Thom Andersen and Noël Burch’s famous film-essay Red Hollywood persuasively argues that the screenwriters, directors and actors targeted by the House Committee of Un-American Activities were recipients of a censorship campaign to stamp down on the progressive social criticism visible in the films of the 30s to the 40s. Among the artists clamped down by the HUAC, Joseph Losey would prove to be one of the most resilient, and eventually, the most successful in rebuilding his interrupted career in England and France.
Losey’s work with RKO under Dore Schary already dealt with socially critical themes, the treatment of the “other” and the conformist nature of American society in The Boy With Green Hair (1948). The Lawless (1950) dealt with the plight of Mexican workers accused of a crime they didn’t commit. In 1951, he made three films, of which he was proudest of The Prowler (1951). One of the darkest crime films of the period, with Van Heflin’s corrupt police officer marking the first of Losey’s morally compromised protagonists, filled with self-loathing and a perverse appetite for corruption. Already we find the director of Eve (1962) and The Servant (1963). In the same year, he made the underrated remake of Fritz Lang’s M (1951), celebrated today for its splendid use of Los Angeles locations. The Big Night (1951) would prove to be Joseph Losey’s final film produced and shot in America. The film is surprising for its strangeness, the contrast of the classical theme of the bildundsroman, a coming-of-age story, in an urban Film Noir landscape. It’s also suffused with anger in its unremitting vision of post-war American society, alive to the brutal function of power, money and class in human relationships.
The film opens with a credit sequence of an urban landscape at night, stopping at George (John Barrymore Jr.), dressed in a coat and hat, moving cautiously like an animal in the view of a larger predator. It starts like any other film noir, with a title fitting under “The Big…” family of classics. This sets the pace for Losey’s unusually tender and lyrical subversion of the crime film pulp genre. We find our hero, bullied and picked on by his fellow teenagers, mocked in front of his father’s place of work. Not dissimilar to Sal Mineo in Nicholas Ray’s Rebel Without A Cause, which it anticipates in many ways. Never one to shy away from overloaded symbols and heavy ironies, Losey makes much of the fact that the day is in fact George’s birthday. The birthday tune is incorporated into the film’s score at several key points, most especially in the scene to follow, which adds up to what is clearly the worst birthday in all of cinema.
George talks to his father (Preston Foster), Andy LaMain, who works as a bartender. They discuss his departed mother, the fact that his father’s girlfriend Frances Sedziaski hasn’t come today, pieces of a puzzle that answer the mystery of what follows. After his father brings a cake to the bar, with patrons singing “Happy Birthday”, a man enters the bar, wielding a cane with cold fury written over his face. This man is Al Judge (Howard St. John), a sports-writer with an uncommon amount of influence. His father walks up to Al Judge and carefully and slowly, in front of his confused son, follows his every direction. He strips to his bare chest and lies on the floor and awaits Al Judge’s punishment with cold resignation. There’s something incredibly shocking about this scene, even today, the manner in which it conveys the social and psychological effect of violence.
The way the bystanders stand back and observe Al Judge furiously pelting the raw skin off of Andy’s back. The way George’s screams are stifled by one patron bending his head to the bar table. Losey’s cutting is unsentimental, tough and visceral. The focus is on the primal effect of violence and power. Barrymore’s performance is impeccable in the manner in which he becomes transformed by this incident, which he spends the rest of the night seeking to understand and avenge. The story of Al Judge and his vendetta with his father is de-emphasized by Losey into something that in a lesser film-maker would be mere subtext but which Losey foregrounds into the emotional centre. The film’s real story is not about a boy avenging his father; instead the focus revolves around a young man coming to terms with his tiny powerless position in American society.
After seeing his father shrug away his horrible scars and finding no answers to his questions about the reasons for Al Judge’s outburst, George is left confused and searching for answers. Like any hero in search of a quest, it begins when he finds a sacred weapon, in this case the gun in his father’s register. The real moment of the film is when George puts on his father’s coat and hat. The scene displays the influence of Losey’s apprenticeship with Brecht. Showing a young man, a real person put on a fictional mask. Transforming from an awkward teenager into the basic sign of a grown-up at the time, which is today the archetypal image of the film-noir hero, a coat, a suit with tie and a hat. George is very self-conscious, studying himself in front of the mirror, adjusting himself to look as tough as possible. Throughout the film, George looks at his reflection constantly. This is acutely tied to his awareness that he’s putting on an act that fools nobody, not his enemies and not his temporary allies but mostly, a disguise that he himself cannot accept, the disguise of a son in his father’s clothes.
