Today I have a movie review. Odds are you haven't heard of this one.
“You know the difference between a hustler and a good con man? A hustler has to get out of town as quick as he can, but a good con man... he doesn’t have to leave, until he wants to.” ~ Gabriel Caine
“I figured since I was taking all the punches, only fair you share some of the anxiety.” ~ Honey Roy Palmer
“Excuse me? Do I look stupid to you? Or have you people been breeding too close to the gene pool again?” ~ Fitz
“Dear Lord. Give us the strength to tear this man from limb to limb.” ~ John Gillon
“Okay, look. He’s bigger than you are, he’s tougher, he’s faster, he’s younger than you are. He hasn’t fought twenty two rounds today. But you remember this. You... are black.” ~ Gabriel Caine
“What the hell’s that supposed to mean?” ~ Honey Roy Palmer
“I don’t know. I mean, it’s... I’m trying to inspire you. It’s a Roots kind of thing. It’s a motivation thing.” ~ Gabriel Caine
“Well, you’re shit at motivation.” ~ Honey Roy Palmer
In 1992, Diggstown came to the big screen under the helm of director Michael Ritchie (The Candidate, Fletch). The film was an adaptation of a novel by Leonard Wise, a comedy about con artists, boxing, and a vindictive target, all set in a small Southern town. James Woods and Louis Gossett Jr. headlined the cast, with Oliver Platt, Heather Graham, and Bruce Dern in various supporting roles.
The story opens up with Gabriel Caine (Woods), a prisoner in a Georgia jail, nearly finished his sentence for fraud. Prison has been profitable for Gabriel; he’s helped prisoners escape (though the cranky warden can’t prove it), and has made money in the process. His partner Fitz (Platt) is already working on their next scam, laying the groundwork in the nearby town, Diggstown.
Gabriel gets out of prison, comes to Diggstown, turns up at a boxing arena to watch local fighters sparring, and meets John Gillon (Dern), the local businessman who has the town under his control. Gabriel gets under Gillon’s skin in that first conversation, while Gillon shows just how tightly he wields control over the people living in town. Fitz, meanwhile, having had established himself in the area, is busy winning billiards games (while supposedly drunk) and fleecing bar patrons (including a young Jim Caviezel) in the process. When they accuse him of cheating, Fitz sets up the scam, revolving around the legacy of a local boxer, Charles Macom Diggs, who’s now a brain damaged recluse. He bets that a boxer he knows, Honey Roy Palmer (Gossett Jr.) can beat any ten local Diggstown men in a day- a bet that Gillon calls him on. And so the stage is set for a rather unusual boxing match, with the financial stakes rising between both sides.
Steven McKay adapted the novel, which plays around with Southern culture and features Northern con men coming in to make a score. It’s a screenplay that emphasizes character while weaving in humour. Themes like greed, pride, revenge, and family get weaved into the tale. Men like Gabriel and Fitz might be smartasses and con men, but they do have certain principles- they’re really only out to scam the person who has it coming. They might be willing to cheat, scheme, and bribe along the way, but things like the truth of what was done to Diggs in his last fight, or assaults on supporting characters along the way- these offend their principles. These are con men with a streak of morality. They may be devious, underhanded swindlers, but we’re on their side precisely because the antagonist of the story is written as being much, much worse. Generally speaking in the con genre of films, the rule is that the mark has to be seen as someone who deserves getting taken for all the con artists can get, and that certainly is the case in Diggstown. The screenplay is sharp and moves along briskly, with banter between the characters one of its strong suits. The friendship between Gabriel and Roy is the best example of that.
Ritchie brings the screenplay to life- Diggstown as a place feels very Southern, very much like a place where its leading citizen is feared and respected and understood to be in charge of all. It also feels like a place punching above its weight. It’s therefore surprising to know that filming was actually done mostly in Montana. What stands out for me particularly is the way Ritchie stages the various fights that make up the latter part of the film. Roy’s very long day consists of different fights, and each of them are conveyed in new ways. Some are short, others are tough. Some are played for laughs... and others are quite serious. The choreography of the fights comes across as better than the overwrought Rocky fights, perhaps because of the underlying sense of humour mixed with suspense. Throughout, it feels like we’re watching boxing matches unfold, so there’s a strong sense of authenticity to the film. James Newton Howard, one of my favourite composers, did the score for the film, and gives us something unlike much of his work, a score that feels Southern and has a blues influence mixed into the orchestral elements, an ideal companion to the film itself.
Bruce Dern has had a long and varied career in Hollywood, one of these character actors who seems to never run out of work. His take on Gillon is a memorable one. Gillon presents himself as a Southern gentleman, a successful businessman and a leading light of his community. But just beneath the surface is a nasty streak. This is an egomaniac, a conniving and ruthless man who will go to any length to win. He’ll cheat, threaten, cajole, and descend to all depths of viciousness. Gillon is an unpleasant character when we get to know him, but Dern makes him compelling to watch.
Heather Graham turns up as Emily Forrester, one of the town residents, a banker who Gabriel enlists on their side after the untimely murder of her brother, a prison buddy of Gabriel. She’s sympathetic, particularly given the circumstances of the death in her family, and there’s an easy going chemistry between she and Woods as they get to know each other.
Platt is another one of those character actors who you can find in many different roles, and this is one of my favourite roles for him. His Fitz is a sneak and a cheat- something we find out pretty quickly by how he manages to keep playing pool so well even while drinking everyone else under the table. Yet he’s a charming sneak and a cheat, a fast talker and just what you might expect out of a con man. The character is not a fighter, though he certainly starts one unusual fight. When he sees a boxer in the ring who knocked him around in the bar, he suggests to Roy in a cheerful way, “Rip his tits off.” It’s a funny character, and Platt makes the most of him.
Gossett has had a widely varied career, including winning the Oscar for An Officer And A Gentleman. He was a few years older than the character when the film came out, but he still passed for the character’s age. Gossett certainly has the physical look and moves of a veteran boxer in the ring, still fast on his feet and still a dangerous man even at that age. When we first meet him, Roy wants nothing to do with cons anymore; he’s happily married, has a regular job, and is settled down. And yet he can’t resist having one more go at a con. The character is tough and tenacious, somehow finding the energy to keep going on through this unlikely bet. And at the core of it all is a basic empathy and decency, particularly where the broken down Diggs is concerned, when Roy learns what led to his brain damage.
Woods is a marvel as Gabriel Caine; he's one of those actors who could read the phone book and make it interesting. He’s rarely done straight comedy, but he’s right at home in the role. Gabriel is a smart ass, sarcastic, thoroughly charming, and wisecracking, but the character is also smart, clever, and resourceful. And he’s calm under pressure, even if that pressure involves threats from the hired muscle of the loan shark backing him. Gabriel might be a con man, but he does have ethics, and Woods brings that across in his performance. The bantering energy between Woods and Gossett comes across throughout the film, and is really the driving force in what makes the film so entertaining, amiable, and fun to see.
Diggstown was largely overlooked at the time of its release, which is a shame, but it does make for a good discovery when one finds it. It has a terrific cast, a great sense of humour, and a tremendously satisfying payoff. The film is a smart one, strongly based in rich characterization, and one that brings a smile to my face whenever I see it.