I wish I could find this list that I first heard of FAT CITY from. It was a list of actors and directors naming their favorite underrated and underseen films. It included things like David O. Russell talking about THE HEARTBREAK KID and SHAMPOO and Jodie Foster talking about MISHIMA. It was a great list. Director Ron Shelton (BULL DURHAM, WHITE MEN CAN'T JUMP) talked about his affection for FAT CITY and I had honestly never heard of the movie before. Even though it was directed by John Huston, a director whose work I enjoyed very much, I had somehow never seen it mentioned really. This was of course pre-IMDB, so that says a little something, but nonetheless. I was immediately intrigued by the combination of elements at play in FAT CITY - boxing, Stacy Keach, Jeff Bridges, and John Huston. Susan Tyrell I was unfamiliar with, but after seeing the movie I could not believe I wasn't aware of her. This movie is a veritable smorgasbord of amazing performances and on top of that, it was shot by the stellar Conrad Hall so you know it looks fantastic.
FAT CITY (based on the book of the same name by Leonard Gardner) is set in the dilapidated city of Stockton in central California. It is a far cry from the Philadelphia that Rocky Balboa hailed from. In fact, FAT CITY is quite a different movie from ROCKY in a lot of ways. Though both movies deal with boxers on the fringes, FAT CITY is not particularly the story of triumph that ROCKY ends up being. FAT CITY, like a lot of Huston films, focuses on some kinda doomed and downtrodden dudes trying their best to keep their heads above water. The story focuses on Billy (Stacy Keach), an over-the-hill ex-boxer who spends his time as a day laborer in the nearby farm fields and Ernie (Jeff Bridges) who is a young pugilist trying to work his way up. The two men's lives converge at a local training gym and a friendship develops. It's sort of a mentorship kinda thing, but as I said, this movie isn't your standard sports tale of redemption. Billy is an alcoholic and a loser and Ernie is just desperate. What's neat about FAT CITY is that it is the beginning of John Huston's "second wind" of remarkable films in his latter career. Not to say that he made a lot of bad movies, but FAT CITY to me is the start of a special segment of his filmography wherein he would crank out such dramatic powerhouses as THE MAN WHO WOULD BE KING, UNDER THE VOLCANO and WISE BLOOD. KING is a movie people seem to remember pretty well (perhaps in part because of Sean Connery and Michael Caine), but the other two (and FAT CITY) are oft overlooked and are all cinematic achievements of greatness. So as much as there was a huge "youth movement" happening in movies in the 1970s, here is an old guard filmmaker still putting out great stuff early on in that oh so golden decade. What he's put together is one of the great boxing films of all-time and he does so by focusing less on the boxing and more on the lives of the boxers.
This disc has an excellent commentary from Nick Redman and screenwriter Lem Dobbs. No Julie Kirgo this round unfortunately (though one of her lovely essays is included in the disc's booklet), but Lem Dobbs is one of my favorite recurring regulars on these Twilight Time commentaries. He and Nick are a great pair to spend 97 minutes with when it comes to movies like this.
FAT CITY can be purchased on Blu-ray via Twilight Time's site:
EMPEROR OF THE NORTH (1973; Robert Aldrich)
Much like FAT CITY, EMPEROR OF THE NORTH also represents a great filmmaker in the back end of his career doing some outstanding work. Robert Aldrich was a little younger than Huston, so his heyday was more in the 1950s and 60s. He is of course most well known for things like KISS ME DEADLY, THE DIRTY DOZEN, WHAT EVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE? and perhaps FLIGHT OF THE PHOENIX and HUSH...HUSH, SWEET CHARLOTTE. Aldrich made a ton of great movies though and even amidst a career thick with goodness, EMPEROR OF THE NORTH may still be my favorite. I'm guessing that opinion might be slightly controversial in a career filled with so many gems, but there is just something about this movie that has always hooked me. For one, it's a mentor story and those have this natural appeal for me. EMPEROR OF THE NORTH is the story of A-No.1 (Lee Marvin), the greatest hobo in the world and the train he's determined to ride. That train, "The 19", happens to be guarded by a brakeman called "Shack" (Ernest Borgnine) who is just as determined to keep all hobos from getting free rides. Shack has even gone so far as to create a small arsenal of tools and things to use as weapons to beat the crap out of any vagrants that try to board The 19. He'll even go so far as killing them as he sees them as less than humans apparently. Shack is truly sadism incarnate (and Borgnine goes enjoyable over the top in bringing him to life). As a result, none of them have ever successfully hitched a ride on The 19. Enter "Cigarette" (Keith Carradine), a young and arrogant upstart hobo who thinks he knows it all. He and A-No.1 form a bond despite Cigarette's obnoxious ways and he tries to act as a teacher to the kid. So there's that part of the movie and the A-No. 1's underlying mission to ride The 19. EMPEROR OF THE NORTH was initially developed by Sam Peckinpah and you can feel it certainly. It has the earmarks of the kind of story he was telling in those days, but Aldrich has absolutely put his stamp on it and for the better.
Set in the Great Depression year of 1933, The film has some lovely location work in the American Northwest. In an age of films made predominantly in front of green screens, it is quite refreshing to watch a movie filled with a different kind of outdoorsy green. Also, you just can't beat seeing to great American actors going head to head (literally and figuratively). As cliched as it is to say, they just do not make em like Marvin and Borgnine anymore. Faces like theirs are so iconic and perfectly cinematic that it is a purely blissful thing just to see them photographed. And when they speak and fight with each other it's even better!
This disc features a solid commentary track from Film Historian (and prolific film writer) Dana Polan. It's not quite as good as the Twilight Time commentaries of late, but it is nonetheless informative and fascinating.
EMPEROR OF THE NORTH can be purchased on Blu-ray via Twilight Time's site: