Why does Fat City vunite Huston’s critics, whatever latitude they hail from? It is the most documentary-like of any of his fiction films. It is difficult to imagine a novel having inspired the film, which seems to have been shot live in the real streets of Stockton City, California: sordid motels, gloomy bars, foul-smelling gyms, anonymous streets, squalid markets frequented by labourers; in the vast tomato and onion plantations of the San Joaquin Valley, even the sunlight seems lacking in joy or glory.
After having chosen little-known actors for the principal roles (although he had initially thought of Brando for the role of Tully, which eventually went to Stacy Keach), Huston gave most of the secondary roles to the inhabitants of Stockton and people from the world of boxing. You could call it a Neorealist film, updated in line with the freer techniques of the new waves of the Sixties, but with an even more liberal approach […]. The world of small-time boxing, made up mainly of losers driven by the hope of escaping their lot but condemned to a routine of rigged fights in squalid settings, was one that Huston knew well having frequented it while at university. To recount this world, Huston does something greater and different from most boxing films: he makes it a metaphor for the dark side of existence, set against the backdrop of the desolate by-products of well-to-do America. (Fat City is not only an ironic title, but also a slang expression widely used in jazz and boxing communities; it refers to paradise on earth, which is inaccessible, an illusion). Fat City is a parable about life as a battle for survival, in the tradition of A Piece of Steak, one of Jack London’s best short stories, but also about physical decay and death. […] The film is supported by a harsh prose whose lyricism does not exclude moments of sardonic humour, but eschews the pictorial while recalling the photographs of Paul Strand or the paintings of Ben Shahn. It tells of the encounter and friendship between two boxers – one at the beginning of his career, the other at the end – in a non-descript and typical American town. Nothing particularly dramatic occurs during the course of the action or, if it does, it is not shown directly. It is merely a film on the intersection between the lives of two men.
Morando Morandini, John Huston, Il Castoro, Milano 1995