Last Exit to Brooklyn (1989) from Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski)

When I was an undergrad, in the dying embers of the sixties, there were about five books that you had to have read (or at least had to claim to have read) in order to maintain intellectual credibility within the university-educated portion of our generation. I'm not talking about "To Kill a Mockingbird" or "Catcher in the Rye" or any of the books that we all had to read because they appeared on our mandatory summer reading lists in our prep schools. Quite the opposite. The books I'm referring to would merit detention and a phone call to your parents if you were caught reading them in a poncy high school. That list included such boho fare as "On The Road," "Naked Lunch," "Tropic of Cancer" ...  and "Last Exit to Brooklyn."

In "Last Exit," Hubert Selby, Jr. wrote about the lives and problems of the disaffected urban poor. This was back in the days when the pre-gentrified inner cities were often totally run-down, and were still filled with poor, ethnic white people wearing cheap hats and smoking several packs per day. Selby specifically focused on the problems of Brooklyn longshoremen struggling for a decent life amid the heroin addicts, street gangs, and prostitutes that defined their squalid neighborhoods. Of course, many of the union guys used to be in the gangs themselves, and they were generally hard men who often had abusive upbringings, and very often dropped out of school. They were frequently racist and hateful, in that special way that uneducated, downtrodden people with dead-end lives can be. Selby's book showed all of that. It shocked middle America back then in many ways, not the least of which involved the colorful vocabularies employed by his characters. Their language was ... well, kinda salty. English has an expression "swears like a longshoreman," and that cliché didn't gestate in a vacuum.

I don't remember much about the book, which I read forty years ago, but it's certainly a depressing movie. Here are some of the events you can expect to see:

A father finds out his daughter is pregnant, then beats her boyfriend up, only to embrace him as a new son-in-law. He only beat the kid up out of love. The two men get along fairly well until they get into another drunken fistfight at the wedding, and carelessly knock a baby on the floor. But they only did it out of love.

Then a prostitute is dumped by her one and only gentle lover, a naive army lieutenant. In order to drown her sorrows, she gets drunk and offers herself and "the best tits in the Western world" to every man in a bar. Oh, sure they gang-rape her violently. But they only do so out of love.

I'm really having a hard time remembering why we felt it important to read this book back in the sixties. I guess it was to expose us to the seedy underbelly of America, which was filled with lives very different from the ones we shared with our suburban prep-school friends. In fact, we didn't even know that people like this existed. Some of us had blue collar dads, but they weren't like the guys in this book. My dad was a machinist who grew up in the inner city, but he wasn't violent, even when he drank too much, and I can't even remember him raising his voice in anger. I never heard him use a cuss word until I was in my forties, and even then I was the one who first broke down that wall. Some of my other friends had dads who worked in one of the Kodak plants or at the Genesee brewery, and some of my uncles were regular working Joes, but they were all decent guys, guys who helped out with Boy Scouts when they could, mowed their lawns, paid their bills, bought Christmas presents, watched football on holidays, and generally disqualified themselves from becoming Hubert Selby characters.

I knew only one down-and-outer, an uncle who became a hopeless alkie and ended up panhandling. It's kind of a sad story. He had been our family's most decorated war hero, but adjusted so miserably to civilian life that he re-enlisted when he was in his early thirties, after many years out of the military. His re-enlistment period went alright, I guess, but the Navy had no further interest in him when that term was up, even though Vietnam was gearing up. By then he was nearly forty, and there was still a draft in those days, churning out an endless supply of young guys. He found himself a civilian again, and was once again totally lost, in more ways than one. The family gossip was that he had simply disappeared, or maybe that's just what the family elders told us young 'uns. I don't know whether he was really lost or not, but I know I was the one who found him. One night when I was sixteen, I was wandering through downtown Rochester, on my way to pick up my girlfriend from ballet class, when my long-lost Uncle Joe approached me. He failed to recognize me because he hadn't seen me since I was ten years old, back before his re-enlistment, and I had gone in that period from childhood to my full adult size. Before I could recognize him, he asked me for spare change. I did then recognize him, of course. He was the same guy who had first taught me to shoot pool, and he was still only 39 years old when I saw him that night. Hell, he looked about the same as the last time I had seen him at a family gathering. The saddest part of the story is that he was still wearing his navy uniform - his whites, no less, with the cuffs all soiled by slush. He had no overcoat, although it was the dead of winter. His situation was heartbreaking, but the point is that he was the only low-life I had ever known, and he was basically a decent guy who turned out pathetic, not a dangerous guy. No needles, no violence. With that uncle crawling through the nadir of any existence I could imagine, Selby's Brooklyn seemed completely surreal to me, like an ugly fairy tale. Frankly it still does, even though I have lived in, and even taught school in, places like the Bronx.

