Monday, January 28, 2008
Otto Preminger’s HURRY SUNDOWN, released in 1967, has a miserable rep, usually placing it on lists of legendary turkeys. I’m not even sure why I went to the American Cinematheque screening at the Egyptian Friday night, unless I was going for some kind of Michael Caine completist thing, but I’m glad I did. Maybe this is one of those things where since I wasn’t around at the time to fully understand the context this film was made and released in so I can’t fully appreciate how it was viewed then. But looking at it for the first time in 2008 HURRY SUNDOWN plays as a pleasant surprise and even though it is set in the 40s, it could be looked at as a hopeful look, however naïve that may have been, at race relations in the time it was made.
Based on the novel of the same name by Katya and Bert Gilden the film, set shortly after World War II, is a lurid tale set in rural Georgia involving race relations and the hotbed issue of land, offering enough plot that could be expanded out to a full season of a primetime soap (though it would be hard to imagine such a show offering wuch extensive uses of the n-word). Michael Caine, sporting a Southern accent, is Henry Warren, a land-owner buying up as much as he can. Jane Fonda is his wife, a woman whose wealthy family goes back nearly a century in the area. They have a volatile releationship with a fair amount of sex and drinking, but one with continued troubles brought on partly by their (autistic?) son who they can’t seem to control. John Phillip Law, Diabolik himself, and Faye Dunaway are their poor cousins who own land nearby and are reluctant to sell. Robert Hooks is an African-American who lives on land which adjoins Law’s and the two men have to overcome their differences to prevent Caine from acquiring their farms.
Like I said, I can’t plug myself into knowing how this played back then, but looking at HURRY SUNDOWN in 2008 it plays as a very humanist piece of work. It seems to genuinely desire that the Law and Hooks characters work out their differences and this feel for the humanity seeps through to the rest of the film. Michael Caine’s character is pretty much the villain yet he is believably shown to be conflicted at certain points. Jane Fonda’s character in some ways is the heart of the film as a woman torn between the husband she partly despises and what she is beginning to suspect is the right thing to do. Even the blatantly racist supporting characters spread out through the story seem less stereotypical than they generally do in most films of this type. I’m not saying they come off as likable or sympathetic, simply that the movie seems to be operating under the belief that such people wouldn’t come off as villains day after day. They may not be nice, but they do play as believable. And while there may be a little too much of a feel of the ‘noble black folk’ of the film they certainly never come off as ignorant of their surroundings and Robert Hooks, excellent in the film, manages to infuse his portrayal with enough shadings and complexities to override any of those issues with his character. The post-film discussion, which included Law and Hooks, revealed that the movie had been film on location in Louisiana in 1966 and it wasn’t until they had arrived that the production realized just how dangerous a situation this was, with death threats to cast members quickly becoming a common occurrence.
One early scene between Caine and Fonda has them drinking and flirting with each other at night in their mansion as Caine plays his saxophone. Fonda takes it from him and rather suggestively, um, blows on it. Nothing wrong with that and it’s a cute little bit, yet it seems to have been the sort of lurid, over the top moment that people latched on to, as symptomatic for what was wrong with the entire film, thereby ignoring the many other issues that the film raises. Of course, in 1978 HURRY SUNDOWN was named as one of the fifty worst films of all time in the book of the same name by the Medveds. It wouldn’t surprise me if they never bothered to see the film that they were trashing—HURRY SUNDOWN probably wouldn’t be the only film where that was the case. Those Golden Turkey books that those guys put out really do read as rather repugnant now and I suppose I have another reason to feel that way.
There is the problem in Michael Caine’s performance and it goes beyond the issues of the accent to the fact that nothing about him seems believable as somebody from the south. He’s not miscast as much as weirdly cast and it’s not a bad performance so much as one by a talented actor who never got a handle on his character. Hopefully, this will be the worst thing that I ever write about Michael Caine and for those who may be interested, the flashback footage of him in AUSTIN POWERS IN GOLDMEMBER comes from this film. Of the rest of the cast, Law and Dunaway are particularly good, with Dunaway especially a revelation in terms of how unaffecting she is. She’s one who definitely understands her character and where she’s coming from. There are similar affecting moments from Diahann Carroll as Hooks’ schoolteacher love interest and Beah Richards as his mother. There’s also plenty of enjoyment from the supporting cast, including George Kennedy as the local sheriff who is the real comic relief, but the movie is smart enough to never paint him as a total idiot. Burgess Meredith tears right into his role as a racist judge, Madeline Sherwood (a civil rights activist in real life) is very good as the judge’s wife, Robert Reed is a lawyer and Jim Backus turns up as another lawyer late in the film in what is pretty much the Jim Backus role.
Whether during giant Scope shots of fields being dynamited to allow for irrigation of intimate scenes between a few people in a room, HURRY SUNDOWN is also very much a movie, with a dynamite visual sense that is constantly compelling. Even though it is set in the 40s, the fact that it was made in the 60s in the heart of the very worst of what it portrays spotlights how much it’s director seems to be saying about what he thinks could happen in the world if the right people would just agree to come together. It may be lurid and it may be an overripe mixture of different elements but it’s a shame that HURRY SUNDOWN has been buried for so long.