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Last Exit To Brooklyn

Infogrames/Force Entertainment . R4 . COLOR . 98 mins . R . PAL


While it’s all too common to see the word “controversial” attached to the advertising for a film, book or recording, Hubert Selby Jr’s 1964 novel Last Exit To Brooklyn was, at the time of its release and for years afterwards exactly that. The book - an uncompromising slice-of-life look at a disparate (but connected) group of people in downtrodden Brooklyn, New York in 1952 - became an unwitting catalyst for an eventual rethinking of censorship laws in some countries, but not before it had been declared “obscene” by British courts. That extended UK court battle had the inevitable side effect, of course, of making the book immensely popular - and also making its author pots of money, which he promptly used to finance his addictions to heroin and alcohol (addictions he later conquered).

One of those books that was always considered “unfilmable”, Last Exit To Brooklyn nevertheless made it to the screen in 1989 with German director Uli Edel at the helm. Having attained success and acclaim with his stunning Christiane F at the beginning of the ‘80s, Edel was certainly the right man for the job - and his chosen cast threw themselves into the project with vigour.

Essentially a collection of parallel stories set around the tail end of a six month long strike in Brooklyn that has a devastating effect on the workers, their families and those who know them, the film throws out much that’s conventional in storytelling and instead focuses on the characters themselves, their addictions, their flaws and their small triumphs. It’s a dark, dark world, where the main protagonists include Tralala, a self-loathing prostitute (Jennifer Jason Leigh, brilliant in a typically challenging role), a corrupt union leader who despises his young family and pursues homosexual relationships as an outlet for his disillusionment, a tough middle-aged worker with a penchant for aggression whose daughter has become pregnant, and a young naïve boy who lives to impress Tralala but doesn’t fit in to her world in the slightest. These are bleak times for the characters in this story, and Edel’s filming of it does not shy away in the slightest from the grim self-destructiveness of the people that populate this world. There are no simple, heart-warming resolutions for these people, no optimistic outlook so everyone can go away feeling better about themselves. Compared to this film, so-called “gritty” urban drama TV series look positively Mary Poppins by comparison. Yet the film, for all its darkness and despair, is never anything less than utterly compelling - it’s just not for everyone.

Performances throughout are uniformly excellent; there are a few familiar faces here, too, including Jerry Orbach (a veteran actor best known currently as Detective Briscoe on the TV drama Law And Order), Ricki Lake a year after her film debut in John Waters’ Hairspray and long before her current talk show fame, Stephen Baldwin (well, there’s always a Baldwin!) and Alexis Arquette amongst others. Cinematography is beautifully handled by Stefan Czapsky (who has lensed several of Tim Burton’s best films) and the spot-on editing is by Peter Przygodda, who has worked on most of Wim Wenders’ recent films. Despite the bleak world illustrated here, this is a very stylishly made film.


Unfortunately, whatever excitement this reviewer had about Last Exit To Brooklyn arriving on region 4 DVD was almost instantly killed the second the film started playing. Because this transfer, sadly, looks utterly dreadful. Granted, Last Exit is not the product of a major studio and as a result hasn’t been given the hi-def treatment, nor is it likely to in the near future. But the video quality of this particular transfer quite literally makes many of those old ‘80s transfers seem positively radiant by comparison.

It must be mentioned at this point that Force Video, who have manufactured and distributed this disc, can’t be held responsible for quality issues here. This is one of the titles that they have inherited from Infogrames, who escaped the DVD market within months of arriving; the disc Force have released is from the exact same master that Stream AV in Melbourne did for Infogrames. And Stream AV have done a fine authoring job here, by the way - it’s just that the master material they were given was impossibly sub-standard.

Last Exit is presented here non-anamorphically at roughly a 1.66:1 aspect ratio, though the transfer appears to have been done full-frame from a print derived from hard-matted camera negative; the occasional full-frame scene supports that theory, as does the less-than-black appearance of the non-picture area and the frequent appearance of dust on the edges of the frame. Reel-change marks (the first square, the second round) turn up regularly, indicating that this was transferred from a print done for theatrical exhibition.

The entire film suffers from major transfer problems (though, on the positive side, the print used is relatively clean and undamaged). There’s a pervasive green-grey cast to everything here, resolution is very, very low, and many scenes seem almost out of focus due to the low definition on offer. Black levels are impenetrably low (and this is a very dark movie for much of its running time) to the point where it’s impossible to make out what’s happening in a scene on occasion; the phrase “shadow detail” is very much irrelevant here. Brightly lit scenes, meanwhile, look almost washed out. Like the bad old days of early VHS, this is a telecine transfer done without any consideration for the lower contrast range of video. It is almost certainly the same transfer done for home video release back in the early ‘90s.

Despite all these problems the actual MPEG encoding on the disc is as good as flawless - though the low-resolution image hardly presents an encoding challenge.


Audio quality is slightly better, thankfully, but there are still problems. The audio on this disc is straight from the optical stereo tracks of the release print itself, with all the associated problems - lack of fidelity and dynamic range, the familiar “crackling” background noise caused by scratches and dirt on the optical track, and plenty of harmonic distortion. The film was released in Dolby Stereo (a matrixed surround format) and does still sound reasonably listenable while never close to state of the art, even for a film of this vintage. Surround activity is minimal but present, and bass response is surprisingly good - particularly when it comes to Mark Knopfler’s rather un-Knopflerish music score.


Only a smattering of extras on this disc, but what’s here is fairly good.

Cast Notes: Well-written biographies and comprehensive filmographies (current up to 2001) for the principals: Jennifer Jason Leigh, Burt Young, Stephen Lang, Alexis Arquette and Peter Dobson. There is no such offering, unfortunately, for director Uli Edel.

Notes On Novel: 22 pages of well-chosen text about the novel and the legal controversy that surrounded it in England in particular. A very good read, and an excellent companion piece to the film.

Production Notes: 6 pages about the making of the film. Too brief, this nevertheless has some interesting information lurking within.


While many people would consider it anything but a fun night’s entertainment, Last Exit To Brooklyn is an important, innovative filming of a compelling but difficult book that very nearly gets it perfectly right. There are, admittedly, flaws in both structure and execution here, but with solid, intelligent direction from Edel and some amazing performances by the cast (particularly Leigh), this is well worth the time for anyone who craves challenging cinema. Unfortunately, the DVD that Force Video have inherited is decidedly lacklustre, and while it’s a better bet than a VHS version, it’s still far less than a film such as this deserves.

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      And I quote...
    "...an important, innovative filming of a compelling but difficult book... Unfortunately, the DVD that Force Video have inherited is decidedly lacklustre."
    - Anthony Horan
      Review Equipment
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    • Video Cables:
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