped earn it vociferous admiration by a lot of film historian/journalists who know what’s what, starting with Kim Morgan. The others were subversive-for-its-day The Boy with Green Hair, whose title tune "Nature Boy" gave Nat King Cole (who didn’t sing it in the movie) one of his biggest hits; an infrequently shown remake of Fritz Lang’s M that’s in some kind of semi-public domain limbo and which I haven’t seen in decades; and Paramount’s crusading-editor drama The Lawless, which Olive Films will bring out on May 22. Night, which I once programmed in an AFI double bill with The Prowler, is probably least of the bunch — but for reasons that have more to do with curiosity factor than what’s actually on the screen, it is quite a curio.
First, the lead is John Barrymore Jr. (real-life father of Drew), and he’s playing the earliest teen I can ever recall on screen where an authority figure tells him to get a haircut. And then there’s the early scene that sets up the rest: Barrymore’s saloon-owner father (Preston Foster) getting confronted by a limping newspaper sportswriter (Howard St. John), who makes him take off his shirt before receiving an extended flogging in his own establishment with the journalist’s cane. I don’t think anyone saw this movie much in ’51; in my town, it played briefly at the bottom of a double bill with the Edmond O’Brien Western Silver City, which Olive is also bringing out May 22. (Say, what is this, a conspiracy?). But anyone who did would have noted a mighty unusual scene for its day from a movie with a contemporary setting. This remarkably brutal beating is right out of Mutiny on the Bounty or Two Years Before the Mast, and we even get an aftermath shot of the welts.
There are other screen oddities we encounter (for the era) once Barrymore picks up a gun and embarks on a nocturnal odyssey of sorts to stalk St. John. One is the jaw-dropper where this basically decent kid picks up a relative newborn out of her crib with a loaded gun in his fumbling hand, which is about an inch away from the baby’s head. Another is the scene where Barrymore ogles a beautiful black nightclub singer for a long time during her nightclub performance, which just by itself would likely have been enough to get a filmmaker blacklisted in the early ‘50s. (He then approaches her and, without intending to, insults her racially.)
Other oddities involve the casting. Most people think Dorothy Comingore (another Blacklist victim) disappeared off the face of the acting earth after collecting an Oscar nomination for her magnificent performance as Orson Welles’ unfortunate second wife in Citizen Kane. Well, here she is as the slightly worn but not unattractive girlfriend of a drunken journalism professor Barrymore meets at a boxing match on the same odyssey. And who’s that fan sitting in their row and swigging from his own bottle — the burly guy in glasses who looks a lot like director Robert Aldrich? Knowing that Aldrich was a leftie who hung out with more, I checked IMDb.com, and guess what? It is indeed Aldrich in the scene, a couple years before he made his debut feature Big Leaguer (as far as I know, the only movie where Edward G. Robinson — cast as a baseball manager — wore a cup). By the way, Aldrich later shot Kiss Me Deadly in the same (then rundown) part of Los Angeles where this movie takes place.
Night is almost all nocturnal mood and reminds me a little of some of the Brit black-and-whiters Losey made in the late ’50s before his mostly uneven career took off a decade later, particularly once he teamed with Harold Pinter for a memorable screen trilogy. Which reminds me: For what reason has the last of that trio (The Go-Between, with Julie Christie and Alan Bates) not gotten an American DVD release? A wonderful movie with no small following, it also has, to quote the Preston Sturges of Sullivan’s Travels, some pretty decent “hey hey in the hayloft” between its two good-looking stars.