Saturday, March 13, 2010


Robert Ryan is the somewhat seedy patriarch of a down-and-out Southern family, the Waldens, and he is largely responsible for their downfall: rather than grow cotton, as he used to, Ryan has spent the last several years digging up his land, looking for a treasure in gold that his father insisted was buried somewhere, and two of his sons (Jack Lord and Vic Morrow) are just unambitious enough to join him in his folly, though Morrow, the younger boy, is itching to get out and experience life. Lord is married to the voluptuous Tina Louise, but is jealous of her old boyfriend (Aldo Ray) who is married but still clearly holds a torch for Louise (and she for him). Old man Ryan is also besotted with lust for his daughter-in-law, though he never goes past leering. Buddy Hackett, a dim-witted small-time politico who is running for sheriff, has the hots for Ryan's youngest daughter (Fay Spain); when Ryan says she's too young for courting, Hackett replies, "I don't wanna court her, I wanna marry her"--he says this with unwholesome intensity while chowing messily on a dripping watermelon. On Hackett's advice, Ryan kidnaps a local albino teenager (Michael Landon) who is supposed to have the gift of using a divining rod to find gold, but the horny little guy gets all hot and bothered for Spain, and she for him, and soon he's a man, if you know what I mean.

The second half of the movie gets more serious, and center stage is taken by a side plot about the town cotton mill which has closed down leaving the townsmen out of work. Ray vows to break in and power the mill back up, which he does one drunken night in the climax of the movie, with tragic results. But until then, this is a lot of fun. I'm not sure there are enough movies out there like this one to constitute an entire genre of white-trash melodrama (the only other one I've seen is TOBACCO ROAD, like this based on a book by Erskine Caldwell), but if there are, this is the CITIZEN KANE of the genre. First of all, it's beautifully shot in black & white, though if you can't opt for the widescreen version, don't bother to see it at all. Second, the actors hit a perfect pitch somewhere between high camp and high drama, with very few false steps. Spain, in her mid-20's, doesn’t look nearly young enough to be "too young for courting," and doesn't convey much of a personality, but Louise (and her ample bosom, pictured above with Ray) is spectacular, giving a surprisingly full-blooded performance, the kind you’d never guess she could give from seeing her on Gilligan's Island. I didn't recognize Lord, younger and far more handsome than in his Hawaii Five-O days, though he's also very good, as is Ray, starting to look a little puffy but seeming just right of the role of a man just past his prime and frustrated with the way his life has turned out. Ryan is front and center for most of the film and does a nice job with a thoroughly unlikable character. I'm a little shocked that I even watched this movie, let alone am recommending it, but it's pleasant surprises like this that keep me on my movie-watching toes. [TCM]

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