The town where Sam (Ben Johnson) reigns is one of complete despair. He owns a pool hall where they sell candy and soda pop; he also owns the local movie theater where they play Father of the Bride, Sands of Iwo Jima, and John Ford movies. He looks after Sonny (Timothy Bottoms) and a retarded boy named Billie (Sam Bottoms, Tim's younger brother) who spends all his time uselessly sweeping the streets and watching the picture shows. There is one pretty girl, Jacey (Cybill Shepard), but she dates Sonny's dough-brained buddy Duane (Jeff Bridges). Jacey acts exactly like her mother (Ellen Burstyn) which is a dreadful fate in both cases. There's also Ruth Popper (an excellent Cloris Leachman), the PE teacher's wife who begins a quicksilver affair with Sonny.
Everyone sleeps with everyone else, soundtracked to Hank Williams' "Cold Cold Heart" and draped in Robert Surtees' pristine black-and-white cinematography. Toiling in the shadow of the Korean War, the entire town is restless: The teenagers are waiting for life to start and so are the adults, who thought marriage would make life livable while securing regular sex and safe passage into the pearly gates. Bogdanovich's form and Larry McMurtry's poignant screenplay, adapted from his novel, feel aimless but that is very much the point. Dreams and goals have little business in this town and morals, Catholic or otherwise, are purely for show.
There's a pagan streak running through these encounters, elevating some of its Catholic imagery -- Jacey holds onto the pocket lining of a pool table as if she were being lashed -- to dizzying levels of depravity. Ruth's husband may be a homosexual; Sonny's father acts like a stranger with his son; the preacher boy kidnaps little girls; for a dollar and some change, you can stick it in Jimmie Sue. None of it compares to the delirious baptism of Jacey at the behest of the town troublemaker (Randy Quaid, who else?) with Pat Harris' abnormal gimmick tune "The Thing" bopping in the background. Bogdanovich saves his most romantic shot for an embrace between a teenager and a 40-year-old woman while his most smoldering sequence involves a girl being taken by the man who is sleeping with her mother. A shot of Ruth alone on a bed, waiting for Sonny, wouldn't be out of place in Ophüls' oeuvre.
Bogdanovich made Picture Show the same year he completed Directed by John Ford, a documentary on the legendary Irish filmmaker and Bogdanovich's mentor; there is a poster for Wagon Master, Ford's favorite of his own films, hanging in Sam's theater. Along its formal curiosity and its enveloping heartache, there lies a buttress of cinematic devotion in Bogdanovich's film that is evident in everything from its allegiance to black-and-white to its upending of teen-movie archetypes. The name of the town, Anarene, is an open nod to a town in Howard Hawks' Red River, the last movie Duane, Billie, and Sonny watch together. It begs the question: Why waste such a pretty name on a town that shouldn't even be on a map?
Run time: 118 mins
In Theaters: Friday 22nd October 1971
Box Office Worldwide: $29.1M
Distributed by: Columbia Pictures
Production compaines: Columbia Pictures Corporation, BBS Productions
Contactmusic.com: 4.5 / 5
Rotten Tomatoes: 100%
IMDB: 8.1 / 10
Director: Peter Bogdanovich
Producer: Stephen J. Friedman
Screenwriter: Peter Bogdanovich, Larry McMurtry
Starring: Timothy Bottoms as Sonny Crawford, Jeff Bridges as Duane Jackson, Cybill Shepherd as Jacy Farrow, Ben Johnson as Sam the Lion, Cloris Leachman as Ruth Popper, Ellen Burstyn as Lois Farrow, Eileen Brennan as Genevieve, Clu Gulager as Abilene, Sam Bottoms as Billy, Sharon Ullrick as Charlene Duggs, Randy Quaid as Lester Marlow, Bill Thurman as Coach Popper, Jessie Lee Fulton as Miss Mosey, Helena Humann as Jimmie Sue, Barc Doyle as Joe Bob Blanton, Gary Brockette as Bobby Sheen, John Hillerman as English teacher, Joe Heathcock as Sheriff, Kimberly Hyde as Annie-Annie, Noble Willingham as Chester, Janice O'Malley as Mrs. Clarg, Grover Lewis as Sonny's father
Also starring: Peter Bogdanovich