Writes Roger Ebert: The best scene in "The Last Picture Show" takes place outside town at the "tank," an unlovely pond that briefly breaks the monotony of the flat Texas prairie. Sam the Lion has taken Sonny and the retarded boy Billy fishing there, even though, as Sonny observes, there ain't nothing in the tank but turtles. That's all right with Sam: He doesn't like fish, doesn't like to clean them, doesn't like to smell them. He goes fishing for the scenery.
"Try one?" he says, offering Sonny the makings of a hand-rolled cigarette. And then he begins an wistful monologue, about a time 20 years ago when he brought a girl out to the tank and they swam in it and rode their horses across it and were in love on its banks. The girl had life and fire, but she was already married, and Sam even then was no longer young. As he tells the story, we realize we are listening to the sustaining myth of Sam's life, the vision of beauty that keeps him going in the dying town of Anarene, Texas.
The scene has a direct inspiration, I believe, for the writer-director, Peter Bogdanovich. I'm sure he was thinking of the monologue in "Citizen Kane" where old Mr. Bernstein remembers a girl with a parasol who he saw once, 50 years ago, and still cherishes in his memory as a beacon of what could have been.
Sam, played by the veteran Western actor Ben Johnson, is the soul of Anarene. He owns the diner, the pool hall, and the Royal theater, and without those three places, there is no place to go in Anarene except to bed, which explains the desperate and lonely adulteries and teenage fumblings that pass for sex. Among those who treasure Sam the Lion are Sonny Crawford (Timothy Bottoms) and Duane Jackson (Jeff Bridges), co-captains of the local football team, which is so bad the local men look at them in disgust and shake their heads.
Bogdanovich's 1971 film, based on the novel by Larry McMurtry, opens on Saturday, Nov. 12, 1951 -- the eve of the Korean War, and the beginning of the end for movie houses like the Royal, where Sonny grapples in the back row with his plump girlfriend Charlene (Sharon Taggart), while enviously watching Duane kiss the town beauty, Jacy Farrow (Cybill Shepherd). On the screen are classics like "Red River" and "Wagonmaster," which speak to the legends of this land, but already the ugly little black and white sets in local living rooms are hypnotizing the locals with "Strike It Rich!" and other banal trivialities that have nothing to do with their lives, or anyone's lives.
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