The Ropes: Fat City

Based on Leonard Gardner’s 1969 novel and directed by John Huston in 1972, the sad, funny, grimy, poetic and brutal Fat City focuses on a pair of bottom-rung, mirror-image boxers: Tully (Stacy Keach) a washed-up boozer dreaming idly about a comeback, and Ernie (a fresh-faced Jeff Bridges), a young up-and-comer headed in exactly the same direction.

Filmed in and around the lonely, battered and dreary skid row gymnasia, flophouses and barrooms of Stockton, California – save for one sublime sequence following Tully to his back-breaking onion picking job in a meadow that is photographed like a field from Van Gogh – Huston’s film is about community, lost time, and, in his own words, “people who are beaten before they start, but never stop dreaming.” As such, it’s probably the most human of all his films, and it features what is unquestionably one the greatest final sequences in all of 1970s American cinema.

By the time he came to make Fat City, Huston, who started screenwriting in the early 1930s, had been directing for over three decades. Prior to his career in movies, he had in the early 1920s been a boxer himself on the Californian club circuit, earning the title of Amateur Lightweight Champion. He had actually fought in Stockton (several of the beaten faces on the peripheries of the film are in fact fighters he had known during this period), and his deep understanding of, and equivocal affection for the milieu permeates every frame of the movie. If you’ve ever wondered just what the deal with Stacy Keach is, just watch him trying to find matches in the wonderful, sore-boned opening sequence. ‘Help Me Make It Through The Night’ will never sound the same again.