Friday, February 11, 2011

Look, I'm Really in a "Hurry" Today!

One of the most legendarily good “bad” movies (and now one of the most elusive to get one’s hands on!), Otto Preminger’s Hurry Sundown is a wild conglomeration of picturesque settings, tender moments, anachronistic hairstyles and clothing, compelling drama, lunacy, earnestness and outrageous dialogue, sometimes delivered by thespians bent on overacting as much as humanly possible! In short, it’s a well intended, but misguided, hot mess of a movie, filled with stars and chock full of the type of heinously awkward cinematic moments that serve as plasma to my celluloid-loving blood.
It’s based on a mammoth novel by K.B. Gilden (actually a husband and wife, Katya and Bert, who wrote together), which was so unwieldy it had to be released in two volumes! Esteemed director Preminger got a hold of the book in its galley state and determined that it would be a sensation and make a stunning motion picture. He intended to film the story as a four-hour plus epic, showing only twice daily and with a weekend night admission price of $25 a head. That would be extreme now, but was utterly insane in the mid-60s! In any case, once the book was published and sold only 300,000 copies (not bad, but hardly the resounding success he was counting on), he had to rethink the film adaptation, the rights to which he had already paid for long ago.

Preminger had directed several significant, memorable films (including Laura, The Man with the Golden Arm, Anatomy of a Murder and Exodus, among others) and was never afraid to push the boundaries of what was acceptable on the movie screen. He directed the now-innocuous comedy The Moon is Blue, which kicked off a firestorm of controversy over the script’s light treatment of illicit sex and virginity. He directed musicals featuring all-black casts in 1954 (Carmen Jones) and 1959 (Porgy and Bess), both starring his one-time lover Dorothy Dandridge, though they were through by the time of the second film. He also directed movies that included heretofore heavily skirted or diffused topics like rape, homosexuality and drug abuse. He was also, however, a notorious bully who commandeered his sets like some sort of Nazi prison camp, usually singling out one scapegoat who he would ride until near destruction. (For whatever reason, these victims tended to be tall, handsome men such as Tom Tryon and Kier Dullea.)

For Sundown, he amassed a cast of stars and future stars, and he did have his usual whipping boy, but by the time shooting was over, the entire cast and crew had felt the sting of hatred and abuse, including Preminger himself! The story of the filming of the movie is almost more dramatic than the plotline itself and certainly contained as much conflict. Then the movie opened and the flogging continued, with the public mostly rejecting it (though it did make back its cost and an extra $500K) and critics dreaming up new ways of condemning it vigorously, sometimes deserved, sometimes not. But first, let’s take a look at the story as it appeared onscreen…
The movie starts off with a bang, literally, as the first scene after the opening credits features a series of explosions. In rural Georgia, just after WWII, a canning company is planning to invest in a major land development, most of the land of which belongs to heiress Jane Fonda. Fonda, a southern belle who is the sole surviving immediate member of a once-great family of plantation owners, is caught in the middle of the scheme. Her husband, Michael Caine, is a horny, conniving, deceptive manipulator who has everything riding on the big deal. He has purchased up virtually all of the land required to secure the deal (land that had been sold off during leaner times), but has two small parcels to go. They each belong to a returning WWII soldier, one black and one white.
The white soldier is John Phillip Law, a tall, handsome farmer whose attempts to scratch out a living on his place have been interrupted by military service. In the meantime, his wife Faye Dunaway has attempted to keep the ramshackle spread going while raising their four towheaded children. Upon his return home, he and Dunaway share tentative moments, trying to rekindle affection that has weathered a long separation. During that separation, his oldest boy Steve Sanders has turned to Caine for a father figure, not the best example to emulate!
The black soldier is Robert Hooks, a man who lives with his mother on their plot of land. The mother (Beah Richards) is descended from slaves of Fonda’s ancestors and served as Fonda’s nanny when she was a child. Though not as old as she looks, she is near death from having lived a hard life as a servant in a town filled with bigotry. Meanwhile, Hooks old girlfriend Diahann Carroll is fresh back from New York where she had gone to escape the town and find a new life with a more worldly man.

