The first minutes of this picture, the last one Joseph Losey made in the United States, are weirdly bracing in a way that seems unique to late '40s-early '50s noir-inflected B pictures. Young George La Main's after-school stop at his pop's little bar occasions some clumsy exposition. We learn that said pop (Preston Foster) is a single dad, apparently has been all of young George's life; that pop and George are going to the fights tonight; that young George is a big fan of this sports writer named Al Judge; that George's pop isn't bringing his long-time girlfriend to the fight; and, finally that it's young George's birthday today. We never do quite clear up whether it's his 16th or 17th.
After blowing out all the candles on his cake save one, George swerves from his barstool to see no less a personage than the sports columnist Al Judge (Howard St. John) waving his cane and calling out George's father Andy (Preston Foster). Coming out from behind the bar, Andy approaches this stranger in a completely servile manner. The thuggish Judge (nice name), who has two bodyguards in tow, orders Andy to remove his shirt. He does. "I said skin!" Judge shouts, and Andy removes his t-shirt. Judge orders Andy to get on all fours: "Let's get this over with." He then proceeds to beat the bejeesus out of Andy with his cane. And Andy just lies there and takes it, for reasons completely unknown to his loving son.
As it shall turn out, masochism is the drug of choice for most of the characters in the film. We get intimations of it even before Andy's beating—we first see George on his way to the bar from school, hair newly pompadoured, getting razzed and physically harassed by some classmates. "I hear he liked it, asked for a second helping," one of the would-be tough guys hanging out in Andy's bar observes. After Andy's beating, George swears revenge, and this sensitive kid. having dressed up and lifted a heater from behind pop's register, rehearses his anticipated confrontation with Judge. He's completely, hideously aware that he himself can't pull off a tough-guy act, but it doesn't matter.
The young man of this very peculiar coming of age movie is played by John Drew Barrymore, at that time going by the name John Barrymore Jr. Barrymore was only about 18 at the time the film was shot, and it shows; his skin is acne-spotted, his front teeth crooked, his voice high. He seems, in other words, like a real teenager, and his earnest performance as a kid who does not know how to act—that is, take action—correctly is incredibly vivid. "I liked working with [him] enormously," Losey recalled to Tom Milne. "he was difficult, untrained—when I say difficult, I mean it was hard for him to get free—but enormously talented and a wasted man." Once his George begins pursuing Judge through the underbelly of Night's unnamed city, its doesn't take this accidental Dante long to find a Virgil in the person of Dr. James Cooper (Philip Bourneuf), a sports-betting sot with a long-suffering girlfriend Julie (Dorothy Comingore, almost ten years after Citizen Kane, haggard and sad-looking; like Losey, who would leave the country after this picture, she was a victim of the blacklist). How George comes to almost start a romance with Julie's younger sister is one of the plot convolutions that make The Big Night somewhat more diffuse than it ought to have been. Still, it's not so diffuse that it doesn't deliver its payoff—which to some may bring to mind Philip Larkin's immortal line "Man hands on misery to man"—powerfully, and Losey's energetic, almost nervous direction keeps the film bristling throughout.
The picture also contains a moment reflecting Losey's social consciousness, a staggering bit he couldn't conceivably have gotten away with in a studio-produced picture (the film was independently made through Phillip Waxman, and distributed thorugh United Artists). Young George finds himself besotted by an African-American nightclub singer played by Mauri Lynn. Outside the club, he sees her waiting, and approaches her, drunk with adolescent enthusiasm. He gushes to her about her performance, and then daring some more, tells her she's the most beautiful woman he's ever seen. She's a bit confused, but happy. Then George steps in it. "Even if you are a..." He freezes. She recoils, and seems to tear up. And then George goes all hysterical, which doesn't help. "I didn't mean to say it, I didn't mean to say it," he shrieks, even as Dr. Cooper and company take him away. Lynn's expression as she leans against the post after George is gone is even more telling than her face full of hurt when George blurts out his racism. She's not just sad, but tired, bone-tired—it's clear that she's had to hear this kind of shit her whole life.
In 1973's Mean Streets, Harvey Keitel's Charlie, an altogether cooler character than Night's George, will also reflect on the perplexities of interracial relationships—but in voice-over, not to the girl's face. "She's beautiful," he notes of a gorgeous go-go dancer. "But...she's black. I don't have to tell you that." One wonders if the correspondence is deliberate, but given Scorsese's leanings, you'd have to say it's more likely than not.
The Big Night is available in an extras-free, decently transfered and mastered Region 2 disc from French label Doriane Films.