Most actors have what I refer to as “paycheck movies” somewhere in their filmography. They are movies that are done for the money or the desire to work that month. They are movies that are usually not all that memorable and done purely for mercenary reasons but they are still part of an actor’s body of work. One such movie is The Big Town (1987), made after Diane Lane took three years off from the business and saw her reunited with Matt Dillon, her on-screen love interest in The Outsiders (1983) and Rumble Fish (1983). Like Lane, he had hit a speed bump in his career after the box office hit The Flamingo Kid (1984). I’m sure appearing together was a large part of the appeal of doing The Big Town for both actors. While their on-screen chemistry continued, the final product was something of a mixed bag.
J.C. Cullen (Matt Dillon) is a small-time crapshooter who aspires to make it in the big city. He is a very skilled/lucky dice thrower with the gambling instincts of his deceased father, much to the chagrin of his mother. He’s young and too restless for life in small-town America circa 1957. He soon arrives in Chicago and the movie does a nice job of immediately immersing us in the sights and sounds of the period era thanks to a soundtrack of classic songs from the likes of Johnny Cash, Bo Diddley, and Big Joe Turner among others.
He soon goes to work for Mr. and Mrs. Edwards (Bruce Dern and Lee Grant) who set him up with a place, a bankroll and establish the ground rules. They’re all business and don’t have much expectations as young men like him come off the bus every week. They team him up with Sonny Binkley (David Marshall Grant), a veteran gambler who shows him the ropes. Cullen takes to big city life like a fish to water, making consistent money for the Edwards.
One day, Cullen meets a sweet single mom named Aggie Donaldson (Suzy Amis) at a local record store. She loves all kinds of music and dreams of being a disc jockey one day. Always looking for action, Cullen is told about the Gem Club, a strip joint with high stakes and a very exclusive crap game. It is also the only place in town where gamblers can play with their own money and not give any of it to their handlers. Naturally, the odds are stacked heavily in favor of the house, which is run by the no-nonsense owner George Cole (Tommy Lee Jones).
The first night playing Cullen wins big ($14,000!) and in the process pisses off Cole by not only beating the house badly, but doing it in front of his regulars. After subsequently being set-up by Cole, in retribution, Cullen starts a torrid affair with his gorgeous wife Lorry Dane (Diane Lane), the Gem Club’s star stripper. However, he also finds himself increasingly attracted to the more wholesome Aggie and starts a romance with her. Eventually, Cullen has to make a choice while steering clear of the dangerous Cole – if he can.
Matt Dillon’s cocky gambler evokes Paul Newman’s iconic turn in The Hustler (1961) as both of their characters push their respective luck to the limit. For Cullen, he is very smart when it comes to shooting craps (he expertly figures out when Cole swaps dice for a loaded pair) but exhibits poor judgment when it comes to women, seeing two at the same time. Aggie represents his small-town, Midwestern roots while Lorry represents his flashy big city life. Dillon has the retro looks from a bygone era and has no problem portraying a gambler from the 1950s.
Much like Dillon, Diane Lane looks like she came from another time. Her retro stripper look resembles her mother Colleen Leigh Farrington, herself a nightclub singer and Playboy Centerfold (Miss October 1957) and one wonders if her performance in The Big Town was a tribute to her mother. Lane even pulls off a very sexy fan dance at one point, showing off the research and hard work she put into the role. Lorry is more than a stereotypical bad girl. She is a woman trapped in a situation with a dangerous man that is also her husband. And yet, we are never quite sure if she can be trusted even while Cullen falls head over heels for her. Lane does what she can with an underwritten role that often relegates her to very attractive eye candy.
Dillon and Lane had undeniable chemistry in The Outsiders and Rumble Fish and continue it with The Big Town. As sweet as Suzy Amis’ Aggie is, one can’t see Dillon’s slick gambler settling down with the single mother and her daughter. Cullen and Lorry are much more suited for each other with their similar outlooks on life. It doesn’t hurt that the two actors radiate genuine on-screen heat. And while Dillon does have some nice chemistry with Amis, it pales in comparison to Lane.
