Last Night At The Alamo (1983)

Directed by Eagle Penell; Written by Kim Henkel

The future comes at you fast in 1980’s Houston where a few barflies try to hold back the hands of time in Last Night At The Alamo, Eagle Penell’s warm but clear-eyed revelry featuring alcoholics, functional alcoholics, and plain drunks. 

The title serves as plot summarization: It’s the last night of the Alamo, an old honkytonk of a bar that’s been home to working class Texans for the past thirty-odd years. Lone Star in the cooler, BYOB(rownbagged liqueur) policy, floorboards smoothed with cowboy boot erosion and the felt of the pool table cratered like the moon.  

There to see it off are friends and foes alike. We drive up with warring lovers Ichabod (Steven Mattila) and Mary (Tina-Bess Hubbard) as Ichabod cusses out everything and everyone, his anger not explained as if being working class in Houston is reason enough. 

Already inside is Claude (Lou Perryman), currently in the dog house, and he’ll spend the night getting on the payphone between drinks, pumping in quarters to plead with his wife for a while, only to hang up and cuss a lot (“Shit! God damn it, shit!”) as he sucks down another brew. Also tethered to the bar is a sop wearing a confederate infantry cap, Lionel, who doesn’t say a word, and a gallery of universal rogues. If you’ve been in any rough bar, you’ve been to the Alamo. 

Lone Stars are flying thick and fast across the stained countertop, so why is this the final stand? The times are a-changin’, made clear by an opening montage where Penell shows busy highways full of pickup trucks milling past giant billboard hocking all kinds of junk, be it gasoline, hamburgers, furniture, you name it, and hovering in the distance are the glimmering highrises of downtown. While they seem ominous hanging there in the horizon, they’re coming closer. As Ichabod pulls up at the Alamo, we see a sign. Texas’ biggest demolition company is coming tomorrow, because soon there’s going to be another shiny new condo building on this little plot of history.

Is it hopeless? Will this group of misfits be out of a place to convene after tonight? In walks Cowboy (Sonny Carl Davis), the big fish in this small pond, who always has a quick line and an easy smile. He says he has a line to the state legislature, so maybe there’ll be some last-minute heroics and they live to drink another night? 

Shot in black-and-white, Last Night At The Alamo isn’t a melancholy affair, and Penell doesn’t rosetint anything about these people who are on the outskirts of existence. They have anger issues, they’re racist, pugnacious, abusive, delusional, but together, they do form a collective that is its own peculiar support system, and Henkel’s writing is so lived-in that even when the rants flow fast and heavy, they retain a vulnerability underneath. Tender moments do exist, but they’re hidden beneath the many layers of emotional disability of these morose drunks. 

The black-and-white coloring makes Last Night At The Alamo feel older than it is, but it’s still striking to see gentrification, a current hot-button issue, documented with such force almost 40 years ago and with such eloquence and economy. And yet there’s little pity to be traced, nor disdain to be found. Flawed people abound in Last Night At The Alamo, be they drunken louses, losers, philanderers, and posers. But guess what? You’ll find those same people in bars where they drink Heineken instead of Lone Star and the view is of the city skyline instead of a dusty parking lot, but that doesn’t make them replaceable and people to simply be forgotten in the dust-up of an excavator. 

Henkel’s final gift is his lit dialogue and cuss-heavy monologues which carry a heightened sense of authenticity, as he adds just enough craziness to everyday scenarios to take Last Night At The Alamo from gritty kitchen sink realism to raucous entertainment. When the pace finally slows towards the end, and Penell reveals what’s been hiding under the floorboards of the Alamo all along, well… it hits hard and sits deep, because it’s not a matter of where these people go after the Alamo, it’s more a question of where do these people go in life? 

Tackling working class strife and toxic masculinity is a rowdy affair in Last Night At The Alamo and if you can stomach the bellyaching of disgruntled, frustrated men, there’s a lot of fun to be had, and a wistful ending to be enjoyed, because we all know that one day the things, the places, and the people we enjoy are going to have their lights turned out too, and then we’ll have to reckon with our own lives in the parking lot after, looking up at the stars and bright lights of our own personal downtown.

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