Texas, 1952, and a small town which seems to be perpetually windswept, the dust circling the streets and what remaining folks there are in denial that the place where they live is fast becoming pointless. Here Sonny Crawford (Timothy Bottoms) lives, nearing the end of his schooldays, and wondering what life holds for him without really having a plan; currently he is content to help out at the local pool hall, where his best friend is Duane Jackson (Jeff Bridges) who has quit school to become a roughneck in the oil fields. Sam the Lion (Ben Johnson), as he is nicknamed, pretty much owns the most important parts of the town, but even he sees the writing is on the wall...
The Last Picture Show was praised to the heavens when it was released back in 1971 thanks to it taking the sort of subject you would have seen in a melodrama from the period it was set, the nineteen-fifties, basically, and added elements that were nearer the knuckle to make it appear that cinema was genuinely doing the growing up that the loosening of censorship was supposed to usher in. This tension between films that were frank about sex and violence and used bad language to tell it like it is, and those films which implemented those to throw together exploitation flicks, was rarely more apparent than it was in director Peter Bogdanovich with this Larry McMurtry adaptation.
Bogdanovich believed he was going to be the successor to John Ford here, as it was a kind of modern Western, except the modern Western became the action movie, not the angsty, "important" drama. To make it look even more portentous for a story about a dying town, he shot it in black and white, very well in fact thanks to Robert Surtees on cinematography duties, just in case you thought you were meant to be titillated by the frequent references to sex and scenes of characters undressing (a repeated trope). Nothing of the sort: all that nudity was there to be brooded over, not enjoyed, and that was the tone of the entire piece as nothing anyone does is of any entertainment to them.
The main teen characters - Sonny, Duane and Jacy Farrow (played by former model Cybill Shepherd making her debut) - believe that losing their virginity will make them happy, since it will induct them into an exciting adult world, but all it does it wake them up to the fact the grown-ups do not have any of the answers as to how to be fulfilled, as the teens hoped. Every time one of that central trio loses their cherry, it's the cue for dissatisfaction and even heartache; the first time Duane and Jacy try it, he is suffering the effects of a weekend in Mexico and can't get it up, for example, but for Sonny it's worse, as his lover is the depressed and lonely middle-aged housewife Ruth Popper (Cloris Leachman bagging an Oscar, as Johnson did) who uses sex to keep him around just to have a little company.
Every time it appears as if someone might be starting to enjoy themselves, the great gods Bogdanovich and McMurtry smite them with righteous anger; some perceived enormous sympathy in their script, yet no matter how well observed this was they were determined to never allow anyone in this to catch a break. It was that old loss of the American Dream all over again, and if you couldn't find it in the relatively prosperous fifties, went the implication, just wait till the seventies knocks any optimism out of you. Relentlessly downbeat this may have been, but it did have an arthouse sheen that Ford himself would have eschewed as pretentious, something he would never want to be accused of, and whether you were a fan of Ford or not, a worshipful facsimile of his style refashioned as a sobering, state of the nation yarn was not doing him quite the justice that Bogdanovich seemed to believe. Where his strength was lay with his cast, he does like these characters and wants us to like them too, the better to feel their despair, and they were carefully guided to come across as authentic. But it's such a downer that aesthetics are mainly what it has going for it.