Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Southern (Dis)Comfort (Part 2 of 2)

As I mentioned before, the PFA and Roxie copresented a program called Southern Discomfort.

I was able to catch seven additional films from the series in December - four at the PFA and three at the Roxie.

Baby Doll starring Karl Malden, Carroll Baker & Eli Wallach; directed by Elia Kazan; (1956)
God's Little Acre starring Robert Ryan, Aldo Ray, Tina Louise, Buddy Hackett & Jack Lord; directed by Anthony Mann; (1958)
The Intruder starring William Shatner; directed by Roger Corman; (1962)
Two Thousand Maniacs!; directed by Herschell Gordon Lewis; (1964)
Wise Blood starring Brad Dourif; with John Huston, Harry Dean Stanton, Amy Wright & Ned Beatty; directed by John Huston; (1979)
Moonrise starring Dane Clark & Gail Russell; directed by Frank Borzage; (1948)
Swamp Water starring Walter Brennan, Walter Huston, Anne Baxter, Dana Andrews & Ward Bond; directed by Jean Renoir; (1941)


Overall, I'd have to say I was a little disappointed with the series. I'm not sure what I was expecting but some of the films never moved beyond stereotypes or sanitized versions of the plays they were based on. As a rule of thumb, I do not like films adapted from the plays of Tennessee Williams.

My favorite film of the series was The Intruder, a Roger Corman production. One of his more serious films, The Intruder has William Shatner playing a racist trouble maker who comes to a small Southern town when public school desegregation is implemented. This is the second time Shatner played the racist convincingly. At a TV Noir or Not Necessarily Noir in the past few years, the Roxie presented A Town Has Turned to Dust, a Playhouse 90 teleplay from 1958. In that work, Shatner played a rabble-rouser trying to stir a lynch mob up. In The Intruder, Shatner's character seems more like a convenient racist. His character is more interested in playing on the public's fears and African Americans in small town Missouri are just the unfortunate scapegoats.

Surprisingly realistic in its use of racial epithets and attitudes for 1962, The Intruder was quite a revelation for me. In fact, Shatner's predictable acting was almost sufficient. In the end, when he is confronted by mob he had nearly incited into a lynching, Shatner turns into a blubbering mass which I saw him do on Star Trek about a dozen times. Shatner isn't a one note actor but he only has one note for each emotion. When confident, he juts his chin and delivers crisp words with hand waving. When frightened, he shrinks his body, delivers crisps words but the pitch of his voice rises. When smug and smarmy, he wears a smirk and delivers his words not so crisply. Ever present are the odd but presumably intended to be pregnant pauses and the body movements. In The Intruder, not once but twice while delivering racially motivated speeches, Shatner goes through the motions of removing his coat, loosening his tie and rolling up his sleeves.

Shatner affectations should not be the focus of my post. Given that Roger Corman directed and William Shatner starred in The Intruder, the film exceeds all my expectations. PFA programmer Steve Seid shared some fascinating tidbits about the filming. The townsfolk in the Missouri town where the film was made were duped. I guess they thought they were being depicted in a positive light. In one scene, Shatner delivers his race baiting screed on the steps of a courthouse or city hall. The town square is full of white people. The scene alternates between crowd shots from behind Shatner and straight on head shots of Shatner. In the scenes where the crowd is visible, Shatner mouthed the words and the crew gave signals to the crowd as to when to cheer. Shatner later dubbed his words for those shots. Corman was worried that the crowd would find the racist words offensive.

In another scene, they burn a cross a la the KKK. Seid said that was the last scene they filmed. They burned the cross, put out the fire and then the whole cast and crew drove out of town.

I can't stress enough how amazing the film is within the context of its time. One year after the Freedom Riders and the violent reactions to it, Corman, Shatner, et al. show up in Missouri to make a film showing the ugliness and ignorance of Southern racists. They did it in an extremely authentic manner. Veteran character actor Robert Emhardt shines as a wealthy racist who bankrolls Shatner's efforts. Leo Gordon, who did time in San Quentin and usually plays the heavy, delivers nicely as a traveling salesman cuckolded by Shatner.


The Roxie had a double bill consisting of Moonrise and Swamp Water. I forgot that I had seen Moonrise at the 2008 Noir City aka Noir City 6. As soon as Lloyd Bridges came on screen playing a pompous, rich jerk, I recalled the entire plot of the film. Danny Hawkins (nice performance by Dane Clark even though he looks 10 years too old for the role) lives in a small town where everyone knows his father was a convicted and executed murderer...and they never let Danny forget that they know. He gets into a fight with the town bully (Bridges) and accidentally kills him. In typical noir fashion, Hawkins doesn't think anyone will believe the truth so he hides the body. When it is inevitably discovered, evidence and erratic behavior by Hawkins leads the sheriff (Allyn Joslyn) to consider him the prime suspect.

