Movies Are My Wife

Married to the Movies — Mdino's Blog

WISE BLOOD (1979)

Made toward the end of his career, John Huston’s WISE BLOOD (1979) is one of the iconic (and iconoclastic) director’s oddest films. A master at adapting what were often unfilmable novels, Huston crafted a rewarding version of Flannery O’Connor’s idiosyncratic depiction of Southern religiosity. But the film is offbeat to a fault, with segues into broad farce that are not always successful. And some parts of the movie are just plain weird…

Hazel Motes (Brad Dourif) returns angry and embittered from the Vietnam war to his small Southern hometown. He finds his house abandoned and the rest of the town in much the same condition. He has an overwhelming need to “do some things I ain’t never done before.” Exactly what, he has no idea – but these “things” will be monumental. Too big for this one horse town that has only a few more people than it does horses. The town having fallen on hard times, most of the citizens, it seems, have moved on to the nearest big city and Hazel decides to do the same. During his first day in the city he encounters an allegedly blind street preacher named Asa Hawks (Harry Dean Stanton) and his daughter Sabbath Lily (Amy Wright) distributing Bible tracts. Hazel has now found his calling – but with a peculiar bent all his own. As he tells a cab driver “I don’t believe in anything”, so it is fitting that the religion he establishes will be called “The Church of Truth Without Jesus Christ Crucified.” The story of this neo religious/atheistic experiment and its troubled founder constitute the remainder of the film, with all its amusements – and at times – horrors. Interwoven with this story is a major theme that is skillfully explored by O’Connor, Huston and his screenwriters Benedict and Michael Fitzgerald: Religion as a primal urge. This is not necessarily the same as the belief that faith is primitive – the domain of the unsophisticated. “Primal” is defined as “the first in time”; “original.” The filmmakers seem to be saying that the desire to know God has been with mankind since the beginning. Perhaps we were primitive, but the desire was and remains sublime. A similar theme would be developed in another film written by Benedict Fitzgerald: Mel Gibson’s THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST (2004).

Religion rules in the South: An opening montage treats us to various spiritually themed placards. Even a Dairy Queen has a “Jesus Saves” message on its sign. John Huston acknowledges his warm respect for what he feels are the simpler aspects of Southern living by including in the opening montage some misspellings, even presenting his own name in the credits as “JHON” Huston. Condescending? I don’t think so, though it must be pointed out that the belief that people south of the Mason Dixon line are poor spellers who utilize bad grammar, is silly and wrong-headed.

Upon returning home, Hazel visits the small family plot behind his childhood abode, stopping at the headstone of his Grandfather (John Huston), a fiery evangelical preacher. The epitaph reads “Gone to become an angle”, with the word angel obviously misspelled. But the decision of the WISE BLOOD creators to use a misspelling of this nature may serve as a double meaning of sorts. Many fake preachers everywhere are indeed working an “angle” – a disingenuous con. Apparently Hazel’s Grandfather was one of them.

On the train to the big city, Hazel meets a proper Southern Belle and proceeds to improperly offend her. “I reckon you think you been redeemed”, he snarls. The woman answers in the affirmative, annoying Hazel. After the train arrives at its destination, he finds what at the moment he believes to be true redemption, by visiting a prostitute named Leora Watts, whose name and address he takes from the station bathroom wall. The theme of sexuality as redemptive is aided immeasurably by the type of home Huston chooses for Leora’s residence: A small, wood building that could easily serve as the little church in the wildwood! As Hazel tells Asa on their first meeting “What do I need Jesus for? I got Leora Watts!”

In this city of what must have seemed to Hazel as endless possibilities, he soon meets Enoch Emory (Dan Shor), an eighteen year old – also new in town – who claims to “see signs…I know things I ain’t never learned.” Young Enoch calls this ability “wise blood”, prompting Hazel to think the teen is nuts. Of course, he will become the new religion’s first and only true disciple.

The two powerful drives – sex and religion – are combined in a neat flashback to Hazel’s childhood and his Grandfather’s tent revival show, as the young Hazel struggles to get up high enough to see into a coffin the old man uses as a prop for the service. Inside the casket lies a beautiful (and very much alive) young woman wearing nothing but underwear, fish net stockings and pasties. The Grandfather’s sermon warns of death as the wages of sexual sin. The flashback is in the form of a dream and Hazel wakes up in bed next to Leora.

