The Big Night (1951)

A young John Drew Barrymore stars in Joseph Losey's dramatic Film Noir. Optimum UK R2 DVD from the Joseph Losey Collection.

The Film

Contemporary America - George La Main (John Drew Barrymore) is a rather whimpish 16 year old kid who is shocked to see the father he has idolised, lay down and take a beating from Al Judge, a local sports writer. Refusing to tell his son the reason behind the attack, his father orders him to forget it. But George takes a gun and his father's suit and heads out into the night to get revenge on the man who humiliated his father...

A young man seeking to avenge his father is a storyline more at home in the Wild West than the grim Film Noir streets, but the script, co-written by director Joseph Losey and based on a novel by Stanley Ellin, is particularly effective in making this idea into a stand-out Noir story. While not completely in "real-time", The Big Night like the novel takes place over the course of a single 24 hours and there are no narrative jumps.

We don't get much time to meet the characters before the beating takes place, but we learn with commendable efficiency what needs to be known - George is a picked-on and whimpish kid who greatly respects his father. When he sets out he is still just a kid - a scene where he is fleeced by conmen shows that despite the man's suit, hat and gun, he is particularly naïve. The sequence also opens up his descent into the grim underbelly of the city - although this is something that the script never really dwells on, instead a big chunk of the middle of the film is taken up in a subplot involving a man that George runs into, who introduces him to his girlfriend and eventually lets him sleep off a hangover on his sofa. These scenes are quite curious in that they have no link to the main story, but provide us with more characterisation for George and a short insight into the lives of another family. With a lesser writer these scenes might have become tedious padding, but Losey's script provides some excellent dialogue and some lighter hearted (although not all out comic) moments as Cooper becomes steadily more drunk, that make the scenes particularly enjoyable to watch. The pacing in general is strong and the film builds to a very effective conclusion and climax.

Making his fifth feature length movie, Joseph Losey already had plenty of Noir experience and shows himself as a solid hand behind the camera for this entry. The film does not show the incredible flair that some directors brought to the genre, partly because it is largely filmed on sets rather than the atmospheric real locations used in some of the best Films Noirs, but some neat angles and good editing help to break things up a little and never overpower the storyline. An occasional soundtrack by Lyn Murray adds further backing.

An 18 year-old John Drew Barrymore, credited here as John Barrymore Jr., takes the top billing and his third leading role. Within a few years of starting to make moves, he started to became unreliable and drop out of contracts, but in Big Night he certainly gives a good peformance and seems to be ideally cast for the role, his lanky frame being completely outsized by his father's suit. Preston Foster (I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (1932)) is also well cast in a sadly brief role as George's father, certainly looking like the ex-fighter his is supposed to be. There are generally strong performances from the rest of the cast.

Visually, a rather basic Noir but a strong storyline and some good acting make this an enjoyable genre entry and certainly one that fans should track down. It offers a rare glimpse at the pre-witchunt Joseph Losey (although not on his best form) and at John Drew Barrymore before he gave it all up.

In Brief
Anyone famous in it? John Drew Barrymore - made a few films in the US, but later found work in Europe on films like The Centurion
Directed by anyone interesting? Joseph Losey - American born he worked on a few titles in the States including The Prowler (1951) but was forced out by the communist witchunts and settled in the UK, working on such films as Criminal (1960).
Any gore or violence ? Nothing seen
Any sex or nudity? None
Who is it for? Film Noir fans should find this an enjoyable title, of interest to Losey and John Drew Barrymore fans.

Visuals Original Aspect Ratio - 1.33:1 fullscreen. Black and White.
A generally good print with noticable grain but almost no damage and good detail.
Audio English mono - sounds good.
Subtitles None.
Extras None.
Region Region 2 (UK, Europe) - PAL
Availability Only available as part of Optimum's Joseph Losey Collection.
Other regions? Available on DVD from France, in English with French subs.
Cuts? Believed to be fully uncut. Print is English.



All text in this review written by Timothy Young - 5th March 2009.
Text from this review not to be used without authorization.

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