Neither of these men is interested in selling his land, even at generous prices, because they either wish to keep working on it or else feel it is theirs to possess despite the pressure to move. This pushes Caine to start nudging them along towards selling out. To do this, though, he needs the help of Fonda, who is very much devoted to the decrepit Richards and doesn’t want to wrest the old woman from her home. He seduces Fonda into softening Richards up while he attends to Law, who is also his cousin.
When none of this works, Caine enlists the help of local sheriff George Kennedy and bigoted, crotchety, old judge Burgess Meredith. They conspire to prove that Hooks’ land isn’t rightfully his, with the white-run town banded together in cahoots against Hooks, Carroll and the sole white couple willing to help, Law and Dunaway. When circumstances cause the tide to turn more towards Hooks’ favor, the movie climaxes with another explosion, this one with deadly consequences.

This is the basic plot in its strictest sense, but the movie is peppered with many other characters and moments throughout that add to its flavor (and to its reputation!) Among the more controversial characters is Meredith, who spews racial epithets in practically every one of his scenes. The bombastic character is meant to be depicted as wrongheaded and foolish and is played as comic relief, though many viewers accepted him at face value (much the way the later TV character Archie Bunker was intended to be a bad example of a person, yet somehow became a hero to many!) Meredith carries around an inner tube for his hemorrhoids, a not very thinly veiled reference to how much of a pain in the ass he is. His wife is played by that champion of shallow, southern silliness: Madeleine Sherwood (perhaps best known for her unforgettable turn as Sister Woman in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.) She and Meredith fuss and fret over their daughter Donna Danton, a pouty, blonde brat whose impending marriage doesn’t necessarily mean that she won’t hop into a car with another man for some quickie sex!

Then there’s Fonda’s newly ordained priest cousin Frank Converse. He’s one of the very few white men in town to see the black point of view and to treat all of his parishioners equally. This sets off Meredith, providing him with a set of opening lines that few people will forget after hearing them (his chief objection consisting of being passed the communion cup after it had been “pressed to the lips” of a black woman, though that’s not the way Meredith words it!)

At the land ownership hearing, the lawyers are played by “Mike Brady” and “Thurston Howell III!” Yes, Robert Reed (in an effeminate, smarmy portrayal) and Jim Backus (in an endearingly offhanded one) were cast as the opposing attorneys. Then there’s the inimitable Doro Morande, a Preminger favorite, who has a small, but hilarious, role as Meredith’s secretary. Another hooty cameo comes courtesy of a visiting reporter to the set who was granted screen time as an extra. As the fired up townspeople are loaded into trucks, shotguns and rifles in hand, one truck backs toward the camera to show the sneering, scowling visage of an ostensibly bigoted Rex Reed! He went on to incur the wrath of Otto when his article highlighted the director's temper. Another Rex, Rex Ingram, an actor who’d appeared in his first film in 1918 (!) as a jungle native encountering Tarzan, is also on hand as a local pillar of the black community. He recognizes the still-smoldering embers of affection between Hooks and Carroll and tries to draw them together again.

