Pouring the new wine of Young Hollywood’s freshly gained permissiveness concerning depictions of sex and obscenity into old bottles borrowed from the cellars of classical Hollywood cinema, which is to say, these older films’ expressive visual grammar and obliquely suggestive dialogue, The Last Picture Show, adapted from the Larry McMurtry novel by McMurtry and director Peter Bogdanovich, delineates the quiet, desperate lives of the citizens of Anarene, Texas over the course of one year in the early 1950s. Bogdanovich, a one-time film critic and historian, drew formal and technical inspiration from years spent programming films from Hollywood’s Golden Age for MoMA, as well as taking advice from houseguest Orson Welles when it came to shooting the film in black and white, or employing long tracking shots rather than breaking up important scenes. As Welles reportedly put it, “That’s what separates the men from the boys,” and it’s advice Bogdanovich clearly took to heart.
Opening with Robert Surtees’s camera panning along the largely deserted main street of this one-stoplight town, as the wind howls and dead leaves swirl in dizzying vortices, the claustrophobia of the town’s dead-end existence is rendered more desolate still by the monochrome cinematography. Early scenes run withdrawn high school football player Sonny Crawford (Timothy Bottoms) through the gauntlet of Anarene’s disapproval over the team’s recent trouncing. “Ever heard of tackling?” more than one resident asks in disbelief, including otherwise paternal Sam the Lion (Ben Johnson), who owns the town’s café, pool hall, and picture show. When Sonny objects, “Could’ve been worse,” Sam replies, “You could say that about most everything, I guess.”
Unremitting failure can lead to disaffection, a disregard for the so-called verities of school spirit or civic pride, as in Sonny’s case, exemplified to perfection in the moment late in the film when he dejectedly mouths the words to the school anthem. These scenes firmly establish the town’s conservative core values, as well as the film’s presiding tone of tragicomic melancholy. Nothing expresses the self-styled Republic of Texas’s aggrandized sense of importance and cultural isolation quite so succinctly as an early smash cut, used to supremely comic effect, that links an urbane teacher (John Hillerman), lecturing his bored-stiff class on Keats’s ode to Truth and Beauty, with chaw-chomping Coach Popper (Bill Thurman) goading the basketball team with the demand, “Get a move on, you pissants!”
The Last Picture Show was one of the first films to employ a song score, comprised exclusively of period-specific tunes, often played on radios, jukeboxes, and phonographs within the film. Though this sort of thing has been done to death since, especially within the confines of the teen sex comedy that Bogdanovich at least in part helped to inaugurate (think everything from Porky’s to Superbad), it’s never been handled with as much impactful subtlety. Witness the contrasting versions of “Cold, Cold Heart” heard in Sam the Lion’s café and Jacy’s (Cybill Shepherd) bedroom: Hank Williams’s plaintive warble speaks to a kind of heartfelt sincerity, whereas Tony Bennett puts his city-slicker rendition across like a smooth operator.
The sole escape route available to the citizens of Anarene, short of lighting out for the territories, as Duane (Jeff Bridges) does at film’s end, proves to be sexual passion. Its flicker and roar informs each of the central relationships, from the humiliating sexual initiation a group of high school boys forces on Billy (Sam Bottoms), the mentally slow kid who idolizes Sonny and best friend Duane, to the sexual triangle that develops between the two boys and resident cocktease Jacy, a manipulative and perpetually dissatisfied Hitchcock blonde, whose own seriocomic sexual misadventures with initially impotent Duane and older lothario Abilene (Clu Gulager), who has his way with her atop a pool table, succeed in lending the character more depth than she might otherwise possess; Shepherd’s outstanding, nuanced performance also helps to round Jacy out.
The most affecting scene in the entire film is Sam the Lion’s mournful monologue, drawing its power from the disparity between recollected passion and present dissatisfaction. As Sam crouches at the edge of a fishing tank surrounded by bare mesquite trees and sere foliage, the camera slowly moves in on, then back out from, a close-up on his face as the sun escapes the clouds to cast a dazzlingly bright aura around his speech in memory of an old flame: “If she was here I’d probably be just as crazy now as I was then in about five minutes. Ain’t that ridiculous? Naw, it ain’t really. ‘Cause being crazy about a woman like her is always the right thing to do. Being an old decrepit bag of bones, that’s what’s ridiculous. Gettin’ old.” Always possible, the flare-ups of sudden passion, what the surrealists called l’amour fou, makes the weight of the years just bearable.
Granted an opportunity by Duane’s departure, Sonny pursues Jacy, driving her out to the same fishing tank, in the process throwing over his relationship with Ruth Popper (Cloris Leachman), the coach’s wife. The parallelism is tidy, since it comes about that Jacy’s mother Lois (Ellen Burstyn) was the woman Sam spoke about so poignantly. After Jacy and Sonny drive to Oklahoma to get married, the police intercept them; the ever-thoughtful Jacy arranged to leave a note for her parents. Fetching them back to Anarene, Lois tells Sonny he’ll be better off away from Jacy, and he guesses the relationship between Sam and Lois. She admits, “I guess if it wasn’t for Sam, I’d have missed it, whatever it is. I’d have been one of them Amity types that thinks that playin’ bridge is about the best thing that life has to offer.”
In the end, Duane and Sonny manage to patch things up only after Sonny confirms the rumor that he never slept with Jacy. Duane is defined by his obsession with the girl, admitting that he can’t get over her. When he boards the bus that whisks him off to boot camp prior to getting sent off to Korea, his matter-of-fact “I’ll see you in a year or two if I don’t get shot” speaks to Duane’s disregard for his own life.
When Sonny returns to Ruth Popper, her initial anger at Sonny’s careless love slowly gives way to a recrudescence of her desire for him; it’s a haunting, enigmatic scene that plays out primarily through exchanged looks, understated gestures, and the sort of dialogue Hawks referred to as “three cushion,” never stating what it can simply suggest. The couple sit hand-in-hand as Ruth reassures Sonny, “Never you mind, honey. Never you mind,” and the camera moves steadily away, dissolving slowly into a lateral pan back across the empty main street and ending on the now-abandoned Royal Theater, an almost apocalyptic scene of diminution and loss.
The night before Duane ships out, he and Sonny attend the last picture show of the film’s title, a screening of Howard Hawks’s Red River. Bogdanovich’s widescreen frame contains the boxy Academy ratio screen showing the iconic scene when John Wayne hands the reins over to Montgomery Clift with the laconic, “Take ‘em to Missouri, Matt.” While the sense of the baton being passed from one cinematic generation to another couldn’t be any clearer, the scene also sounds the death knell for the classical style of filmmaking; as Mrs. Mosey, the ticket-taker and popcorn vendor tells the boys, having “television all the time” seems to have sapped something from the filmgoing experience. But just as one frontier closes, be it Old Hollywood or the Old West, another one opens. For Duane, it may be far-flung adventures in Southeast Asia; for the members of the New Hollywood, it was a briefly opened window on revitalized filmmaking and venturesome storytelling.