The Last Picture Show (1971)

Rates: * * * * 1/2

Why Did I Watch It? Classic Film Club selection.

Cast, crew, etc.

Trailer

In rural 1950s Texas, Duane and Sonny are best friends about to finish high school. Both of them are from low status households, and their future looks less than bright; they could maybe wildcat on an oil rig, or join the army. Delaying this future as long as possible, they cling to the final moments of their youth; going to the movies, and chasing local girls.

Peter Bogdanovich’s elegaic melodrama captures both a change in some young lives, and a change in the environment they live in. Duane and Sonny’s parents have lived comfortably in post World War II America, but their complacency has lead them to a dead end. All of the older adults in the movie appear desperately unhappy; trapped in loveless marriages, and working stultifying jobs.

Ben Johnson: showstopping scene

The one exception is Sam the Lion (beautifully played by veteran Western actor Ben Johnson), the proprieter of the local pool hall, diner and picture house. He appears to provide a role model for a happier existance; he has made a simple life that he enjoys, and the boys clearly all look up to him. But later, you realise that Sam’s equamanity is an illusion. In a show stopping scene he recounts a lazy summer’s day at the town watering hole, with the love of his life; he is a man living in the past, sustained by memories.

But the past is growing more distant, and the world is evolving. Sam passes away suddenly, and the signs of change are everywhere; in the racy party that town beauty Jacy attends, in Duane’s enlistment to fight in Korea, and in the eventual shutting of the cinema, displaced by the growing medium of television. The long post war boom is drawing to a close, and just like the eerie winds that whip down the main street of town, stormy and unsettling times are ahead.

The principal cast are sensational. As well as Johnson, Cloris Leachman shines among the older players, in a heartbreaker of a turn as an older woman who gets involved with Sonny; her fragile happiness at his attention, and his cold blooded rejection of her when conveniant, are both quietly devastating. Both Johnson and Leachman would win Oscars. And this would be a star making role for the younger cast; Timothy Bottoms, Jeff Bridges, and Cybill Shepherd.

Bogdanovich, and his partner at the time and key collaborator Polly Platt, have fashioned a movie in the image of their directing heroes; John Ford and Orson Welles. Many of Ford’s stock acting troop appear, and the bold black and white cinematography recalls ‘Citizen Kane’. If Kane was a film about a man who the times had left behind, this film is about a whole community experiencing the same thing; a melancholy take on people’s inability to prevent themselves becoming trapped.

It is also interesting to note this film’s reception; it was wildly praised and did great box office. In his review, Roger Ebert recalls the film creating a ‘sensation’, with people lining up down the block to see it. Looking back, while this is very well done, it seems like quite a mild movie to generate such excitement. While its frank depcition of sex, and sexual politics, was undoubtedly edgy for its time, you would have to think that the themes resonated as well. America in 1971 was a country in transition, facing an uncertain future, just like the characters in this movie; each generation repeats the mistakes of the one before it.

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