Thankfully the films of Francois Truffaut have only been officially remade a handful of times although, sadly, rumors of more are on the horizon. The results so far have been mostly, and not surprisingly, disappointing with the most high profile pictures being the lackluster Burt Reynolds retread of The Man Who Loved Women and the horrendous Angelina Jolie Mississippi Mermaid redo Original Sin. Among the most interesting have been the underrated Jules and Jim remake Willie & Phil and the film this older post of mine focuses on, Horace Jackson's flawed but well meaning inner-city take on The 400 Blows, Johnny Tough. To go along with my month-long Truffaut celebration I thought a revisit was in order:
It is a real shame that the directorial debut from Horace Jackson, 1974’s Johnny Tough, isn’t a more consistent film. A shame because the idea behind it, to remake Francois Truffaut’s monumental masterpiece The 400 Blows as an inner city African American drama, is a fascinating and compelling one. Even though the film is ultimately a disappointment and a flawed feature it is still an interesting one and is deserving of a look if you can track it down.
Jackson only directed two features in his career, with the other being 1977’s Joey (a.k.a. Deliver Us From Evil), and he is probably best know as the screenwriter of the fascinating The Bus Is Coming (1971.
Jackson’s film career started in the mid sixties with Living Between Two Worlds (1963), a film he wrote, produced and even acted in. Johnny Tough shows him as an ambitious talent but, unfortunately, an inexperienced cast and budgetary problems damage the film and watching it today one can only sense the great-film it might have been.
Johnny Tough is indeed an almost straight remake of Truffaut’s legendary first Antoine Doinel film with young Dion Gossett (seen here in his only big screen appearance) as the troubled title character. Gossett is actually quite good in the film and, truth be told, he is more convincing than most of the adult actors that surround him.
The rest of the cast is almost entirely made up of actors with no film experience and it shows as almost everyone struggles with Jackson’s ambitious screenplay. Character actor Renny Roker is the only one featured of the major players who has more than a handful of credits on his resume and it is no surprise that he gives one of the better performances in the film. The rest of the cast, put simply, fail to sell the demanding material and the film has a hard time making up for this.
The film is also fairly visually flat and finally resembles a TV movie more than a big screen feature, although admittedly the faded full frame print I saw makes it hard to definitively judge the photography of Pets cinematographer Mark Rasmussen. Even in this print though it is clear that Johnny Tough lacks the urban finesse that typified the best of this period. It is a bland looking picture about an exciting subject and it simply never visually pops.
The score, by acclaimed Detroit musician Dennis Coffey, is also a bit of a let down as it suffers from a lot of needless repetition, which is more than likely due to the limited budget and short shooting schedule.
Despite all of the major problems the film has, it is still hard not to admire what Jackson was attempting here. The film has balls and I must admit by the closing scene (which does a fascinating turn on Truffaut’s famed closing still of Jean-Pierre Leaud’s Doinel) I was more than a little moved…even though my emotion was due more to the fact of what was behind the film rather than what was actually on the screen.
Johnny Tough was released in theaters in 1974 and failed to connect with audiences or critics. It floated around for awhile (sometimes under the title of just Tough) and reappeared in 1977 on a Drive In Bill as a companion piece to Jackson’s Joey. It can be found on a public domain, transferred from VHS, DVD usually for around a dollar around the country.
Johnny Tough is an undeniably flawed but really well meaning little film with a lot of heart and made with a lot of ambition. Wile not the great work it surely could have been, fans of African American cinema in the seventies and admirers of Truffaut’s film in general shouldn’t miss it.