The Set-Up: Doc and Suzy. Suzy and Doc. Their relationship ebbs and flows like the surf that washes up and makes smooth the jetty in the middle of John Steinbeck's not-quite-mythical slice of Monterey, California. I love Steinbeck's visits to this place and these characters—in the novel "Cannery Row" and its sequel "Sweet Thursday"—and David S. Ward, parlaying his Oscar win for the screenplay of The Sting, into a directing gig, squeezed both novels, seemingly effortlessly, into his 1982 film of Cannery Row.
Too few people have seen this, i think, because it's a charming love story and a quirky character piece, with some off-beat casting, presented like a folk-tale in the slow-as-molasses tones of John Huston. I think it's Nick Nolte's best performance, and it gave a young Debra Winger an early part that showed just how personable and quixotic an actress she could be.
But, Doc and Suzy. Suzy and Doc. Both have "history." He's a former baseball pitcher, now marine biologist on the skids. Suzy's a temporary hooker, lousy at it, and, as she says, "ain't got the class of a duck." Doc says, "The only thing we have in common is that we're both wrong for each other." Suzy says, "I don't understand it. We get along great when we're not together." But, they're still talking about each other, even if it's at the top of their lungs. Separate, there are longing looks across the way, and questions and interest. Put them in a room together and the interested looks turn dark and suspicious, the words turn inappropriate, and can be counted on to be punctuated with a door slam.
This is their first meeting and it is capital-A awkward. In fact, you'll notice that most of the communication is done with looks and expressions and long pauses.* Doc's flustered, and she's interested, but neither one of them know what to say. Doc is disappointed she's working at the Bear Flag Restaurant,** and Suzy notices (this will be a topic of subsequent arguments). Madame Fauna notices that the usally cool-as-a-sea-cucumber Doc is at a loss for words, and that Suzy is more of a kloutz than she normally is. Doc notices that she notices and that just increases his tension. The room is full of travelling eyes, and half-sentences and interrupted thoughts and non-sequitirs that drop with a resounding "thud." It's very, very uncomfortable.
They're made for each other.
The Story: "Doc"—Eddie Daniels—(Nick Nolte) is a marine biologist off the docks of Cannery Row in Monterey, a small community of transient losers—drunken derelicts, floozies, sailors-on-leave, and "The Seer," a local loon who lives on the beach and has visions. The loose-knit community knows everybody's business, and maintain a strict "good neighbor" policy. Into Cannery Row comes Suzy DeSoto (Debra Winger), out-of-work, out-of-money, and out-of-chances...she is taken pity on by Fauna, who has inherited the local brothel. Nothing goes unnoticed on the Row, and Doc notices the new girl, and the new girl notices Doc. But, they don't actually meet until Fauna takes Suzy shopping...at the town's one store, run by Joseph and Mary Gonzales (Santos Morales ).
FAUNA: Hi, Joseph and Mary!
JOSEPH AND MARY: Hiya, Fauna.
FAUNA: Let's see now, I need some yellow pads, a box of pencils—No.2 lead, and a bottle of blackberry brandy.
JOSEPH AND MARY: You still doing that astrology thing?
FAUNA: Hell, yeah (ha-ha).
FAUNA: Hazel wants me to do a chart on him.
FAUNA: Ever since the stars said that Jones was gonna marry Lana Turner, everybody of "The Row" wants their chart done. Ha!
JOSEPH AND MARY: I have to go to the other counter to get your brandy.
FAUNA: Okay, take your time.
SUZY: So, he's the one...
FAUNA: The one what?
SUZY: The one who leaves...
SUZY: ...the bags of stuff for the Seer.
FAUNA: Oh! Hell, yeah. Doc's been doin' that ten-fifteen years now. He and the boys even built him a little house out there on the dunes.
SUZY: And the guy still thinks it all comes from Heaven.
FAUNA: ...he ain't all "with it" up here, ya know what I mean?
SUZY: Hell of a town you got here.
FAUNA: Yeah, it is nice, ain't it?
JOSEPH AND MARY: All set, Fauna!
(The store door bell chimes)
FAUNA: Hi, Doc!
DOC: Mornin', Fauna...
DOC: Hey, J-M!
DOC: How about a couple cold ones back in the ice?
JOSEPH AND MARY: J'ou got it, Doc.
FAUNA: Oh! Hey, Doc, you know Suzy here...
Suzy sees Fauna beckoning her, and, reluctantly, she schlumpfs over.
DOC: How do you do?
SUZY: Well, How do you do?
FAUNA: Suzy's just startin' at the Bear Flag.
Doc smile falls slightly.
DOC: Oh, really...
Suzy notes his change of tone.
Doc is about to say something...but...stops...
...lost for words.
DOC: I'm in here to buy beer..
SUZY: I...I knew this guy once who was always talkin' about...uh...he was gonna order a beer milk-shake at a drive-in...
SUZY: He never did...
SUZY: He was chicken.
JOSEPH AND MARY: Here's your beer, doc.
DOC: ...Nice to have met you.
FAUNA: See ya around, Doc.
DOC: Bye, Fauna...
SUZY: ...nice to have met...y..
Store bell rings before she finishes. Doc's gone.
Fauna rolls her eyes.
* You think this is bad? Wait'll next week!
** It's actually the town brothel.