The beauty of Moonrise is this sense that Hawkins' has a genetic predisposition to murder. Hawkins if fully aware of his father's crime and some in the town continuously project the father's crime onto the son. Hawkins has halfway bought into the notion and the accidental death cinches the deal for him. While Hawkins is self-conflicted and paranoid, he is trying to woo the beautiful Gail Russell. Unable to confess to Gilly and unwilling to leave town because of her, Hawkins is stuck in a prototypical noir situation.

Dane Clark's performance makes the film but I was suppressed by Allyn Joslyn in the relatively small role as the sheriff. Joslyn plays the sheriff as sympathetic to Hawkins situation but nonetheless determined to carry out his duty. Bridges makes the most out of his one scene and the recently departed Harry Morgan is surprisingly effective as a deaf mute. Whenever there is a deaf mute in a noir film, you know its going to be excellent - Out of the Past, Bangkok Dangerous, etc.

Although I enjoyed Moonrise, I was a little disappointed that I had seen it before. I'm not sure I would have gone to the Roxie that night if I had been aware that I had seen Moonrise before. It ended up for the best though. My second viewing of Moonrise was enjoyable and Swamp Water turned out to be quite a discovery.

The first interesting aspect of Swamp Water is that legendary French film director Jean Renoir (son of Impressionist master Pierre-Auguste Renoir) directed the film. Swamp Water is the film Renoir directed after The Rules of the Game which has subsequently been lauded as one of the greatest films ever made. Opening to poor reviews, the film was financially ruinous. When the Nazis invaded France, Renoir fled to Hollywood. Reading the film synopsis, I wondered if Renoir's skills would translate in a film set in the fetid waters of Okefenokee Swamp. There was no need for concern as Swamp Water is a minor masterpiece as far as I am concerned.

Renoir's directorial skills are buttressed by an unusually strong cast including Walter Brennan, Walther Huston, Dana Andrews, Anne Baxter, Ward Bond & John Carradine. The story has a number of strands which run in parallel until resolving themselves at the end. Ben Ragan (Andrews) is a trapper who goes into swamp searching for his hound dog. He encounters Tom Keefer (Brennan), a fugitive hiding out in the swamp. Initially adversaries, the two men strike up an alliance. Keefer has become adept at living in the swamp so he agrees to trap beavers for their pelts. Ragan will keep his location a secret but return periodically to collect the pelts and give Keefer some supplies. In addition, Ragan will set aside some of the money from selling the pelts for Keefer's daughter Julie (Baxter) who serves as the de facto servant for the guy (Carradine) that runs the general store/bar/restaurant/etc.

There are a number of subplots which come together at the end. Ragan's father (Huston) is suspicious that his wife, Ragan's step-mother, is having an affair. At the same time, Ragan's budding relationship with the coquettish Mabel MacKenzie (Virginia Gilmore) is strained by his frequent trips into the Okefenokee. Mabel retaliates by going to the big dance with another man. Ragan reacts by Dr. Doolittling the ragamuffin Julie and taking her to the dance. Always lingering background are Dorson brothers (Ward Bond & Guinn Williams), trouble makers, hog rustlers and the reals murderers for the crime Keefer was convicted of.

I won't give away the final act (partly because it is so convoluted I don't wait to make a mistake) but I will say the ending was not quite "noir." Regardless, watching all these great old time actors on screen was quite a treat - Huston's intense performance as a man barely in control of himself, Bond's blustering and bullying, Baxter's meekness which slowly transform as the movie progresses, Gilmore's pettiness and scorn, etc.


The other films don't merit much in the way of space and time on this blog.

I thought Baby Doll was yet another failed film adaptation of a Tennessee Williams play.

God's Little Acre was based on a controversial novel of the same title by Erskine Caldwell. The film tilted too far to comedy (unintended?) whereas the novel dealt with issues such Industrialization, socialism and sexual betrayal. About two thirds of the way through the film, it starts to hit its stride but the foundation (i.e. the first portion of the film) doesn't support the change in tone as the film reaches its conclusion.

Two Thousand Maniacs! was just schlock. Perhaps pushing the boundaries in 1964, I am not enough of a schlock connoisseur to appreciate the nuances or historical significance of Two Thousand Maniacs!.

Wise Blood was fairly interesting. It featured a flashy if not impenetrable performance by Brad Dourif in the lead role. Based on a Flannery O'Connor novel, Wise Blood mixed comedy with advanced theological concepts which are beyond my engineering school education and aggressively secular lifestyle.

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