Wednesday, June 20, 2007


I found the Faulkner novel this movie is based on to be willfully difficult to little purpose, but some of the characters are memorable. The movie has little to do with the book's non-linear narrative, and does lots of messing around with the characters, but taken on its own, this is one of the better sweaty Southern family melodramas that seemed so popular in the late 50's. The opening is marred by some clunky narrated exposition introducing Quentin Compson, a wild child (apparently high school-age but as played by Joanne Woodward, looking at least as old as a college graduate) who has been raised by her uncle Jason (Yul Brynner), or more precisely her vaguely European step-uncle Jason, as no effort is made to hide Brynner's thick Russian accent. Living with them in a dilapidated mansion are Quentin's retarded brother Benjy (Jack Warden), her alcoholic Uncle Howard (John Beal), and their maid Dilsey (Ethel Waters) and her young grandson Luster (Stephen Perry) who is Benjy's unofficial caretaker. Quentin's mother Caddy (Margaret Leighton), who had Quentin out of wedlock, left her the day after she was born and periodically sends her money, most of which is "stolen" by Jason (though we learn later for a benevolent reason). The restless Quentin flirts with a hunky shirtless carnival worker (Stuart Whitman) and decides to go on the road with him until Jason scotches that plan by showing that Whitman is only in it for the money he thinks she's got. Caddy shows up out of the blue, looking for a place to stay and for a relationship with her daughter. Benjy, riled up inarticulately about Quentin's naughty ways, attacks her and gets sent to an asylum. Jason and Quentin seem to come to a respectful understanding at the end, though the incestuous vibe between them may lead a viewer to wonder.

Brynner, though on the surface no one's idea of a Southern patriarch, is really quite good; he seems awkward and unmoored at the start, but his performance gains strength along the way. He does a nice job of keeping us at an arm's length from the character; in the first half, when we're mostly seeing him through Quentin's eyes, he comes off as cruel and unfeeling, but as we slowly get more insight, he becomes more sympathetic. And he has hair, which helps to distance him from his earlier royal roles as the King of Siam and Rameses. In general, he comes off as a sort of dissolutely attractive and conflicted bully. He's probably not a Faulkner scholar's idea of Jason, but he does help make the movie interesting. Woodward, whom I usually love, isn't at her best here and I can't pinpoint why--maybe she's just overshadowed by others, particularly Leighton as her mother, who comes off a lot like Vivien Leigh playing Blanche DuBois, but with a little more backbone. Though the maid plays an important role in the book, Waters is reduced to just a few lines here and there. Several of the novel's famous setpieces (Dilsey going to church, Quentin climbing the tree) are only glancingly referred to here, almost as in-jokes for fans of the book. Whatever profundity people find in Faulkner won't be found here, but as a potboiler melodrama, this is entertaining enough, and a must for fans of Brynner. [FMC]

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