American Fable is ambitious, maybe too much so sometimes, but there's an intense pleasure in the boldness of the film's style.
This story has been told a hundred times, and yet when it is told well it is always fun to watch it being told again. The kid comes from the small town to the big city. He has a gift. He signs up as a professional, working for some pretty tough people. He meets a good girl. He meets a bad girl. He meets a villain. He wants more independence than his employers will give him. At the end of the story, we don't have to be movie producers to know that he will reject the bad girl, embrace the good girl, defeat the villain, triumph in his big test and win his independence.
This story could be about baseball, jazz, open-heart surgery, computer programming, tap dancing or mind reading. In "The Big Town," it's about gambling. Matt Dillon plays the farm boy from Iowa who keeps winning at the crap tables because he knows the odds cold and because he has amazingly good luck. Suzy Amis plays the good girl, a waitress supporting her small son. Diane Lane plays the bad girl, a stripper who is married to Tommy Lee Jones, who is the villain. The employers are Lee Grant and Bruce Dern, a married couple who are professional gamblers with a string of dice players, or "arms," under contract.
Add a few character touches and you've got it. For example, Dern was blinded by acid years ago and is looking for the man who did it - a man with a heart tattooed on the inside of his wrist. Lane married Jones because she thought she'd get control of half of his business, but she was wrong. And Grant used to be in love with the Iowa gambler who sent Dillon to the big city to work for her.
Why am I persisting in describing so much of the plot? So you can see that the story has little to do with the brilliance of this film. "The Big Town" is compulsively watchable, not because of its plot, which is predictable down to the smallest detail, but because of its acting, its direction and its style. This is a great-looking movie that never steps wrong, and Dillon uses it to demonstrate once again that he is a master of unforced, natural acting. In a 1950s period film that's wall-to-wall with cliches, he never seems less than absolutely at home.