It's the 1950s. Under President Eisenhower's administration, everyone has a house in the suburbs, a decent job, a gas-guzzling car, and a basic "Leave It to Beaver" lifestyle.
Not so, said Hubert Selby, in his novel, LAST EXIT TO BROOKLYN. For a good deal of the working class, times were still tough. Preyed upon by crime, toyed with by factory owners and unions, and, ultimately, shackled by their own ignorance, the working class had their promise of a white picket fence and primrose garden vacated. In Brooklyn, particularly, things were acutely tough. Manufacturing jobs were on a rapid decline, as companies moved out of town or out of state (which was why those companies remaining in Brooklyn were able to mess with their employees: take it or leave it, was their attitude). At the same time, an influx of immigrants seeking jobs made the hunt for work even more competitive--another bonus for the remaining factory owners. Slums rapidly worsened, so much so that Dodger owner Walter Alston decided his team's future was in jeopardy. L.A. looked like a much safer place for a stadium.
But neither Selby nor director Uli Edel portrayed this working class as merely innocent victims. Neither the book nor the film is a didactic rant about class warfare. The poor had their own vices of greed, brutality, and dissipation. Just about every other scene has someone going through someone else's wallets, union funds or pockets. If they aren't doing that, they're drinking, fighting, or whoring. It's a pretty dismal world. The natural response to this film might be: "Wait a minute. Not everyone working class Johnny-Punchclock guy was a criminal. Most people worked hard and honestly." Of course, this is true but it's not the film's concern. This is a study of those who were trapped in that world, and this study is compelling and horrifying.
Uli Edel has perfectly captured this bleak world, either bathing everything in a garish light or obscuring it in heavy shadows. The performances are brilliant. There's no understating Jennifer Jason Leigh's gritty and powerful performance. Also keep an eye out for a cameo by Hubert Selby as the driver who hits Georgette. Not for the weak-stomached and definitely not for kids, LAST EXIT TO BROOKLYN is as cinematographically close to the innermost circle of urban hell as you can get.