This beautiful, sad, and gritty 1972 film set in Stockton, California and directed by John Huston is based upon the 1969 novel of the same name by Leonard Gardner who also wrote the film's screenplay. The film captures the lives of the struggling poor and down and out with a focus on boxing and on agricultural day labor. The film offers a sense of depressed lonely lives with faded dreams but with the glimmer of hope and a better life.
The film tells of the friendship of two young men, aspiring boxers, whose lives are moving in different directions. Billy Tully, 29 (Stacey Keach) is a boxer who once showed promise but who loses his wife when his career goes sour. Billy drinks and drifts from job to job while trying to get back into the ring. His friend, Ernie Munger, 18, displays modest fighting talent and takes to the ring in an attempt to support his young wife and their child. Both Billy and Ernie must resort to the world of agricultural day labor around Stockton to support themselves.
Many other characters in the film establish the nature of Stockton life, including the lady friends of the two young fighters, Oma (Susan Tyrell) and Faye (Candy Clark). Curtis Cokes plays Earl, a rival for the favors of Oma while Nicholas Colsanto plays the boxing trainer of both men, Ruben, in a run-down gym. Other characters add to the atmosphere, including bartenders and bar patrons, an aging waiter, day laborers and their recruiters, and those with no particular place to go hanging on the city streets.
The film's cinematography captures the decaying character of Stockton from its opening scene which is set along Skid Row. The bars, restaurants, and streets, and their patrons establish a depressing mood of near hopelessness. The scenes of the fighters, their trainers, and their audiences show professional boxing at its lower levels without the large purses but with the sleaze and with all the pain. Kris Kristofferson's song "Help Me Make it Through the Nigh" plays several times during the film.
Both Gardner's novel and this film are too little known in their respective genres. "Fat City" was Garner's only novel and it is fortunate to have him as the writer of the screenplay as well. I loved the book when I read it years ago and loved this film which I saw only recently.