A notable highlight from the latest round of additions to MGM’s DVD-on-Demand archive, a compact and tightly wound noir film from notable director Joseph Losey is now available in the form of a stripped-down, upon-request digital copy direct from the studio. The Big Night was an early endeavor for Losey, who would go on to be recognized as one of the most charmingly erratic and refined American filmmakers of his era. The film also features an extremely young John Barrymore, Jr. in one of his earliest screen appearances, as well as a brief appearance from Dorothy Comingore, best-known for her role as the second wife of Orson Welles’ legendary newspaper magnate in Citizen Kane.
Barrymore stars as an uncertain, barely-pubescent youth named George La Main who, on his birthday, bears witness to the inexplicable beating and public humiliation of his father by a solemn group of thugs headed by a prominent sports columnist. Baffled and shocked by the incident, and emotionally closed out by his brooding and stoic dad, George dazedly embarks on an impromptu bender throughout the seedier areas of his idyllic Cold War hamlet, aided by a randomly-encountered shifty accomplice named Cooper, and hounded by a belligerent cop hilariously named Peckinpaugh. Bent on revenge and toting a concealed revolver, George tracks down the man responsible for the attack, but when the motivations behind it are revealed, George is forced to confront his own fallibility as well as his father’s.
Fans of classic noir will be immediately absorbed by Big Night’s ethos of innocent confrontation with gritty urban reality. Even if you’re not particularly a fan of the genre, the film’s resonant and subtly played themes about maturity and masculine identity, combined with its emotionally tortured petty crime foibles, make it an exciting, poignant, and well-aged entry. Despite his youth and relative lack of experience, Barrymore convincingly sells the lost, conflicted alienation of his protagonist to the hilt, and the film’s subtle redemptive undertones smoothly balance out its harder elements, allowing it to flower simultaneously as a brooding thriller and a tender coming-of-age story. Big Night is weirdly and shockingly progressive in certain key moments as well, notably incorporating a poignant interlude between George and a black nightclub singer that simultaneously emphasizes his awkward, inarticulate sincerity, and casts a pall of doubt over the entire narrative, implicitly fingering repressive post-war American society as a whole for its culpability in his emotional plight.
As always, MGM’s on-demand disc lacks special features, but the transfer for the film is surprisingly good considering its age and obscurity. The sound quality, too, is better than average. If you’re a fan of Losey or Barrymore, and Big Night is an anticipated release for you, MGM’s stripped-down presentation should prove essentially satisfactory, despite its lack of fanfare. If postwar crime cinema isn’t typically your poison of choice, Big Night’s dramatic heft still makes it worthy of consideration, and its strong cast and relatively short runtime makes it a fairly painless introduction for aspiring, intrepid newcomers to the fold.