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A Patch of Blue

A Patch of Blue
Warner Home Video
1965 / b&w / 2:35 anamorphic 16:9 / 105 min. / Street Date February 4, 2003 / $19.98
Starring Sidney Poitier, Shelley Winters, Elizabeth Hartman, Wallace Ford, Ivan Dixon, Elisabeth Fraser, John Qualen
Cinematography Robert Burks
Art directors George W. Davis, Urie McCleary
Film Editor Rita Roland
Original Music Jerry Goldsmith
from the novel Be Ready With Bells and Drums by Elizabeth Kata
Produced by Pandro S. Berman
Written and Directed by Guy Green

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

A perrennial favorite 'small movie' that's always appealed to Sidney Poitier fans, A Patch of Blue is dramatically far superior to his Oscar winner from a couple of seasons earlier, Lilies of the Field. The difference is in the direction - ex cameraman Guy Green both wrote and very sensitively directed this tale of a handicapped girl coming of age in squalid surroundings, and falling in love with a man she doesn't know is black.


Selina (Elizabeth Hartman) is the blind daughter of Rose-Ann D'Arcy (Shelley Winters), a sometime prostitute who keeps the young woman locked up and abused. Selina's helped only occasionally by her alcoholic grandfather, Ole Pa (Wallace Ford). He walks her to the park each weekday so she can string beads under a tree, piecework she sells to Mr. Faber (John Qualen). Selina knows only harsh treatment and sordid misery with Rose-Ann, but in the park she meets Gordon Ralfe (Sidney Poitier), a lonely young man who likes her company. At first Gordon enjoys the idea of making friends with a non-black person for whom color can't be an instant issue, but their relationship doesn't stay so simple for very long.

Judging by the examples of Guy Green and Jack Cardiff, British ex-cinematographers make excellent directors. In this picture, Green and producer Pandro Berman fashioned a studio film with neither a studio look nor a studio attitude. Released in the years when the name Sidney Poitier was synonymous with quality shows about black men who refused to be classified by color, A Patch of Blue has dated very little. Poitier's Gordon Ralfe is not a black superman or an ideal exponent of civil rights, but a guy just trying to get along.

The prejudice portrayed in A Patch of Blue is neither overstated or one-sided. A pair of biddies give a mixed-race couple hard stares of disapprove, but no longer feel free to shout or cry for assistance, as they might, were the film made a few years earlier. Gordon's brother Mark may be positively 'typed' as a doctor, but he has grave & unyielding misgivings about Gordon's judgement in getting involved with a white girl. Likewise, Selina's mother and Ole Pa aren't raving racists, but average whites who take their dislike of blacks for a given ... well, let's say they're normal unenlightened Americans (oxymoron?), which may indeed mean they're raving racists. But they are average people, not caricatures of specific attitudes.

Race is indeed major subject matter here, but the treatment is more complex than, say, Guess Who's Coming to Dinner?. That show is excellently written progressive liberal propaganda that still smacks of special pleading, with Poitier playing a man so utterly perfect so as to resemble a fantasy. A Patch of Blue's Gordon Ralfe is also pretty darn genteel and, of course, good looking (even though he describes himself as ugly in the film). He keeps a neat apartment. Both he and his brother wear ties to work and follow the Emily Post rules of ettiquette. What's different is Gordon's interior thinking process. Most of his racial concerns are left unspoken, and instead allowed to play across his face. Gordon takes it all in with varying degrees of patience and discomfort. He and the rest of the cast react as individuals, not representatives of an authors' agenda.

A Patch of Blue is actually one of the first films to downplay the race card, as it were ... an observation that will only seem true when comparing it to pictures of its time, the sort that followed more closely the hysteria of The Defiant Ones.

Poitier is the star, but A Patch of Blue is Elizabeth Hartman's picture. A frail-looking girl with an expressive voice, she became a star, but was only seen in a few more noteworthy roles. Her Selina is an extremely sensitive, believable characterization. She expresses the idea of blindness beyond being a simply mechanical problem, or a case of limited perception, as in the excellent Wait Until Dark. We're acutely aware of Selina's adaptation to her squalid environment, and quickly realize that there's every likelihood that the dirty apartment and low-life relatives are the only reality she knows.

This makes her meeting Gordon in the park more than just a poignant romance a-blooming; both Gordon and the audience can see Selina opening up to new possibilities, like a cave dweller who suddenly discovers the sun. Almost all of this is due to Hartman's performance.

Within the production code, A Patch of Blue manages to present the prostitution, alcoholism and child abuse of Salina's home life, without resorting to clichés. Surely the ads carried the typical 'recommended for mature audiences' proviso, but not necessarily. Shelley Winters and Elisabeth Fraser cavort like a couple of over-the-hill good time girls, and by the general pitch of their conversation we can guess how they augment their income. Booze-ridden Ole Pa is sweet when sober, abusive when drunk, and melancholy most of the rest of the time, and Wallace Ford and Shelley Winters make a great pair, especially when enjoying themselves, giving the neighbors a hard time. For a mostly forgotten actor, Ford goes way, way back, to his peculiarly endearing performance in Tod Browning's 1932 Freaks. Even when Pa's drunk, we never hate him, and when Rose-Ann plans to dump the old soak, we're alarmed.


A Patch of Blue resolves itself with admirable restraint. Gordon and Selina don't run away together, and he even gets her to realize that, since she's just come out into the world, she should wait a year before making up her mind about him. We can tell he's crazy about her, but knows that she needs to do a lot of maturing and self-discovery before they should even consider getting involved. The only weird note is his packing Selina off to a boarding school for the blind ... if this is the California social services system we're talking about, I don't get an instant mental picture of a pleasant place awaiting Selina. And how did Gordon commit her to it, without parental permission?

One thing about A Patch of Blue that merits special notice is its music by Jerry Goldsmith. One of a half dozen major scores he wrote in 1965, it is characteristically beautiful yet sparse, simple and unfussy. Some film composer's work all sounds the same, but Goldsmith's never did. I confess that my first contact with him was solely through swinging soundtracks like The Man from U.N.C.L.E., Von Ryan's Express and Our Man Flint.

Warners' DVD of A Patch of Blue is a fine and worthy disc presentation. Robert Burks' stunning B&W-in-Scope cinematography is given a good approximation by the 16:9 enhancement. The disc is accompanied by a stills gallery, a text essay on Poitier, and a very informative commentary by Guy Green. He's a modest-sounding man with amazing credits, and he tells the story of the making of the film very interestingly. Green touches on Elizabeth Hartman's tragic early death only in passing.

Always getting a big reaction whenever A Patch of Blue is screened today, is its scene in a real 1965 supermarket. Apples 23 cents/lb - Oranges 28 cents/lb! Nobody realizes how much things have changed.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, A Patch of Blue rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: text essay, still, commentary with Guy Green
Packaging: Snapper case
Reviewed: February 3, 2003

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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