I just have to accept Selby's world on faith. It's a world where everyone hates almost everyone else, but not as much as they hate themselves. The socialists can't admit what they are, nor can the homosexuals, so they hate themselves and they hate society. The other characters can admit what they are, but hate themselves and society anyway, just on general principles. In that respect, I guess the film has some value, because it manages to give a tangible shape to the world of its characters, whereas I never really could have pictured those lives on my own. On the other hand, I wasn't really convinced by the film. I'll give you an example. The prostitute Tralala was gang-raped by dozens of guys who carried her from place to place. When the ordeal was over, she was still wearing her skirt. Huh? You mean after so many guys did whatever they wanted to do to her, not a single one of them ever wanted to just rip off that skirt and see the goods? I'm not buyin' it. In addition, her hair wasn't even messed up very much. By lowball urban hooker standards, she looked fresh enough to do a Summer's Eve commercial. Does this mean that drunken, uneducated, violent men have a certain standard of respect for womanhood, even during a frenzied gang rape, or does it mean that the German director tried to create the "mean streets" of Brooklyn and just didn't know how to go about it? My guess is the latter.

So, it's kind of a whitewash, in a way, even though it's a very ugly and depressing movie, virtually devoid of any hope or optimism for the lives of its characters.

The film has one characteristic that is kind of noteworthy. Although it was lensed in 1989, it is about the fifties and the director not only tried to re-create a fifties atmosphere, but also used fifties-style film technique, including the pre-Strasberg acting styles, the neatly posed group shots, and the big, symphonic Broadway-style musical score. All of that was reminiscent of the similarly themed films of that era. (Let's say "On the Waterfront," for example.) Of course, the real fifties movies didn't have any nudity or truly hard language, so this is more like what the films of the fifties would have been like without all the artificial restrictions of that era.

The critics generally admired this movie, so I guess it must be good or something. Let's assume that their 82% agreement must mean something positive. I know that I'm a hard sell, but frankly I didn't like it much at all, and the Region 2 DVD from the UK is just atrocious. It offers no widescreen version, and has no features of any kind. The film itself is very poorly mastered and filled with motion blur. Unfortunately, there is no Region 1 DVD available at this time.

Region 2 (Europe) DVD info

  • No features
  • no widescreen
  • poor transfer

There is no Region 1 DVD available at this time.


Jennifer Jason Leigh shows her breasts throughout a lengthy gang-rape scene.

The Critics Vote ...

The People Vote ...

  • Box Office: it grossed less than $2 million in the USA, but sold a surprising 750,000 tickets in Germany. (The director, Uli Edel, is German.)
The meaning of the IMDb score: 7.5 usually indicates a level of excellence equivalent to about three and a half stars from the critics. 6.0 usually indicates lukewarm watchability, comparable to approximately two and a half stars from the critics. The fives are generally not worthwhile unless they are really your kind of material, equivalent to about a two star rating from the critics, or a C- from our system. Films rated below five are generally awful even if you like that kind of film - this score is roughly equivalent to one and a half stars from the critics or a D on our scale. (Possibly even less, depending on just how far below five the rating is.

My own guideline: A means the movie is so good it will appeal to you even if you hate the genre. B means the movie is not good enough to win you over if you hate the genre, but is good enough to do so if you have an open mind about this type of film. C means it will only appeal to genre addicts, and has no crossover appeal. (C+ means it has no crossover appeal, but will be considered excellent by genre fans, while C- indicates that it we found it to be a poor movie although genre addicts find it watchable). D means you'll hate it even if you like the genre. E means that you'll hate it even if you love the genre. F means that the film is not only unappealing across-the-board, but technically inept as well. Any film rated C- or better is recommended for fans of that type of film. Any film rated B- or better is recommended for just about anyone. We don't score films below C- that often, because we like movies and we think that most of them have at least a solid niche audience. Now that you know that, you should have serious reservations about any movie below C-.

Based on this description, the movie would get a C if it were properly mastered, but the DVD score has to be F. The transfer is a mess, and there are no features, not even a widescreen version of the film.

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