The deadly news cycle rages on, and rather than cancel next year’s Oscars, they could easily just dedicate the whole show to In Memorium. The death of famed country star Mac Davis was barely reported in some US papers, but probably triggered some feelings for those who saw his performance in Ted Kotcheff’s searing sports movie from 1979. North Dallas Forty is, even if you care not one jot for American football or the NFL, a breathtakingly honest look at the world of professional sports. I’ve only ever attended games by the New York Jets, and found the spectacle as invigorating as watching highway maintenance, but this perceptive film is so attuned to the subject that it’s a bona fide genre classic.
Nick Nolte is absolutely huge as Phil Elliot, a cocky player for the fictional North Dallas Bulls, the Dallas Cowboys under a thin veneer. Although in his 30’s Elliot is a walking bandage, his knees, shoulders and psyche ripped apart by his exposure to bone-crunching violence on the park. His recreational life is a question of pain management. A consumer of marijuana, pills and hard liquor, Elliot lives a life of excess that’s contrary to modern trends; these players, smoke, booze, cheerfully light up cigars in the locker room, and there’s plenty of salty, non-PC talk. Davis plays his fellow player Seth Maxwell, and their relationship is the key element of a film that doubles-down on camaraderie and betrayal as the men struggle to keep their careers afloat while the company owners assess their financial value to the game.
It’s something of a shock to discover that ex-player Peter Gent’s novel, a semi-autobiographical account of his days at the Cowboys, finishes on a violent note that’s more akin to a horror film than a sports movie; wisely, the film scraps this salacious melodrama in terms of a narrower focus on playing issues; the guiding hand of Paramount’s Frank Yablans (The Godfather, Chinatown) seems to have worked wonders here. For once, there’s no big game to cheer, or much actual sports footage; the film zeroes in with laser focus on the parties, the training, and the personal lives of the protagonists; model Dayle Haddon makes a big impression as Elliot’s sensible girlfriend Charlotte. Charles Durning, Dabney Coleman and Bo Svenson make up a team of acting MVP’s.
There’s so much going right in North Dallas Forty; the great cinematographer Paul Lohmann (Nashville, Time After Time) pulls off some great against-the-flood-lights shots, notably the way he shoots the games with no spectators visible; the vulnerable players feel as isolated and alone as fish in a barrel. And Kotcheff displays all the intuitive feel for strident, flawed masculinity that he’d bring to First Blood in 1982. That was the year I first saw this film on ITV, and watching it again after Davis’ death reminded me of the strengths of late 70’s cinema; fearless, honest, and brilliantly observed, North Dallas Forty is a glorious 50 yard touchdown.