Hazel purchases a used car that he envisions as a sign of the new church’s vitality. As he states later “Nobody with a good car needs to be justified.” But the vehicle – all he can afford – is hopelessly dilapidated. It does, however, get him to a museum where an excited Enoch shows him (and us) the central primal symbol in the film: A small Egyptian mummy. Enoch is enraptured by the ancient little man. When Hazel preaches about the need for “a new Jesus” – one that is “all man, without blood to waste” the delusional young man steals the dried up mummy from the museum in order to present it to Hazel as the new Messiah…

Her Father revealed as a fake, Sabbath moves in with Hazel, a man she desperately wants. She lustfully refers to him as “King of the Beasts”. We then cut to a van traversing the streets of the city, advertising “Gonga the Great Jungle Monarch” and the opportunity to shake hands with the gorilla star (Allan A. Apone in a gloriously cheesy gorilla suit) as a promotion for his new movie. The movie business is made up of hucksters too.

Sabbath is on hand to receive the package from Enoch, with instructions to hand it over to Hazel as soon as possible. This leads to one of the most disturbing images in the film, as she stands before Hazel wearing a black veil and cradling the withered little corpse in Madonna and child fashion. Appalled, Hazel destroys the mummy, and Sabbath reveals she may know more about the new evangelist than even he does, stating “You don’t want nothin but Jesus!” Since Hazel actually scolded Asa earlier for not trying to save his (Hazel’s) soul, Sabbath may be correct in her assessment.

When a con man named Hoover Shoates (Ned Beatty) teams up with a fellow he calls the “preacher” (William Hickey) essentially pilfering the “Church without Christ” concept with the sole purpose of making money, Hazel is outraged. His church may be many things, but it is no con. It is a heartfelt expression of his philosophy. To Hazel, the Shoates church is the real sacrilege. He confronts”preacher” and expresses his contempt: “How come you say you don’t believe in what you do?”, he asks, realizing the man is probably a Christian despite his church’s mantra. When the frightened and intimidated man rushes down the street, Hazel drives after him, running him over. As he dies the “preacher” confesses his sins to Hazel who now functions as a demented version of a Catholic priest. This tragic figure’s last words are “Jesus…Jesus…help me.” To Hazel Motes the worst thing of all is a man who is not true to himself.

In an effort to combat his loneliness, Enoch steals the Gonga gorilla suit, hoping it will help him to meet people. After scaring off an elderly couple he laments “I only wanted to shake hands.” We in the audience experience a mixture of amusement and melancholy as we remember his earlier complaint that he has been in town for two months and still doesn’t know anyone. Fear of loneliness is primal at its core.

Attempting to leave town after the murder, Hazel has serious car trouble, attracting a cop who requests he exit the vehicle. Realizing his dream of a new religion is coming to an end, Hazel watches in amazement as the cop, with a single well placed kick to the back bumper, sends the car meandering down a long grade and splashing into a pond. Just as he felt the need to “do something” after coming home from the war, he now must do something else – something bigger – something real, in order “to pay”. Asa, early in his career, cooked up a stunt along the same lines as what Hazel will actually do in earnest. To atone – perhaps for his own sins, perhaps for the sins of con men like Asa and the “preacher” – Hazel performs a perverse sacrifice. Another lonely soul – his landlady (Mary Nell Santacroce) – proposes marriage, pleading “The world is an empty place, Mr. Motes…If we don’t help each other, there’s nobody to help us.” This may be the key message of the film. The primal expressions – religion, sex and companionship – are all part of an effort to beat back the beast of loneliness. We were created to need one another.

CREDITS: Produced by Kathy and Michael Fitzgerald. Directed by John Huston. Written by Benedict and Michael Fitzgerald. Based on the novel by Flannery O’Connor. Photographed by Gerry Fisher. Edited by Roberto Silvi. Music by Alex North. WITH: Brad Dourif, Dan Shor, Harry Dean Stanton, Amy Wright, Ned Beatty, William Hickey, Mary Nell Santacroce, John Huston, Marvin Sapps, Betty Lou Groover, John Tyndall, Richard Earle, J.L.Parker, Herb Kossover and Allan A. Apone as Gonga.

August 28, 2013 - Posted by | 1970s cinema, Christianity in film, comedy/dramas, film directors, Religion in film, screenwriters | , , , , , , , , , , , ,

2 Comments »

  1. A really fine piece.Despite the liberties taken with O’Connor’s book, I think this film is endlessly fascinating. The only critical miscue is the scoring by Alex North which is far too redundant for comfort.

    Comment by chandlerswainreviews | August 29, 2013 | Reply

    • Thanks for the nice comment! I agree about the music. The more jovial passages remind me of the type of music you would hear in an episode of PETTICOAT JUNCTION.

      Comment by mdino | August 30, 2013 | Reply


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