Movies Are My Wife

Married to the Movies — Mdino's Blog


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

DUEL (1971)

Steven Spielberg’s DUEL (1971) is a Western of sorts. If this is not obvious early on, it becomes clear in a climactic battle when David Mann (Dennis Weaver) fastens his car seat belt as though he were a Western hero strapping on a six-shooter. He even has the Western accent to go along with it. DUEL is also the study of someone very much in doubt about his own manhood, and the character’s last name is an ironic play on this fear. This amazing thriller about a crazed trucker pursuing a business man as he drives through the ultimate seventies landscape – a barren California desert – was originally made for television, but received such critical acclaim that it was eventually released in theaters. Along with the incredible suspense, Spielberg and screenwriter Richard Matheson pile layer upon layer of meaning onto this deceptively simple story, creating a film of rare depth – especially considering its humble TV origins.

The film begins with a subjective shot from David’s point of view as he backs his car out of the garage and drives down a suburban street. He makes his way through the city listening to mundane radio commercials about hemorrhoids, among other things, which occasionally break up the monotonous drone of a sports reporter. Heading out on a business trip, he soon finds his way to the desert and we get our first glimpse of David. He is an ordinary Joe – a seventies guy – and soon another seventies guy calls a radio talk show and complains about his census forms. The question “Are you the head of the family?” especially perplexes the man. He feels emasculated by his wife and it seems, the modern woman. We soon discover that David is facing an emasculation of his own. Castrated by his wife and his boring business man career, he will eventually find himself “back in the jungle” and longing for these things. And then, as he drives on, he encounters the truck. It is a rusty old oil tanker – a remnant of a bygone era – with the warning “Flammable” printed on the back in peeling paint. David makes the mistake of passing the truck, enraging its driver, whom we never see. This sets the stage for the movie long pursuit – the Duel. The truck follows David as he pulls into a gas station/laundry matt. It is here that we discover David is an extension of his car, as he removes his glasses to clean them, just as the attendant (Tim Herbert) cleans the windshield of his car. The truck driver does not exist outside of his truck and the ultimate expression of ones manhood is often his “wheels”. All we can see of the trucker is his hands on the steering wheel and on the one occasion when he does leave his truck , the audience (and David) can only see his macho cowboy boots.

When David brushes off the attendant’s advice to replace his radiator hose, the man responds with “You’re the boss.” “Not in my house, I’m not!” is David’s response. Later as he talks with his wife (Jacqueline Scott) on a pay phone, a woman enters with her laundry. She opens the washing machine, framing David in the door’s window. It is a perfect image of a whipped man. The conversation here is important as well, as David apologizes to his wife for not confronting a man who groped her at a party the night before. David will have to do something – something big – to make up for his lapse of manliness.

Back on the road, after he realizes the trucker’s murderous intent, David stupidly eggs him on by attempting to pass him again. After one successful maneuver, David hoots like a little kid, rejoicing while slapping his steering wheel. It is a matter of pride for his bruised male ego. When we get a good look at the side of David’s car, we see that it is a Valiant. Part cowboy, part knight in shinning armor, David will eventually redeem himself.

The truck, as it happens, is not only an extension of its driver but may also serve as an extension of David’s psyche – the incarnation of some childhood nightmare – like Moby Dick to Captain Ahab. The rusted orange color of the tanker matches the orange color of David’s car. Spielberg often gives us close-ups of the truck’s headlights and corresponding close-ups of Davids eyes, peering out from behind tinted glasses.

There is a third character amongst all this auto erotica – a freight train that pops up throughout the film. Like the trucker, the engineer is never shown, and he is blissfully unaware of the horror taking place. The most frightening use of this third character has the truck attempting to ram David’s car into the path of the train as David is stopped at a railroad crossing. Later, the truck blows its horn in recognition of the locomotive, which returns the gesture with a friendly blast of its own horn.

The final showdown is like a Marshal Dillon shoot out. After a harrowing ride to the summit of a hill with his radiator hose busted (the truck closing in), David comes up with a brilliant plan: He jams his brief case against the gas pedal causing his nearly destroyed car to ram the truck head on after he has jumped clear. In a fiery ball of flames the truck careens off a cliff into the ravine below. David has used a symbol of his emasculation to take down his foe. The truck tumbles in slow motion – groaning and weeping all the way to the bottom. Four years later Spielberg would revisit this technique in the final shots of the exploded shark in JAWS as it makes its way to the bottom of the ocean.

Along with the layers of meaning, Spielberg provides several bravura directorial touches: These include brilliant follow shots, fish eye lenses,”Dutch” angles, extensive use of subjective camera, and highly impressive shots with the camera circling the car and truck in in one swoop, as they make their way along the desert highway. There are jump cuts, a neat use of close-ups and a beautiful shot in which the camera curls down and across a cowboy’s boot to the tip of the toe. With all this taken into account, it is the school bus scene that is perhaps the most impressive of the film’s many highlights. Momentarily thinking himself free of the madman trucker, David stops to help a bus driver (Lou Frizzell) and children, whose bus has stalled. While struggling to give the bus a push with his car, he spies the truck in the distance, stopped in a darkened tunnel. As if possessed, the tanker’s headlights are suddenly illuminated like a pair of glowing demonic eyes. The truck is alive.

DUEL may well be Steven Spielberg’s most cinematic film. SAVING PRIVATE RYAN is more harrowing because of its scenes of war carnage. SCHINDLER’S LIST is his most important, due to its subject matter. But this little TVer is his most visual, as well as one of his most multi-layered works. I envy those who have had the opportunity to see the film in a theater, where this most meticulously crafted master-piece has always belonged.


June 12, 2013 Posted by | 1970s cinema, film directors, screenwriters, suspense films, TV movies | , , , , , , | 1 Comment