My notes on The Big Night (1951)
‘That’s how it is with some men. There’s only one woman in the world for them, and if it’s the wrong one, it’s tough.’
This is remembered – if at all – as a minor Joseph Losey noir credit, from his brief pre-exile Hollywood career. It’s also of interest as an adaptation of Stanley Ellin’s first novel (Dreadful Summit); Ellin co-scripted with Losey. Sadly, it’s stuck with a mixed-blessing central performance from John Barrymore Jr (later John Drew Barrymore), who is all over the place in a difficult, mixed-up teenager role (a little later, James Dean might have carried it off – but few other young actors of the time could have managed). Barrymore is terrible in some scenes but affecting in others.
It has a great hook, as George LaMain (Barrymore), a bookish kid jovially bullied by the roughs on the street and patronised by the barflies in his Dad’s saloon, seethes when big shot sportswriter Al Judge (Howard St John) and some cronies walk into the bar and humiliate George’s father (Preston Foster), forcing him to strip to the waist (‘show me skin’) and submit to a brutal caning administered with the columnist’s walking stick.
As in The Killers, the victim accepts his fate, which spurs an investigation … George takes a gun and spends the night chasing after Al, intent on avenging his family name, and collides with various lowlifes, including a drunken writer (Philip Bourneuf), a bogus cop (Emile Meyer) and an understanding, slightly older woman (Joan Lorring). When he catches up with Judge, the columnist rocks his world by explaining that his father drove Judge’s sister to suicide – though what actually happened remains a bit obscure.
It has a slightly lower-case cast, with only Meyer and Myron Healey really familiar character actors (Dorothy Comingore, of Citizen Kane, is in it) in a parade that could do with more distinctive folk. Black singer Mauri Lynn has a great little bit, one of Barrymore’s good scenes, as he sees her in a club then out on the street and blurts out how good she is and – unusually for a film of this vintage – gasps that she’s beautiful, ‘even if you are a …’ The word isn’t said, but Lynn’s eyes tell the story, and what sells it is Barrymore’s spasm of white guilt at what he’s implied and plaintive attempt to atone for racist attitudes he knows are wrong.
Robert Aldrich is very recognisable in a bit as a fight fan. Hugo Butler and Ring Lardner Jr apparently contributed to the screenplay; they might have been influenced by the Clifford Odets-scripted Deadline at Dawn, which has a similar arc.
somehow reminds me of King Creole, in a scenic-route way …