A Ringside SEAT

One of Hollywood’s genuine mavericks, director John Huston had hits and misses during his long career, though the hits (The Maltese Falcon,The Asphalt Jungle,The Treasure of the Sierra Madre) certainly outnumber the misses (Annie,Sinful Davey). Two of Huston’s lesser-known films are in Blu-ray in limited editions — Huston fans rejoice.

The Roots of Heaven (1958) is a real curiosity, a good film that might have (should have) been even better, while Fat City (1972) is an unqualified gem. Wildly different in subject and approach, each demonstrates Huston’s predilection for frustrated dreamers and idealistic losers — from Ahab in Moby Dick to Jake Gittes in Chinatown, from from Humphrey Bogart’s character in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre to Gable’s, Monroe’s and Clift’s in the aptly titled The Misfits.

Scripted by Romain Gary from his novel, The Roots of Heaven is an early environmentalist film about doomed efforts to save elephants from ivory hunters. Trevor Howard plays Morel, a WWII ex-POW who has dedicated his life to stop the decimation of the magnificent beasts. Flaunting civil authorities, he assembles a motley group, including an ex-hooker (Juliette Greco), a popular newscaster (Orson Welles), an opportunistic photographer (Eddie Albert) and a cynical drunk (Errol Flynn).

Initially successful after allying himself with a rebel leader, Morel’s idealism is ultimately no match for the concerted efforts of political bosses and moneyed interests. Eventually he’s betrayed by native leaders, who’d sided with him for publicity and notoriety rather than concern for the elephants. Morel loses, but the film’s bittersweet conclusion makes him a winner in spite of it all.

Beautifully shot on location in Africa, Heaven was problematic at the onset. Howard, a good actor but not a romantic leading man, was cast to replace William Holden, drastically changing essential dynamics between Morel and Greco’s character. In an effort to bolster box-office recognition, Flynn (who died at age 50 a year later) got top billing, though his role is decidedly secondary. In retrospect, his performance as the washed-up drunk is quite good … and, given Flynn’s obvious physical decline, quite sad.

The film’s major flaw is an unfocused script, something Huston lamented in his autobiography. Despite the producers’ financial investment and a physical toll on the actors, Heaven was too rushed for its own good. Yet it’s more than a worthy failure for lovers of film history today.

In contrast to the spectacular location scenery of that film, Fat City (scripted by Leonard Gardner from his novel), focuses on the squalid underbelly of small-time boxing, migrant farmers and assorted losers in Stockton, California, whose ironic nickname gives the film its title. In one of his earliest and best roles, Stacy Keach plays Tully, a 30-year-old ex-boxer on the skids. His wife has left, he’s staying in a fleabag motel and working odd jobs with migrant field hands.

Briefly considering getting into shape and back in the ring, he crosses paths with Ernie (Jeff Bridges), a young guy with pugilistic aspirations. The movie follows Tully and Ernie separately as they pursue their ambitions before succumbing to realities outside the ropes.

Tully gets involved with a pathetic lush (Susan Tyrell, in a knockout Oscar-nod performance) and Ernie opts for marriage when his teenage girlfriend (Candy Clark) gets pregnant. In a terrific conclusion — understated (like the rest of the film) but deeply affecting — both men sip coffee at a lunch counter, measuring their lives with coffee spoons and faded dreams.

The movie opens and closes to Kris Kristofferson’s “Help Me Make It Through the Night.” Everyone here needs all the help they can get, but Huston still manages to celebrate the basic humanity and dignity of his lonely losers. Fat City is revelatory rather than depressing.

In one scene near the end, a fighter brought up from Mexico to fight Tully in a comeback bout walks a dim-lit corridor alone after defeat, elegantly attired in the same clothes he wore when he arrived. He doesn’t say a word but when he and Tully embrace after the bell, we experience their mutual respect.

Both are defeated and yet they’re both winners, making it through the night on their own as best they can.

In terms of winning performances and Huston’s perceptive attention to ordinary details of our lives, Fat City is a real winner, too.

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