Fat City (1972)


Bleak. It's a place.
Bleak. It's a place.

Genre: Neo-Noir Sports Drama

Starring: Stacy Keach (“Mike Hammer”American History X), Jeff Bridges (True GritCrazy Heart), Susan Tyrrell (Avenging AngelCry-Baby)

Directed By: John Huston (The Treasure of the Sierra MadreThe African Queen)

Overview: Fat City follows the lives and careers of two boxers: one young man just getting into the ring, the other, an older man looking to get back into the sport.

As I watched Fat City for the first time, I wondered how much this story was inspired by down-and-out storyteller Charles Bukowski. Fat City plays out like so many of Bukowski’s novels and short stories, plays out like so much of his own life: dramatically realistic, bleak, almost hopeless if not for the faint glimmer at the end of a tunnel of misery, chased by our characters. I’m not surprised. Fat City’s novelist and screenplay writer, Leonard Gardner, lived just a few hours from Bukowski’s native L.A., and was only a dozen years younger. I don’t know if Bukowski was a direct influence of Gardner’s writing, but it doesn’t matter. To me, there’s something compellingly great about the stories of impoverished drifters and dreamers that makes me want to watch, and both Bukowski and Gardner’s Fat City’s have it spades, with a hefty dollop of the neo-Noir that I love.

Right in the face

We open with Billy Tully (cleft-lipped Stacey Keach), in his sparse bedroom, half a bottle of whisky at his bedside, looking for a light for his cigarette. His entire introduction is his awakening, his search for a simple, attainable thing he just hasn’t got… a perfect metaphor for his story. Billy is pushing 40 and quite obviously just living day-by-day. He was once a boxer. Not great, but he made a living at it. While at the gym he meets Ernie Munger (Jeff Bridges in one of his earliest roles, on the heels of The Last Picture Show) and spars with him a little for fun. After their bout, Billy tells Ernie that he sees a lot of potential in him, and suggests that he visit Billy’s old coach, Ruben (Nicholas Colasanto) for a chance at the big time. Here, the stories of the two men split and we don’t see them together for quite some time. Instead of watching these two ‘bond as brothers’, they go about their separate lives. Ernie fools around with another girl in the back of his car; Billy hits the local bar and meets Oma (Susan Tyrrell). She’s a feisty red-headed drunk, distraught because her husband has been sent to jail. Billy quickly befriends her in a less that romantic fashion and they shack up. Through it all is the boxing, the third-rate ring fights that earn our characters a few bucks. Ernie, with his youth and his reach has a real shot, or so everyone tells him. Billy, well, he’s got the experience and enough reputation to sort-of, kind-of get people coming to see him fight.

From the beginning we know that Fat City isn’t a glamorous story. We hope that our characters make it, but it’s painfully obvious that the odds are against them. It’s an honest story about small-town-everywhere America’s small-time players. We’ve not yet heard of the Stockton, California boxing scene, and we’re pretty sure we never will. Fat City is a tale of grit, where beautiful cinematography includes close-ups of ketchup bottles shattering on the floors of one-room apartments, boxers painfully pissing blood, or Ernie zipping up Oma’s dishevelled dress as she gets up from her bar-stool. It’s grim, but it’s beautifully written. The characters drawn you right in, and although the parallel between Ernie and Billy is obvious - the destiny Ernie has could very well be the life Billy leads – they’re performances director John Huston is exceptionally proud of, and should be. Stacey Keach is incredible. He’s perfectly cast for the part. His tone body and his downtrodden gaze with the cherry of his cleft lip shows both his determination and the trials of his past. Still, without Susan Tyrrell in the role of sloppy ever-drunk Oma, the film wouldn’t be half of what it is. I might go so far as to say that without her character, the novel never would have made screenplay. She steals the show, supporting the cast like Atlas, adding a dimension to Billy’s character, that perfectly drives home the point of where he’s from and where he belongs. She’s also a stark reminder of the kind of woman Bukowski writes about, a comforting, familiar sort who helps flesh out Billy’s life.

All told, Fat City is one of those gritty, honest, life-is-hard-but-what-else-can-you-do movies that strays far from the romantic ideal of fighting as a sport. Rather, boxing is kept in a sweat-stained, smoky ring, in the way dogfights happen in rings, in the way pain-earned glory comes with a $100 reward. Whether greater rewards come for one or both of our pugilists is for you to discover, but getting there is far more worthwhile than Fat City’s wonderful ending.

She's the showstealer
She's the showstealer

Performance: 9 Cinematography: 8 Script: 8 Plot: 8 Mood: 9

Overall Rating: 84% (Punchy)

I’ve told you before that what I love best about the 1001 list films is that on occasion, I know absolutely nothing about film aside from the title and year of production. All I knew about Fat City when I rented it was the font on the rental copy. This is a perfect example of great surprises.

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