Last Night at the Alamo (1983)

Pennell got better in a hurry for his second feature, a Texas spin on The Iceman Cometh. Pennell widens his scope and gets nearly every detail right. He lets Kim Henkle(The Texas Chainsaw Massacre) take over writing chores. Despite the seeming incongruity between the two men’s styles, both come through and do exceptional work. Henkle wisely writes an overabundance of dialogue so that it can flow naturally with overlap and remove the artificial staginess that marred some scenes from The Whole Shootin’ Match. Characters are more fleshed out, and there are more of them. Pennell handles his actors perfectly; their interactions are exemplary ensemble work, each maintaining his distinct character while still adjusting his performance to the presence of whoever else is in the scene. Pennell also creates his most deeply flawed and fascinating character study, Cowboy, as played by Sonny Davis.

Though the plot sounds like the old cliche of the group of friends who must save their favorite place before it gets shut down, Pennell has much bigger things on his mind. Plot here is used as a sort of red herring from the real point and purpose of the film; though the bar is shutting down, the doomed atmosphere comes from the sadness and lack of purpose most of the patrons’ lives seem to have. Some of them hold a fanciful notion that the Alamo bar is a tight knit community and connected to the bar itself, but most of them already have plans to patronize a bar down the street. Each character reveals their weaknesses by the film’s end, but its to Pennell’s credit that he manages to avoid pointing at them and moralizing; he’s clearly been in very similar situations, and given the rapid decline in his filmmaking capabilities due to alcoholism following this piece, he may see a lot more of himself in Cowboy than he’d like to admit.

Strongly recommended. Now where’s a copy of Doc’s Full Service?

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