Bil’s rating (out of 5): BBB.5
USA, 1966. Horizon Pictures. Screenplay by Lillian Hellman, based on the novel and play by Horton Foote. Cinematography by Joseph LaShelle. Produced by Sam Spiegel. Music by John Barry. Production Design by Richard Day. Costume Design by Donfeld. Film Editing by Gene Milford.
A small, tightknit town in Texas is the setting of this sultry melodrama, adapted by Lillian Hellman from a story and play by Horton Foote. Hellman was never one to let America off easy about its failings (mainly rampant capitalism, classism and bigotry, and where they connect), but her skills as a dramatist also rarely failed her and the lecture is performed through characters and a plot that are both harsh and thoroughly exciting. The lazy pace of Tarl, Texas is set on edge when news gets out that Robert Redford has escaped from prison and is on his way back. On this particular night the town is whooping it up, bank manager E.G. Marshall is throwing a fancy bash for his fellow socialites, while his employees (including unapologetic troublemaker Janice Rule) are throwing their own drunken bash. Marshall is upset that his son James Fox (thoroughly miscast) is carrying on with Jane Fonda, who is Redford’s wife, and hopes to put a stop to it, while the partygoers at Rule’s house are liquored up to the point of wanting to paint the town red with blood. Sheriff Marlon Brando keeps up with all the action and makes sure to put citizens in their place, barely thwarting a racist attack on Redford’s black friend Henry Hull, but he also faces ire from the townspeople who believe that Marshall’s generosity to him means he is fully in his pocket, while Fonda and Fox rush to find Redford before a fully worked-up mob can do him harm. This many people who have been letting their resentment of others simmer being given the chance to let them out is a powder-keg situation that results in Brando fighting one man against the rest as his wife (Angie Dickinson) looks helplessly on. Unsubtle and unpleasant, the film’s dark and cynical message is that America feels like a place that has created rules and laws specifically for the purpose of breaking them, and that if there is no peace it is because nobody wants it. There are likely not many who seek such lessons from their night out at the movies, the film implicates all viewers by avoiding a pat-happy ending and any semblance of heroism, and unsurprisingly it failed miserably at the box office upon its original release. Director Arthur Penn did a much more effective (and audience-pleasing) job at capturing the country’s unreasonable passion for violence a year later in Bonnie And Clyde, but time has been good to this film despite the fact that it is plotted out a bit too broadly and could stand to be a bit shorter. What plays strongly now are the rich performances (which also include a terrific Miriam Hopkins as Redford’s mother) and the unapologetic and sharp message of its story, which hasn’t lost any relevance this many decades later.