The Big Town is neither the biggest hit, nor than the biggest flop in the gambling thriller genre, but it does feature craps as a refreshing change from the ubiquitous poker or sports betting that usually drive these plots. Released in 1987 but set in 1957, the film is now as far removed from our time as it is from the era it portrays. For viewers who remember the 80s, or even the 50s, there is a double dose of nostalgia in the colours, saturated lighting and filmmaking devices of the Reagan years applied to the faux-50s design and plotting.
For film history buffs, The Big Town’s main appeal, apart from its intense, albeit predictable story arc, is a varied cast of actors who are instantly recognisable stars worldwide, working as an ensemble at a much earlier time in their careers. Youngsters Matt Dillon and Diane Lane both deliver impressive performances, standing up to already-established stars like Tommy Lee Jones, Bruce Dern, Tom Skerritt and Lee Grant. The remaining featured actor, Suzy Amis, is now better known as Mrs James Cameron. Between them, they keep the action clicking along.
Big Fish Leaves Small Pond
Dillon plays JC Cullen, a kid from a one-horse town in Indiana with an extraordinary knack for winning at street craps at the local gas station. He heads off to the Big Town, aka Chicago, Illinois, to try his luck at the private craps clubs that skirt the era’s repressive gaming laws. He starts a relationship with a wholesome girl-next-door, Aggie, played by Amis, but his association with professional gamblers Mr and Mrs Edwards, played by Dern and Grant, draws him into the high-stakes craps life.
Jones plays George Cole, a craps old-timer who runs his own tough craps game and strip joint at the Gem Club. JC breaks the bank on a craps lucky streak at the Gem Club, and also gets involved in a torrid affair with amoral stripper Lorry Dane, who happens to be Cole’s wife. Lane plays Lorry with calculated sexuality, ruthlessly exploiting the men in her life to get what she wants.
Explosive Finale Wraps it Up
With JC hopelessly torn between his good girl and his bad girl, and Cole setting up a rigged craps game to win back his money and punish JC for his effrontery, Tom Skerritt enters the picture as Phil Carpenter. He’s a professional gambler whom Mr Edwards blames for his blinding in an acid attack.
In the film’s violent climax, JC faces possible death in a vengeful showdown between Edwards, Cole and Carpenter. Combined with the winner-takes-all craps game, played with loaded dice, it brings this middle-of-the-road thriller to an appropriate conclusion.
A Mixed Bag Overall
The Big Town didn’t perform well at the box office, failing to make back its budget, and the critical response was mixed. Most viewers find it a pleasant enough diversion, with an entertaining cast doing justice to a middling script, without any major claim to greatness. 50s music and images viewed through 80s eyes add to its historical charm, and if it has a moral for modern gaming fans, it’s that they are much better off with the legal land-based and online gaming options available today. As JC discovers, loaded games, adultery and organised crime is a fatal mixture.