Caine and Fonda have a small boy, a blonde kid who’s been severely traumatized by an earlier incident, who spends most of his screen time either wailing loudly or otherwise behaving strangely. Every single detail of this subplot is badly handled from the horrible dubbing of the child’s crying to the inadequate performance of the young actor to the idiotic reasoning behind his condition. The sole aspect that comes off somewhat well is Fonda’s tormented devotion to him and her exasperation in trying to cope with him while wondering if a cure is possible.
Speaking of Fonda, she is surprisingly good in the film, considering the stage she was at in her career at this time. It’s a multifaceted type of role, challenging in spite of its occasional silliness, and she manages to pull it off rather well. She does have an infamously hilarious scene with Caine in which she gets tipsy, snatches the saxophone out of his grasp and, while he’s seated on the sofa and she’s kneeling on the floor, tries to play it while the shaft of it juts out from his thighs! This sequence simply does not play at the same degree in pan & scan prints of the film. Widescreen is the only format that can do it justice. After her tentative and unskilled “playing,” Caine takes the instrument from her mouth and says, “Some things are better left to experts…”
The costumer (someone called Estevez, who was never head from again in TV or movies) must have had a penchant for blue fabric. Every single thing Jane wears except for a little white, green and black is some shade of blue! My favorite part of hers is when she goes to Richards’ hovel to talk her into selling her land and she goes from overstated affection to outright condescension about the origin of the land. By the time she’s left, she’s gotten to play virtually every conceivable emotion. (Note, too, how in this production photo, she’s wearing little slippers that wouldn’t be captured in the motion picture camera frame. In the scene, she’s ostensibly wearing - blue, of course! - pumps.)
Fonda also has a good scene with Carroll as the two come face-to-face in a “Whites Only” ladies room during the hearing over Hooks’ property. Carroll attempts to get through to Fonda about her less than honorable agenda and her untruthful husband and gets slapped across the face for her trouble. This is followed by remorse and despair, again showing off a range that Miss Jane had not really explored much at this point.
Carroll was criticized by some critics over her “glamorous” look in the film. I don’t know that she’s glamorous, per se, just very neat, clean and perhaps chic for her circumstances. (God knows that none of the clothes or hairstyles in Sundown evoke 1946. Only the cars and a few hats and ties suggest anything other than 1967!) The character had been living and working in New York for a few years, after all. She gives a likeable and ingratiating performance. Her slick handling of the ever-nasty Meredith is at times amusing.
Caine was another one who caught heat due to his being a British actor playing southern (as if that weren’t already a longstanding tradition by 1967!) In fact, no less than Vivien Leigh assisted him with his dialect, urging him to memorize and repeat the phrase “Four door Ford” with the right twang. He isn’t completely successful in masking his native accent, but his acting is dynamic enough most of the time to compensate for that. He’s a jerk, but somehow manages to make the viewer understand the circumstances he’s in. A poor shrimp fisherman turned land developer, he’s at a make or break point as the story opens.

Hooks gives a solid performance and shows off an impressive physique, frequently shirtless or in a pair of overalls and nothing else. He and Carroll lead a rendition of the title song at one point, a composition by the film’s composer Hugo Montenegro, a man famous beforehand for his lounge style music, but who did more film scoring after this. Again, critics lambasted the movie for having the black characters break out into song while in the midst of a gathering that included fried chicken and other ethnic foods. For one thing, the gathering was a celebration over the breaking of Hooks’ ground for irrigation, so it’s not outside the realm of possibility for there to have been not only tons of food, but also a guitar and singing. Also, the food was offered up to Kennedy as a means of distracting him from his intended mission to arrest Hooks. It’s not like Preminger filmed some hoe-down with clapping while the characters chewed on watermelon and chicken wings in between skipping and dancing, but from the reviews, you might think so. Lastly, I flat out love the song and think it’s beautiful and memorable. (The one in the movie, not the cover version by The 5th Dimension.) Often, when I write for this blog, a song associated with the highlighted performer or project will play on an endless loop in my head and it’s happening now with the song Hurry Sundown.

I have always enjoyed the music of Hugo Montenegro, though. His fashion show music for the Matt Helm spy flick The Silencers is one of my favorite kicky 60s concoctions. His score, the first one he ever did for a movie, is talked up on the back of the soundtrack album. “Consider the fragile and delicate passages that suddenly erupt into jarring intensity, signaling the violence that is to explode in the sleepy, post-war Georgia town of Arcady…It is not a score tapped out with indifference beside a Hollywood pool. This is a score with substance, with sweep and grandeur, the result of careful research at the actual shooting sites of the South”

Richards was having one banner year in 1967. Apart from this film, in which her participation ranges from strikingly good to stunningly ridiculous, she also had roles in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? and In the Heat of the Night! The former garnered her an Oscar nomination as Best Supporting Actress. Here, she is outfitted in a white fright wig as dictated by her fifty-four year-old character who’s meant to look even older. Her final scene with Hooks is a startlingly effective, gripping scene with expertly modulated emotion. It’s a good thing because in the scene before that, the one with Fonda, things start out well, but end in a Diet-Coke spewing heart attack depiction that has had bad movie connoisseurs rolling on the floor for decades now. Her interpretation of a heart attack is more akin to Satanic possession or seizure.

