Tuesday, November 09, 2010

Hurry Sundown

Released in 1967 during the later years of the Civil Rights movement, Hurry Sundown (Dir. Otto Preminger) is set in 1946, and its two main characters have just returned from service in the war. The film serves as a prequel to the movement, exploring through characters and their conflicts the ideas and themes that will bring the movement to national prominence in the middle 1950s. The audience views the film through the lens of the ongoing movement.

Hurry Sundown is a convoluted melodrama that exploits a Southern setting, Southern characters, family and racial relationships, stereotypes, and accents to flesh out and advance its narrative. At times it has force, as when Rad McDowell (John Philip Law) returns from Europe to reunite with his family, or when an old black woman who served as mammy for the rich landowner’s wife explains to her son that she grieves for the failure of her life. More often the film drags along, inert and lifeless. Only the performances of certain characters—Fay Dunaway, Law, Fonda (occasionally), Burgess Meredith (ridiculous as a stereotyped and racist Southern judge) give it some life. Michael Caine plays the corrupt Henry Warren, married to a wealthy landowner, ambitious to consolidate that land and make big money by selling it all to a land conglomerate for development. He’s devious, corrupt, and without scruples. His face is usually emotionless throughout the film. He seems happy only when he plays his saxophone (he’s convinced he could have had his own band, and that success and fame are awaiting him in Hollywood).

This film is so cluttered and busy that its 2 hour and 44-minute length is hardly enough yet also too much.

The score is by Hugo Montenegro, a successful film composer of the day. His most famous scores are for the Man without a Name films, but his work here is conventional, out of place, and hardly recognizable until a final climactic scene late in the film.

Hurry Sundown is structured around a struggle for land. Two young men, Reeve Scott (Robert Hooks) and Rad McDowell (Law) return from the Second World War. Rad is a poor white farmer who lives on land next to Reeve, a poor black farmer who lives with his sickly mother Rose (Beah Richards). Friends while growing up, Rad and Reeve have grown apart. Reeve lives on land deeded to his grandfather in 1866. No one seems to know about the deed but Reeve and his mother. It becomes a crucial piece of evidence, especially when Henry argues that no deed of ownership from 1866 made out to a black man could possibly be credible. If Henry doesn’t succeed in securing these two plots of land for sale to the conglomerate, he will lose a potential fortune and possibly his job too. He lusts for power and wealth, neither of which he has ever had until he married the daughter of a rich landowner. The film therefore raises questions about land ownership—who has a better right to the land, families and individuals that have owned it for generations, or a land conglomerate (that happens to be from up North)? Hurry Sundown explores this issue mainly through Henry’s struggle to seize Rad and Reeve’s land. It’s not really a struggle of North vs. South but instead of wealth and power against powerlessness. Does the power of money—directly tied to the local system of law and justice—trump the ownership of individuals without power or money? Does the fact that one of the small landowners is black affect the struggle? In the end, Henry does use race in his attempt to seize Reeve’s land. The film is more interested in the racial structure of the community that in any broadly defined struggle of North vs. South.

Family relationships in Hurry Sundown are complicated. Henry is Rad’s cousin. Rad has struggled to eke out a living throughout his life, while Henry had the good fortune of marrying his wealthy wife Julia. Julia was nursed as a child by Rose and feels kinship to her (up to a point). Henry pressures her to use that relationship to convince Rose and her son to move off the land. Although he never concedes that they own it, he offers to pay them $5000 if they move. Julia is convinced that Rose loves her and her family. Rose is convinced that Julia’s love will protect her land from seizure. Henry offers Rad $7500 for his land and seems to suggest that he will profit in other ways from handing over the land. Rad distrusts Henry on a fundamental level. All these familial interconnections enhance the melodrama and also underlie the film’s contention that in shared family and community connections there is hope for the future.

Judge Potter (Burgess Meredith) is a stereotyped, old-time corrupt Southern judge who rules over the community with the iron fist of arbitrary judgments. He’s the most racist person in the film, though Henry is not far behind. The Judge’s family does not occupy the same social status as that of Julia. His daughter Sukie wants Julia to serve as her matron of honor. This will be a sign of social status. Henry pressures Julia to agree, so that he will have the judge on his side in any land disputes, and at first Julia won’t agree. She regards the Potter’s as beneath her, as from a lower social class. Her cousin Clem de Lavery (Frank Converse) has just moved to town to serve as associate pastor of what appears to be a Catholic (maybe Episcopalian) church. He is open-minded, progressive, friendly towards the black community, and immediately an object of suspicion to conservative members of the community. When he offers Judge Potter communion from a cup that a black woman has just sipped from, the Judge is outraged, spits in the cup, and tromps out of the church with his wife and daughter. For this insult, and for further insults to her cousin at a reception she gives in his honor, Julia orders the Judge and his family to leave her house.

Judge Potter is disliked by most of the towns[people to begin with. They see him as too uncultured, too openly racist, and his wife reminds him that the only reason he gets elected in one race after another for the judgeship is that the people in rural regions of the county always vote for him (implying that none of the city voters do).

