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Martin Ritt's 1958 The Long, Hot Summer played fast and loose with the 'unfillmable' William Faulkner by combining a score of his stories into one narrative. The writing team of Irving Ravetch and Harriet Frank Jr.'a stew of Deep South situations pleased audiences wanting to see new star Joanne Woodward play opposite Paul Newman. Producer Jerry Wald immediately tried again with 1959's The Sound and the Fury. This time, the same writers pared a multi-generational Faulkner book down to a brief time frame, folding together characters that in the book never met one other. As with other tame Hollywood potboilers of the time, the resulting film leaves most of its 'dangerous' themes unexplored -- but also offers several very interesting performances.
The film adaption narrows the book's wide scope down to the coming-of-age story of a single character, Quentin Compson (Joanne Woodward). The crumbling Compson house reflects the disarray of the once-proud family. Quentin's uncle Howard (John Beal) is an alcoholic failure. Her other uncle Ben (Jack Warden) is a mentally challenged simpleton who plays on the grounds with the son of the family maid Dilsey (Ethel Waters), the only person in the household that Quentin likes. Relative Jason Compson (Yul Brynner) and his demanding mother Caroline (François Rosay) have moved in to put the place in order. The domineering Jason works in town to pay the bills, but his efforts to keep the delinquent Quentin in school aren't working. Hating Jason and everything he stands for, Quentin starts up a relationship with Charlie Busch (Stuart Whitman), a handsome carnival roustabout. Just as Jason catches her sneaking out with Charlie, someone new comes to town. It's Caddy Compson (Margaret Leighton), Quentin's mother who abandoned her shortly after birth. Jason treats Caddy with merciless contempt, but she finds her way back into the household. Quentin's dream that her mother will come to rescue her is soon dashed to pieces, as the now-destitute Caddy is only concerned for her own security.
Literary types that thought The Long Hot Summer a clever conflation of separate Faulkner tales had little love for The Sound and the Fury, which bears little relationship to its source. Faulkner's poetry and style are largely absent and the story's rich relationships are flattened into easily digested patterns that could have been written by almost anyone. Although played admirably by the talented Margaret Leighton (7 Women, The Go-Between), the Caddy Compson character does not return in the book as she does here. When she does she seems very much like a discarded Blanche Dubois clone fleeing home in search of a safe haven. Caddy rehashes old times with her brother Howard, but soon realizes that he's powerless. Jason won't forgive Caddy, but he eases his grip on the household enough to let her stay. Jason's unforgiving mother Caroline won't even come down for meals any more. Nobody seems to mind.
Like everything else in the movie, Caddy's story is sublimated to that of Quentin. The headstrong girl is first seen riding a bus all night to and from Memphis, just to defy her guardian Jason. Quentin needs some kind of guidance. Her thoughtless fling with the sweaty, bare-chested Charlie Busch is a bad move. The Sound and the Fury introduces Charlie as he climbs to the top of an unavoidably erect carnival ride, to make an adjustment in the mechanism. As soon as Charlie comes down, the ride operator rotates the ride 180°. His climb to the top was completely unnecessary.
Casting choices steer the film's tone in odd directions. Jason's protective actions over Quentin have an unappealing sexual quality. Guarding his star persona, Yul Brynner plays Jason in full 'smoldering' mode, as if he were shooting hot stares from his eyeballs at Deborah Kerr. When Jason is simply trying to give Quentin good advice, his parental nagging comes off as a smokescreen for suppressed lust. The perversity begins in earnest when Jason meets Caddy on a downtown street, and does not invite her home. He promises to let her see Quentin, but honors that promise by simply driving Quentin by Caddy's park bench, barely slowing down. The impression we get is that Jason is a sick personality. If this is intentional, someone needs to turn a fire hose on him. The film appears to insist that Jason is a stable personality, just doing what must be done to buttress the reputation of the Compson family.
Jason locks Quentin in her room, and when she escapes down a tree Pollyanna- style he has it cut down. The feebleminded Ben observes Quentin and Charlie necking, and turns uncharacteristically violent. This gives Jason the excuse he needs to put the poor fellow in a sanitarium.
The problem of sex is busting out all over, it seems. Jason finally elects to personally show Quentin that Charlie is not special, that "any man will make you feel like a woman!" This of course provides the movie with a daring moment for the trailer. The flirtation with incest could very well come straight from the book, but it seems an attempt by producer Jerry Wald to repeat a salacious theme from his big success Peyton Place. The creepy thing about The Sound and the Fury is that its peaceful resolution does nothing to quell the unsavory vibe between Quentin and Jason.
The awkwardness is more than simply the conflicting acting styles. Budgetary factors prevent director Ritt from generating a convincing local atmosphere. A second unit went to Louisiana for many shots, but the actors stayed home in Hollywood. For long shots Joanne Woodward is replaced by a double, severely restricting the director's editorial choices. Most of the film, including scenes in the town square, takes place on Fox's studio lots back in Southern California. The extras look no different than those that might be seen in a TV show.
There's no denying that the movie has an interesting cast, beyond Yul Brynner's miscalculated performance. Joanne Woodward expertly plays a teenager even though she's almost 30 years old. Her fans will certainly not feel cheated. The surprise here will be seeing the now relatively obscure Margaret Leighton's excellent portrayal of a wayward woman finding few options open after the easy years are over. As Jason's partner in business, Albert Dekker is on hand to show that the pathetic Caddy still cannot resist the simplest 'kindness' of a stranger.
This was Ethel Waters' last feature film. Her character opens the show in a big way and then all but disappears. John Beal and Françoise Rosay are barely in the picture. Jack Warden's Ben is also mostly unexplored, and comes off as sort of an abbreviated Boo Radley type. Stuart Whitman at least fits his role well; he'd step up to star status a couple of years later.
The Twilight Time Blu-ray of The Sound and the Fury is a handsome encoding of well-preserved elements for a film not often revived for screenings. Color, sharpness and contrast are excellent, even in optical sections. Alex North's dynamic music score is a big asset, and can be audited separately on Twilight Time's Isolated Score Track.
The expert liner notes by Julie Kirgo examine the ins and outs of the controversial film adaptation, giving us insights into the erratic fortunes of the works of William Faulkner in Hollywood. The Sound and the Fury is written in a modernistic style that switches narrators at will. One chapter is 'narrated' through the distorted perceptions of the Ben Compson character. No wonder that the Faulkner loyals were dismayed -- as finished, the show plays like a half-dozen other films about shameful family secrets South of the Mason-Dixon line. I found Faulkner a very difficult read in college, and learning about this adaptation makes me want to try him again.
A lot of non-rumor information about what Twilight Time really has on their schedule can be found on their Facebook page... where I learned that my favorite Major Dundee has a tentative Blu-ray date of April, 2013. That's only seven months away, so I'd better go warm up my BD player now.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Sound and the Fury Blu-ray rates:
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T'was Ever Thus.