The year 1967 was a major one for Kennedy, too. Not only did he have a role in The Dirty Dozen and this film, he would next be seen in Cool Hand Luke, the movie that won him an Oscar! Looking at him here, the most striking thing is how slim he was. I always picture George as burly, but he was actually pretty slender at this time. Many films dealing with racial bigotry in the South feature loathsome, despicable town sheriffs who indulge in all sorts of terrible behavior. While Kennedy’s law enforcer is certainly no angel, at least he is refreshingly tolerant of the black citizens when compared to his fellow townspeople and, in fact, is shown socializing with them in his off hours and as caring for them in general as much as his appointed position will allow. Like Meredith, his aw shucks character, who is able to be dissuaded with a chicken leg and a cake (!) is meant to be amusing, it’s just questionable as to whether it ought to be!
Tall, lean Law was the object of much of Preminger’s venom during filming, being berated publicly and often. True, his vocalization is uneven to say the least. Sometimes he has no accent at all and sometimes he seems to be attempting one as he essays his “white trash” sort of role, complete with deliberately incorrect grammar. He seems to be at odds with his character, a former KKK member who now has seen the light and wants to work with his black neighbor. He does best in the intimate scenes with Dunaway, somehow developing a touching chemistry with her while Preminger loomed overhead. Like fellow scapegoat Tom Tryon, he would do two films (the other being Skidoo) with the taskmaster (Keir Dullea opted to do only one) suggesting that there was an almost sadomasochistic angle to the whole matter. The undeniably beautiful Law, who possessed almost translucent blue eyes, would soon be paired with Fonda in the far more famous movie Barbarella, playing a blind, winged helpmate named Pygar.

It is almost (and perhaps solely) the only time any of the many actors in Hurry Sundown ever worked together again. Caine and Fonda both appeared in California Suite, but not together. Prolific performers Kennedy and Meredith (a particular Preminger favorite) had both appeared previously in In Harm’s Way, but that’s about it. No one else ever seemed to be in a hurry to act with each other again after this one.

One person who never wanted to even see Otto Preminger after this was Dunaway. At the time a Broadway performer making her start in films, she felt very connected to her character, a simple woman who reminded the actress of her own mother. It was the type of part Dunaway would very rarely play again as she was later associated with far more elegant and glamorous roles and it’s more than a little surprising at first to see her with her hair undone and very little makeup. She clashed horribly with the tyrannical director and was appalled at his treatment of not only her, but also of Law, Danton and others. Her auto-bio recounts an incident in which he was raging at her with such venom that foam was forming in the sides of his mouth!So bent on breaking the multi-film contract she’d signed with him (which would have put her in the debacle Skidoo, for one thing), she sued for release from it, eventually having to pay a hefty settlement. It cannot be said that her subsequent films A Place for Lovers or (especially) The Extraordinary Seaman were any great shakes either, but at least she was free to make the legendary Bonnie and Clyde, her signature part, and The Thomas Crown Affair.

Perhaps one of the most curious stories to come out of this movie is that of the boy who played Law’s son, but who found himself siding more with the villainous Caine. Steve Sanders was a true Georgia boy, born near Macon, who began singing at a young age and eventually wound up as the juvenile lead (beating out 10,000 other aspiring preteen boys) in the 1964 Broadway musical adaptation of The Yearling. The show, starring David Wayne, was a horrendous flop, closing after just three performances, but Sanders continued to find work, ending up just a couple of years later with this featured role in what was intended to be a major film. After a bit more TV work, he continued to pursue music, eventually playing rhythm guitar for The Oak Ridge Boys. When the lead singer and the other three members had a significant falling out in 1987, Sanders was promoted to lead vocalist and was in the popular country band for another eight years, dropping out in 1995. (He's on the far left.) Less than three years after that, plagued by problems with his first wife and facing an uncertain career as a vocalist and songwriter, he locked himself in the bathroom of his home and shot himself in the head. He was forty-five at the time of his death.

Incidentally, this movie is like old home week for a '70s disaster buff like myself. We have Michael Caine (The Swarm, Beyond the Poseidon Adventure), Faye Dunaway (The Towering Inferno), Robert Hooks (Airport '77), John Phillip Law (The Cassanra Crossing), Burgess Meredith (When Time Ran Out) and George Kennedy (Earthquake and all four of the Airport movies!)

