Theatricality is the keyword to Uli Edel's darkly fine adaptation of Hubert Selby's collected stories of the Brooklyn waterfront in 1952, "Last Exit to Brooklyn" (selected theaters). Although Edel shot his film almost entirely on its original locations in Brooklyn's Red Hook area, he has heightened its emotional and visual pitch.
It's interesting that this intensely American book--which was considered as a project by Stanley Kubrick and Brian DePalma at one time or another since its appearance in 1964--could be made with such success by a German director and producer, although they've used a multinational production team. The filmmakers' choice of theatrical distance has helped; done straight-on, these lives might be unendurable.
As it is, David Chapman's masterly sets have a little of German Expressionism about them, a little of the exaggeration of the Group Theater productions of the '30s and a little of the clear-eyed night visions of Reginald Marsh. They set the action into a frame, so that we can watch these desperate lives, but at the same time stay protectively back. (The talk and action may still be too much for many audiences; be forewarned. "Last Exit's" R is the perfect example of the need for an A rating for adult fare.)
All these years the problem of adapting the book has been integrating Selby's separate stories into a flowing whole; California-born Desmond Nakano ("Boulevard Nights") has managed that deftly. He's retained the talk that stabs like scissors, but he's given the separate stories the sense of happening among neighbors. Some die-hard "Exit" fans may complain that the film seems to end on a faintly more upbeat note than the stories; it seems the barest bone to throw to an audience which might otherwise go home and turn on the gas.
As soldiers and sailors leave for the Korean War from the docks a little off camera, most of the locals who do work, aren't working. A strike at the local factory is in its sixth month; families are living on strike funds and hand-out bags of groceries. The night air is pressure-cooker humid and tempers are short.
Being strike secretary has made local shop steward Harry Black (Stephen Lang) important, probably for the first time in his unremarkable life. Besides, it gives him a place to go--away from his wife and new baby. He's quick to stand the neighborhood to beer from the kegs he's ordered with union funds and to inflate his importance to the cause. Jerry Ohrbach's union leader, Boyce, is actually the key man; arriving to keep things together, by sheer personal strength he persuades the men to hold out a little longer.
Out on the nighttime streets it's business as usual. The young Tralala (Jennifer Jason Leigh), almost incandescently white-blond, with her sprayed-on skirt and high, high heels, is at work, luring young servicemen out to a derelict car by the garbage-strewn waterfront. There Vinnie (Peter Dobson), who pimps for her now that he's out of jail, will roll them with his buddies.
Vinnie is also central to the life of Georgette (Alexis Arquette), a young transvestite with a crush on the ex-con. Here in 1952 Georgette's gayness is still a secret to Vinnie's mother and a disgrace to his hulking brother. However, it's at Vinnie's that shop steward Harry Black's ordinary life takes an unpredictable turn when Harry finds himself drawn to Regina (Zette), a transvestite with only money on the brain.
The last group is Big Joe (Burt Young), another striker and head of a family that threatens to grow larger momentarily. Daughter Donna (Ricki Lake) is not fat, she's eight months pregnant, with Tommy (John Costelloe), Big Joe's fellow-striker, the most likely suspect as the father.
While Harry's union funds hold out, he's trick of the hour to Regina. Then, at about the same time Tralala moves briefly into Manhattan with a smitten young lieutenant, Harry's guilt-ridden world collapses after he's been in bed with Regina when he should have been watching for scab trucks.
The strike-breaking attempt at the factory is "Last Exit's" vast visual set-piece, a long and magnificently staged mass of moving bodies and machinery that shows Edel's accomplished and painterly eye and the remarkable camera work of Stefan Czapsky. (You will also discover a Pieta and a Christ on the cross among the film's visual references--neither of which seem out of place in this landscape.)
Edel's empathy with actors--which he showed in 1981 with the harrowing heroin saga, "Christiane F."--is further strengthened by the remarkable performances here. The particular standouts are Jennifer Jason Leigh's defiantly tragic Tralala, Ohrbach's implacable union leader, Stephen Lang's self-hating Harry Black and Alexis Arquette's dry wit-over-desperation as Georgette.