It took 25 years to bring his novel to the screen, and it is not hard to understand why. The 1964 publication of Hubert Selby Jr.’s best-seller, Last Exit to Brooklyn, tested the limits of liberal tolerance. The American author’s scorching prose, and his hellish vision of prostitution, homosexuality, rape, drug abuse and union violence both excited and outraged the literary world. In Britain, the courts declared the book obscene in 1966, a verdict that was overturned by a landmark appeal ruling the following year. Since then, various attempts to film sections of the novel have foundered. Selby’s narrative, a series of six stories with some overlapping characters, seemed to defy adaptation. But a trio of West German film-makers, working with an American cast, took on the challenge. The result is a work of searing intensity, a movie that captures the stark vision of the novel—and underscores its prophetic nature.
The project dates back to the late 1960s, when three graduates of the Munich Film and Television Academy first discussed making a movie of Last Exit. Director Uli Edel, producer
Bernd Eichinger and co-producer Herman Weigel went on to make Christiane F. (1980) instead. That tale of a 13-year-old drug-addicted prostitute became the most popular German film of the past 40 years. When the three men finally contacted Selby about Last Exit 'm 1986, the author expressed skepticism at first. “You keep getting these calls from all over and, la-dida, nothing happens,” the author, now 61 and living in Los Angeles, told Maclean ’s last week. But Selby became intimately involved with the production. As for the finished product, he said, “I think it’s terrific.”
The movie weaves Selby’s disparate stories into a single narrative. It takes place in the sordid streets and all-night bars of a waterfront neighborhood in Brooklyn. The year is 1952. Officially, the American dream is gearing up for a decade of middle-class prosperity, with the early flickers of television and the confident crusade of the Cold War. Last Exit presents a flip side of that dream: a no-exit world of relentless brutality and sexual despair.
Its characters include pimps, prostitutes and transvestites, as well as an unwed mother, striking factory workers, labor bureaucrats and soldiers waiting to fight in Korea. There is a panorama of subplots, but the movie concen-
trates on two characters from Selby’s narrative: Harry (Stephen Lang), a union shop steward who is seduced by the homosexual subculture, and Tralala Oennifer Jason Leigh), a prostitute who is embittered by a fleeting glimpse of a better world.
Harry is bored with family life and repelled by his wife’s advances. In his position as union strike secretary, he has developed an inflated sense of his own importance and a desire to walk on the wild side. He uses union money to buy beer for the local hoodlums. And, meeting an effeminate homosexual named Georgette (Alexis Arquette) in an all-night diner, he follows him to a party fuelled with gin, marijuana, Benzedrine and heroin.
Meanwhile, Tralala deserts her pimp and heads into the Manhattan night, where she picks up a soldier naïve enough to treat her like the girl next door. But, after he leaves for Korea, she winds up back in the grimy streets of Brooklyn, miserable and masochistic. Leigh makes a far more glamorous Tralala than the wretched character in Selby’s novel. And she suffers a slightly less brutal fate.
But, like the book, the movie displays an Old Testament sense of catastrophe, especially when its scale shifts from the individual to the mob. Last Exit features one of the most gripping scenes of industrial violence ever filmed, a late-night confrontation between police and strikers trying to stop trucks at a picket line. There is also a graphic scene of gang rape, which serves as a horrifying conclusion to the sexual violence that permeates the movie.
Sexual extremes merge in Last Exit : the young toughs with their greased ducktails and curled lips pose as ardently, in their own way, as the transvestites. Edel’s direction is more calculated than compassionate; intimacy eludes him. But he draws strong performances from his actors. And his stylized realism is effective in conjuring up the dark atmosphere of the novel. American cinematographer Stefan Czapsky, who shot the haunting 1988 murder documentary The Thin Blue Line, creates an extraordinary look for Last Exit. Although it is filmed in color, the tones are parched, and the images have the severe grain of black and white. Lacking the antique gloss of so many period movies, Last Exit was filmed in a Brooklyn neighborhood that was made to look exceptionally decrepit. An ominous sound track by Mark Knopfler of Dire Straits heightens the apocalyptic mood with hints of both West Side Story and Richard Wagner.
For all its darkness, the movie offers a sense of redemption absent from the book. As Selby said, “When you’re locked in a theatre for 100 minutes, there’s got to be some relief.” Onscreen, as on the page, Last Exit transcends the era that created it. Prophetically, the novel identified trends that have since moved from the margin to the mainstream: urban violence, drug abuse and gender chaos. But Selby maintains that Last Exit was not ahead of its time: “Those kind of neighborhoods have existed since the beginning of time—there was one waiting outside the Garden of Eden.”
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