The U.S. poster (or at least a version of it) is shown at the top of this post. Note, however, how some of the foreign release posters (I believe this one is German) remove the shot of Robert Hooks from the montage and replace him with a virtually naked Jane Fonda! (This shot is, I think, from Barbarella. It's certainly not from Hurry Sundown.) Anything to sell a ticket...

Actors and crew working on Hurry Sundown were faced with continual hurdles. Unable to shoot in Georgia because of the oppressive heat and humidity that would be in full force during the June to August schedule (and prohibitive union rules that made evening work too expensive), they settled in to Baton Rouge, Louisiana and its surrounding communities. Because of the biracial nature of the project, they were welcomed with hatred, death threats, vandalism, enforced segregation and even, at one point, a burning cross erected on one of the sets in the wee hours of the night. Carroll spoke of putting on a brave face in public only to return to her room where she would dissolve into tears from the threatening environment.

Preminger, at least in terms of his approach to tolerance, was admirable to say the least. He demanded (and won) the right for his black performers to be permitted to soothe themselves after a long, hot day of shooting in one of the motel's swimming pools (this was after the owners had insisted that such a thing was impossible.) This concession incensed some of the locals enough to cause them to fashion a homemade bomb designed to blow up the pool and perhaps some of the people in it, though it was discovered before it came to that. Preminger also refused a dinner invitation from Louisiana's governor when it became clear that only the director and his white cast members were to be included. He may not have been a joy to work with for many of his cast and crew, but he believed in equality for them.

Once, while returning to the designated motel through a heavily wooded area, a string of cars and trucks containing the cast and crew was fired upon by snipers! Even a trip to New Orleans resulted in refusal of service at a major restaurant because the party was of mixed race. Before long, state troopers had to be called in to watch over the wing of the massive motel that housed the staff of Hurry Sundown, creating a tense, fretful atmosphere for everyone. In short, it was not a happy shoot for many reasons.

As for the film itself, it opened to mostly negative reviews and poor box office. It was rarely shown on TV due to its inclusion of “the N word” and was never released on home video, either in VHS or DVD format. Thus, we have a film by a famous director, featuring a brand name cast of actors (many of whom, four at least, went on to win Academy Awards) that is extremely difficult to come across! Determined in 1978 by Harry Medved to be one of The Fifty Worst Films of All Time, it falls far short of greatness, but certainly doesn’t belong in that category. To me, the measure of a film’s value is whether or not it is entertaining and/or engrossing. Hurry Sundown is a lot of things but it is almost never boring. Not with that cast and the situations they’re in! Medved also included The Omen in his list (the book was published in 1984) and I don’t agree with that one either.

Preminger's biggest mistake, perhaps, was in filming a story about racial tensions in 1946, complete with the perceived conditions and attitudes of that time, in 1967 when the tides were turning significantly (except, it seems, in the geographic region where the movie was filmed!) His story was judged through the more enlightened eyes of the mid-60s instead of as a period piece and this was not aided by the notable lack of period detail. Thus, many viewers felt that it was a contemporary story and took offense at how "behind" Preminger was in his approach. Had he striven to emphasize the two-decade time difference more, some of this outrage may have been lessened a bit.

While I certainly understand that contemporary movies need to display sensitivity (but do they? really??) and also that there are some things that people no longer consider entertaining, if they ever did (blackface anyone?), I do not condone the suppression of things felt to be inappropriate by a contemporary society and I never support censorship. The film said what it said, the way it said it, when it said it and that’s that. It’s the product of its time, filtered through the vision of one man whose intention was to shed light on the injustice of bigotry. There could possibly be things learned from it, whether it’s deemed offensive now by some people or not. Maybe the movie, for all intents and purposes, is being hidden from view merely because it’s considered shitty, but, let’s face it, there have been a lot worse movies made and released on video since this! I, for one, would love to see this movie on widescreen DVD and would especially like a two-disc set with backstory on the tumultuous production, interviews with its stars and other extras. Presented in its proper format, and seen again in the wake of so many other rotten movies over the years, it may not come off as bad as one might expect!


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