The Last Picture Show

Some film historians lament that we’ll never recapture the magic of a film noir, screwball comedy, or musical comedy. There’s some truth to that, but why would you want to? Ideally, you learn the lessons from the past and apply what’s equally good from the present. That’s not possible, you say? One of the best examples it can be done is The Last Picture Show (1971).

Peter Bogdanovich, the film’s director, spent years studying and interviewing the top Hollywood directors, including Orson Welles, John Ford, and Howard Hawks. His articles, books, and monographs are a vital part of the canon for anyone interested in film history. In addition, his documentary Directed by John Ford is still the best introduction to that director’s work. In the early 1970s, Bogdanovich successfully make the transition from writing about films to directing films, just as Truffaut, Godard, Chabrol, Rivette and Rohmer had done previously. His first fictional film directed under his own name was Targets (1968). Made on a shoestring budget, it was structured around the chance opportunity to use Boris Karloff in the lead role.

Bogdanovich’s next film, The Last Picture Show, is one of the best American films of the 1970s. He applied many of the lessons he had learned from the classic film directors, especially Ford and Hawks. The measured pacing, open landscapes, and directness of the performances echo such films as The Grapes of Wrath, Red River, Wagon Master, and Rio Bravo. Yet Larry McMurtry’s script is thoroughly modern both in its moral sensibilities and sexual frankness.

There’s also a masterful blending of themes relating to change and nostalgia. Just as the small Texas town is changing and declining (represented by the closing of the only movie theater), the film is an elegy to an old style of filmmaking that’s rapidly disappearing (also represented by the closing movie theater). The older films are emblematic of an America that was beginning to lose its innocence, just as the town’s kids lose their innocence as they confront the complexities of adulthood.

Bogdanovich doesn’t quote Ford and Hawks directly. Instead, he borrows stylistically and alters the lessons to suit the material. The result is a stunning piece of filmmaking that should stand the tests of time.

The Last Picture Show
(1971; directed by Peter Bogdanovich; cable, dvd, & blu-ray)
Sony Pictures
List Price: $19.95 (DVD), $124.98 (Blu-ray, as part of the America Lost and Found: The BBS Story)

Wednesday, February 25 at 2:45 a.m. eastern (late Tue. night) on Turner Classic Movies