Obviously, class is a major issue—let us say a major thread rather than theme. The film isn’t particularly interested in exploring class differences so much as in using them to explain tensions and conflicts among various characters. By having Rad and Reeve live on farms next to each other, and by having them become partners in an effort to keep their farms going in resistance to Henry’s pressures, the film seems to acknowledge the fact that class prejudices and racism are closely linked. Rad is at first resistant to a partnership with Reeve. His wife worries that the family will be ostracized in the community. But their common plight—the threat to their land posed by Henry and the conglomerate, and their childhood friendship—finally overcomes these concerns.

Race is another major issue, but I am not sure this film can be accurately described as a film about race. As with class, race is an element of the Southern context that the film uses to enhance tension and the essential conflicts. Viewers born after 1970 may be surprised by the completely segregated society that the film accurately portrays. In reality, society was probably even more segregated and separate in 1947 than this film suggests. We see separate bathrooms for the white and colored races. We learn that the local Sheriff, an inept bumbler played broadly by George Kennedy, has an ongoing sexual relationship with a black woman, that he enjoys the company of black people in general, but that he doesn’t hesitate to back up efforts of Henry and Judge Purcell, and of the “hunting club” (Ku Klux Klan—not named in the film but its members wear white hoods) to deny Reeve and Rad their rights to their land. It shows how in a difficult and life-threatening moment the black characters behave in a friendly, ingratiating way as they talk to the Sheriff in order to protect Reeve. (This is a deliberate strategy—they know they must play the stereotype to get what they need from the whites). Reeve’s friend Vivian (Diahann Carroll) even ingratiates her way into Judge Potter’s favor so that he will allow her to do research in the county court records. (Vivian has lived in New York for some time, seen other parts of the world, had a previous relationship with Reeve. She has come home, for some reason, and wants to move away again—she is an exception to the general portrayal of blacks in this film as honest, good-natured, and uneducated. In general, the black characters in the film all have similar traits and behave in similar ways. When black children learn a song in the local school (where Vivian teaches) it is a blues song about catfish,. When they gather to congratulate Reeve on having successfully opened up an irrigation canal for his and Rad’s farms, they sing and eat in celebration. For a film that seeks to portray racism and discrimination in a direct and open way, its portrayal of black characters is flat and paternalistic.

The racism that the film portrays is undeniable. The film seems aware of nuances in racial attitudes of the time—the difficult relationship between a white girl and the older black women who raised her (her mammy), the vulnerable position that Rad puts himself in by agreeing to work with Reeve and by backing up his claim to the land up in court. On the other hand, racism was far more complex and pernicious than even this film makes it out to be, to have been. Yet all the black characters in the film are portrayed with a uniform brushstroke of goodness. There is little variation. That is, a subtle paternalistic racism permeates the portrayal of the black characters whom the film clearly means to support.

Hurry Sundown tries to maintain audience interest with a strong dose (1967 style) of sexuality. Although Henry gives Julia numerous reasons to hate him, he always manages to overcome her qualms with sex. One night, after she has made him mad by showing concern for their son, he locks her out of the bedroom. The next day she returns the favor, but he climbs into the room through a window and practically rapes her—she resists at first and then responds. In another scene Henry plays his saxophone rather than respond to his wife’s sexual overtures. She sucks whiskey from a bottle in a suggestive way. Then she takes the saxophone from him as he reclines back on a sofa, ready (I assume) for oral sex. She pantomimes oral sex in a graphic and obvious way as she takes the saxophone, holds the grip in her hands, and tries to blow a note. In another scene Henry receives oral sex from Judge Purcell’s daughter (the same daughter who is getting married). Sex here is one of the hot passions that govern the South (e.g., Cat on a Hot Tin Roof; The Long Hot Summer, Baby Doll). Frankly, Julia’s scene with the saxophone is the best scene in the film. Something real is happening there.

In the aforementioned saxophone scene, Julia’s pantomime is one of the few instances of subtlety in the film, and even in that scene the film strains to make clear what it’s suggesting. Most of the time this film uses sledge hammers. Everything must be made clear, repeatedly. It’s not enough to show that Henry’s ambition to acquire the land of Rad and Reeve is a major character flaw. To make sure we understand that Henry is a bad man, we must see him abuse and lie to his wife, commit adultery in a convertible, mislead his cousin, conspire with the corrupt judge, lie in court. The worst sledge-hammer blows come when we learn that Henry’s mistreatment of his son left the child emotionally damaged—an offense he repeats later in the film when he locks the child in a storage room while he goes to check on some business. The child pulls shelves over on himself and is left unconscious. Then Henry lies to the law enforcement folks that careless use of dynamite by Reeve and Rad injured the child. No doubt about Henry—a mean old bad man. Michael Caine never once in this film seems comfortable in the role.

It amazes me that Horton Foote had a hand in the screenplay.

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