#95 The Last Picture Show

1971’s ode to 1950s small town Texas, The Last Picture Show clocks in at #95 on the AFI list. Like Do The Right Thing (which I review last), it was not on the 1997 AFI list but was added to the 2007 list.

A couple of interesting notes about the film. It was shot in black and white, presumably as an artistic choice, as color films had been the norm for a long time by 1971 (by the early 1950s, color had become the norm). It is set in 1951 and 1952 in Anarene, Texas, which was a real town, but was largely abandoned in the late 20s and early 30s (the town had a population of 100 in 1929, but was down to 20 by 1933). It seems to have been selected as an “every Texas small town” from the time period.

A quick summary of the plot. Sonny is a high school senior who plays on an abysmal football team. He lives in a boarding house even though his father still lives in town (the exact reason they are separated is never fully explained, although he sees his dad in a rather cold exchange at one point in the film). His best friend, Duane plays in the backfield (not sure if he is a quarterback or a running back.). Early in the film, Sonny breaks up with his girlfriend, Charlene, while Duane is trying to get further than second base with his girlfriend, Jacy, who appears to be the town beauty.

Sonny is asked by the football and basketball coach to drive his wife Ruth to a clinic. This forms the basis for an affair between the 18 year old Sonny and the 40 year old Ruth that runs most of the film.

There is a mentally handicapped kid named Billy in town, who the boys in town decide to buy the town hooker for. She gets mad at Billy and gives him a bloody nose. Sam, the proprietor of the pool hall, the cafe and the movie theater gets mad at them and bans them from his businesses.

Sam eventually forgives Sonny and take he and Duane out to a lake. We learn that his sons died many years ago and his wife went crazy and that afterwards he had a crazy affair with a married woman.

Sonny and Duane decide to go party in Mexico for a weekend. While they are gone, Sam has a stroke and dies, leaving the pool hall to Sonny.

Duane tries to have sex with Jacy but can’t get it up and she kicks him out of the hotel room in disgust. They later complete the deed after graduation, but she breaks up with him shortly thereafter. Duane decides to leave town to work the oilfields in Odessa.

Jacy gets Abielene, an older oilfield hand, to take her to the pool hall after closing and has sex with him. Abielene drives Jacy back and then kicks her out of the car.

Jacy decides she wants to date Sonny. She pursues him but refuses to go too far with him. Sonny starts to ignore Ruth while Jacy and he are starting to see each other.

Duane comes back to town for a weekend and confronts Sonny about seeing Jacy. He eventually bashed a beer bottle over Sonny’s head, putting him in the hospital. After that, he quits the oilfield and joins the army.

Jacy proposes to Sonny and they sneak off to Oklahoma to get married. Jacy’s parents track them down, drive them back to town and get the marriage annulled. Sonny learns that Jacy’s mother is the married woman from Sam’s story. Jacy moves to Dallas and isn’t seen again.

The next year, Duane comes back to town while on leave before deploying to Korea. The movie theater is closing and Sonny and Duane make peace and go see the last picture show at the theater. Duane deploys having made his peace with Sonny.

Billy is hit by a truck while trying to sweep in the street during a sandstorm. Anguished, Sonny drives out of town and then drives back and goes to see Ruth. She reads him the riot act for ignoring her all those months.

What I liked:

  • The stylization of the film is wonderful. The black and white actually works in helping to transport us to that place and time.
  • The moral ambiguity and lack of preachiness of the whole film is fantastic. The principles are presented as they are – with their good points and flaws. There is nothing heavy-handed about the film and the viewer can draw their own conclusions.
  • The characters are rich, deep and complex
  • You really feel the anguish of a middle-aged woman trapped in an unhappy marriage, of an old man who has had a tough life and is growing old alone, of a kid from a broken family struggling to find his way in the world.

What I disliked:

  • The ending was a bit odd to me – maybe the point was that nothing was resolved, but it frankly seemed kind of abrupt
  • While sex is always a part of coming of age films, at times it feels like that is all small town life is about – there is a lack of dimension to some of the plot lines – the other issues of small towns – economics, alcoholism, etc. are sort of glossed over

Overall, this was an outstanding film. The best movies transport you to a different time and place and I was fully engrossed in small town Texas in the 50s – the visual portrayals, the subtle acting performances and the intelligent but authentic screenplay is fantastic. I’m not sure I would watch this movie over and over again, but being one of the ones on the list I hadn’t seen before, I’m very glad that I saw it.

Overall Assessment

Production Quality 8/10

Screenplay 8/10

Acting 10/10

Rewatch Value 5/10

Overall Score 31/40

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