Tuesday, February 22, 2005

DVD: Fat City (1972)

Boxing has produced more great movies than any other sport, from the 1940s classics BODY AND SOUL, CHAMPION, and THE SET-UP to RAGING BULL to the latest film threatening to deny Martin Scorsese his Oscar, MILLION DOLLAR BABY. (Which everyone is now abbreviating M$B. Is that official? I didn’t get the memo.)

It’s easy to figure out why: boxing deals with defeat head-on. Two men step into the ring. One of them will leave a loser. Even ROCKY, boxing’s ‘feel good’ movie, acknowledges that reality, although the sequels blithely ignore it.

John Huston’s film, based on a novel by Leonard Gardner, more than fits that model. It focuses almost entirely on what happens outside the ring. Fighters Stacy Keach and Jeff Bridges are never going to contend for a title. They’re more concerned with getting by than getting ahead. Huston uses locations in and around Stockton, California to startling effect, and he draws terrific performances from a cast that includes CHEERS’ Nicholas Colosanto, the Oscar-nominated Susan Tyrrell, and Candy Clark, one of the great treasures of ‘70s cinema.

What amazed me about this movie was that it came a full 30 years after THE MALTESE FALCON, Huston’s directorial debut and a model of classic studio filmmaking. Three decades later the New Hollywood, with its emphasis on character over narrative, was in control of the system. And Huston, the veteran, not only played their game perfectly but revived a career that would give us THE MAN WHO WOULD BE KING, PRIZZI’S HONOR and THE DEAD. Amazing.

Book: Wolves Eat Dogs, by Martin Cruz Smith (2004)

I’ve only read two crime fiction series in their entirety: Lawrence Block’s peerless Matt Scudder books and Smith’s novels about the Russian detective Arkady Renko. Beginning with GORKY PARK almost 25 years ago, Smith has explored the transformation of the Soviet Union through these novels. He also nails the uniquely Russian strain of romantic fatalism, similar to the Irish sensibility I know too well.

In this fifth novel, Renko’s investigation into the ‘suicide’ of one of Moscow’s oligarchs takes him to the Zone of Exclusion surrounding Chernobyl’s crippled nuclear reactor. The mystery at the novel’s heart is fairly simple to figure out, but Smith’s treatment of this blasted moonscape full of ‘black villages’ and animals that no longer fear man is strong, compelling stuff.

Miscellaneous: Links

Movie City News brings reports of new Oscar voters, including a Bollywood director and my close personal friend, actor Keith David.