American Fable is ambitious, maybe too much so sometimes, but there's an intense pleasure in the boldness of the film's style.
Two men, barely 10 years apart in age, one with a lifetime of emptiness ahead of him, one with an empty lifetime already behind. This is what John Huston has to work with in "Fat City" and he treats it with a level, unsentimental honesty and makes it into one of his best films.
The young man is one of those cool, muscular youths who seem to be bursting with energy in their last year of high school. Then you run into them two years later and they're pumping gas and daydreaming about refinements they can make on their cars. The older man was a boxer once, and came close enough to greatness to be haunted by it, but now he is a drifter and the next thing to a bum. Leonard Gardner's novel Fat City placed these men in Stockton, Calif., and contrasted the hopelessness of their lives with the dogged persistence of their optimism.
Huston's film owes a great deal to the Gardner novel, but it also has something that is all Huston's own: His fascination with underdogs and losers. The characters in Huston movies hardly ever set out to achieve what they're aiming for. Sam Spade, in "The Maltese Falcon," Huston's first film, ends up minus one partner and one woman he thought he could trust. Everyone is a loser in "The Treasure of the Sierra Madre," and the gold blows back into the dust and is lost in it. Ahab, in "Moby Dick." Marlon Brando's career Army officer in "Reflections in a Golden Eye," even Bogart and Hepburn in "The African Queen" -- they all fall short of their plans. "The African Queen" does have a happy ending, but it feels tacked-on and ridiculous, and the Queen destroys itself in destroying the German steamer.
So this is a theme we find in Huston's work, but rarely does he fit it to characters and a time and place so well as in "Fat City." Maybe that's because Huston knows the territory: he was a professional boxer himself for a while, and not a very good one.