Tommy Lee Jones turns in a typically effortless performance as the movie’s heavy, opting for a less is more approach as he conveys danger with an ominous look or a slight edge in his voice. The always-watchable Bruce Dern plays a blind fixer by the name of Mr. Edwards who bankrolls up and coming gamblers like Cullen. He has a nice scene with Dillon where his character tells Cullen how he lost his sight in a well-delivered monologue. He used to be a hotshot dice roller like Cullen but losing his sight ended his career and he’s been searching for the man who robbed him of his vision ever since.
The Big Town sprinkles snazzy period dialogue and colorful gambler slang throughout, courtesy of Robert Roy Pool’s screenplay – itself an adaptation of Clark Howard’s novel The Arm. There is a nice shot partway through the movie of Cullen and Lorry walking down a deserted Chicago street late at night, which is soon followed by them kissing passionately under elevated train tracks much like a similar scene also with Lane in Streets of Fire (1984) albeit without the rain. Ralf D. Bode’s cinematography, coupled with Ben Bolt’s direction results in a movie that looks like it could easily exist in a corner of the world of period television series Crime Story, but as a prequel of sorts (since that show took place in the 1960s).
In late summer of 1986, director Harold Becker was set to adapt Clark Howard’s novel The Arm, about a crapshooter, and approached noted gambling expert Edwin Silberstang to be a technical advisor on the movie. He read the screenplay and agreed to do it. Silberstang taught Matt Dillon the rules of the game, the difference between a basic street game and playing at a casino, and some of the street slang. They spent time betting at casinos in Las Vegas. After ten days, they flew to Toronto where the interior gambling scenes were to be filmed and ‘50s era Chicago was recreated for financial reasons.
Silberstang helped design a special craps table that allowed the audience to follow the action easier and could be broken in half for special shots. However, two weeks into principal photography, Becker was replaced when he clashed with producer Martin Ransohoff over creative differences. Columbia Pictures chairman and CEO David Puttnam brought in one of his friends, Ben Bolt, son of Lawrence of Arabia (1962) screenwriter Robert Bolt, to direct. Puttnam was not fond of Ransohoff’s three-picture deal at the studio and wanted to help out a friend, but it rankled some within the industry who wondered why an unproven Brit was hired to direct a period piece set in Chicago.
The Big Town received mixed reviews from critics. Roger Ebert gave the film three-and-a-half out of four stars and praised Dillon’s performance: “Dillon has some kind of spontaneous rapport with the camera. He never seems aware of it, never seems aware that he’s playing a character. His acting is graceful and fluid, and his scenes always seem to start before their first shot so that we seem him in the middle of a motion.” The Los Angeles Times’ Kevin Thomas felt that it was “so entertaining, so true to its period that it’s easy to peg it as another ‘50s nostalgia piece when it actually possesses the kind of complexity usually associated with less commercial, less starry productions.”
In her review for The New York Times, Caryn James wrote, “More to the point, this huge cliché of a movie isn’t even a distant relation of films like The Color of Money, which can actually make you root for hustlers. The Big Town only proves we’ve gone back to the 1950’s one time too many.” The Chicago Tribune’s Joanna Steinmetz wrote, “But director Ben Bolt, whose previous experience is in British and American television, is not about to let style carry this show. Unfortunately, he’s not about to let substance carry it, either.” Finally, the Philadelphia Inquirer’s Ben Yagoda wrote, “Then, somewhere around reel three, the chips, so to speak, are cashed in … So the stageyness becomes stagier, the improbabilities more improbable and the lunacy loonier.”
In retrospect, The Big Town can be seen as a stepping-stone towards bigger and better things for Dillon and Lane (and Jones as well). Shortly after this movie he would attract much critical acclaim for his role as a junkie in Drugstore Cowboy (1989) and she would be nominated for an Emmy for her excellent work on the T.V. miniseries Lonesome Dove (which would also feature Jones). The Big Town didn’t exactly set the box office on fire – barely registering, in fact, but it wasn’t meant to with its small budget and limited distribution. The movie tells a story we’ve seen a million times before: a young man from a small-town that tries to make it in the big city only to learn a painful lesson. While it is hardly an original idea, the movie does have its entertaining moments with engaging performances from Dillon and Lane, which should appeal to fans of both actors.
Comer, Brooke. “Big Trouble in The Big Town.” American Cinematographer. September 1987.
Silberstang, Edwin. Winning Casino Craps. Random House. 2007.