Clad in the right clothes and wielding a revolver, George sets out to find Al Judge and search for answers and revenge in the course of a single night. This leads to a dark odyssey into post-war American realities. George tries to sneak into a boxing game, buying first an illegal ticket and then being caught by a cop who accepts a bribe from him to let him in. George’s attempts to get close to Al Judge find a sympathetic ally in the form of Dr. Lloyd Cooper(Philip Bournheuf), a middle-class humanities professor and intellectual who takes young George under his wing. Barrymore’s incredible sense of vulnerability and his great sensitivity emphasizes the predatory nature of the world around him. The moment where he tries to jump Al Judge in the bathroom, hiding behind a toilet stall, a cornered prey before a considerably larger animal. Losey’s staging of the scene is deft, we see Al Judge enter the washroom and stare for a long time in a mirror, large enough to reveal edges to the left of Judge’s vision, including the blind spot where George is hiding. At once Losey shows George’s subjective state, his sense of fear and anticipation and yet, allow us to see what he doesn’t see, the small signals that he misses.
The brief off-screen interval which allows an exchange between Judge and Peckinpaugh (Emile Meyer), a policeman who inquires on George, frightening him into a trap. George is all stuttering and cornered in his inexperience before him and the cop enjoys the fear but not the capacity for violence which he reveals. George angrily reacts to the cop manhandling by kicking the bigger police officer against a stall, badly injuring him. Here he comes to terms with his own capacity of violence which is fairly considerable. George escapes from the consequences of his actions even if people around him rush to the injured cop and Cooper is concerned about the ruckus. George’s capacity for violence and his ability to hurt people because of his naiveté and innocence comes to bear in what is perhaps the most famous scene of the film. An example of one of the many blind spots that escape the Production Code’s field of view, the film’s subversive grace note that expands on its focused deconstruction of raw youth.
In-between the downtime to wait for his second destructive encounter with Al Judge, Cooper takes George to a nightclub where the big band music drives him into a breakdown of violence and pain. This is offset by the tenderness with which he watches an African-American jazz singer (Mauri Lynn) sing a softer romantic tune. When he meets her outside, he is charming in his naiveté. Right until he praises her singing, a beautiful woman who smiles at his bashfulness, and then adds, “And you’re so beautiful…even if you are a…” His senses catch up right before he says the awful N-word, but the damage is done. The cut and close-up to the woman’s whose sense of heartbreak and silent fortitude leads her away is one of the more forceful protests against racism in pre-Civil Rights American cinema. George is horrified and apologizes but the damage is done, another lesson in American realities and the film isn’t halfway done yet.
Losey’s films are filled with morally ambiguous and complex, self-destructive characters and while George is one of the few genuinely likable protagonists in Losey’s films, he is also among the most destructive. His actions bring harm and pain both to himself and others, his blind innocence no virtue in a world filled with injustice and compromise. This makes George a classic Brechtian “innocent”, indeed The Big Night is highly suggestive of poet of The Good Person of Sichuan who noted that, “You can’t help one of your luckless brothers/without trampling on a handful of others.” George’s capacity for violence and his lack of perspective makes him unprepared in his confrontation with Al Judge, who is not revealed as a villain but merely a fellow avenger of familial wrongs, in his case the suicide of his sister Frances in reaction to his father’s refusal to marry her. Wielding more social and physical power, Judge domineers George even as he holds his gun to him. In the end, the suffering martyr isn’t teenage George but his self-sacrificing loving father who goes to prison accepting his son’s crimes. He wears the tell-tale coat and hat, the mask adopted by his son, and is led by police in front of his son. The final humiliation of a father who wanted to spare his son the truth of his social defeats but which Losey underlines as a heroic moment to his son. This makes The Big Night the true American re-telling of Bicycle Thieves, stripping away the sentiment of De Sica’s classic to unveil a bleaker examination of class realities, while undermining the notion of the “innocence” of the oppressed.