Last Exit to Brooklyn is a bleak tour of urban hell, a $16 million Stateside-lensed production of Hubert Selby Jr’s controversial 1964 novel. But it doesn’t hold a scalpel to the lacerating torrential prose that made the book so cringingly urgent.
Director Uli Edel, whose international reputation was made on the 1980 teen drug drama Christiane F., proves himself an accomplished professional. What he lacks is that fundamental gift of empathy that would make these damned souls more than just figures under a cinematic microscope.
Action is set in a working-class section of Brooklyn in 1952, close by the navy yards where young Americans are embarking for the Korean War. Many residents are engaged in a bitter six month strike against a local factory. Film’s spectacular centerpiece is a well-staged riot pitting strikers against police when factory management uses scab labour to break the picket lines.
One of the protagonists is Stephen Lang, a venal married shop steward and secretary of the strike office who has been dipping into the union till to subsidize his first homosexual affair. When union boss Jerry Orbach boots him out, Lang is dropped by his mercenary lover. A subhuman band of local goons thrashes Lang to within an inch of his life (and ‘crucifies’ him on a wooden crossbeam).
Other major character is a tawdry, hard-drinking teen hooker named Tralala (Jennifer Jason Leigh), who lures unsuspecting bar-hopping servicemen to a back lot where they are mugged and robbed by the band. One night she gets drunk and defiantly declares herself open for sexual services to the neighbourhood bar’s entire clintele.
The resulting gangbang, one of the most horrific passages in Selby Jr’s book, is here sanitized and given a hopeful finish.