Sunday 19 July 2015

Raintree County [1957]

RAINTREE COUNTY is an American drama that was directed by Edward Dmytryk and originally released by MGM in December 1957.  Adapted from Ross Lockridge’s novel by Millard Kaufman, it stars Montgomery Clift, Elizabeth Taylor and Eva Marie Saint.  Set before, during and after the American Civil War it follows the life of a mild-mannered teacher who is tricked into marrying a mercurial Southern belle thus creating a split with his high school sweetheart.

There are three main points to mention in any discussion of this film.  Firstly, it was during the production that Montgomery Clift suffered his near-fatal car crash which resulted in grievous facial injuries.  Production was shut down until he recovered but in the finished film the pre- and post-accident footage clearly does not match, with Clift looking markedly different.  Clift’s confidence was badly affected and, already drinking heavily and addicted to prescriptions drugs, his career began its decline, a steep slide which ended with his death in 1967 aged just 46.

Montgomery Clift as John Shawnessy

Second, the film was a conscious decision on the part of MGM, and particularly the studio’s head of development Dore Schary, to try to emulate the success of GONE WITH THE WIND [1939].  Both films are based on massive best-selling novels and combine tempestuous romance with Civil War drama, a mix which in the case of GONE WITH THE WIND rang the box office bell in a way that had never been seen before and, if the inflation-adjusted takings are to be believed, has never been seen since.

Romance in Indiana

Third, the film was the first film (and to date one of only ten) to use MGM’s new Camera 65 brand, which was based on Panavision’s anamorphic camera lenses that produced an aspect ratio of 2.76:1, comfortably the widest of widescreen technology at that time.  RAINTREE COUNTY has yet to receive a blu-ray release partly for this reason and partly because, as I understand it, significant restoration work would be required; however there is a campaign underway lobbying for this to happen.

What you don’t see so much is an evaluation of the film on its own merits so I’m happy to report that it is perfectly watchable, at times even gripping, but weighed down in the end by excessive sentimentality.  I think the fickle finger of failure points directly at director Edward Dmytryk who was a fine director of noir thrillers but lacked the lightness of touch required to deal with the love triangle at the heart of this film.  By all accounts he gave the cast very little in the way of performance direction being more concerned with the photography.  As a result there is at times some pretty ripe over-acting, particularly from Elizabeth Taylor and Nigel Patrick as the philandering college professor who tells his class the legend of the Rain Tree.

Montygomery Clift looking preoccupied
The Civil War sequences are comfortably the best parts of the film.  Clift and army buddy Lee Marvin coming upon an abandoned plantation and taking prisoner a Confederate officer are almost eerie in their stillness and the subsequent lethal fire-fight is genuinely moving.  The photography by Robert Surtees is excellent and no doubt when the restored film is released on blu-ray it will look sensational.  Ultra-wide widescreen was perfect for epics such as this and some sequences – the foot race between Clift and Lee Marvin, the visit to Windsor Ruins, Lincoln’s funeral train – utilise it fully.

Windsor Ruins in RAINTREE COUNTY

Abraham Lincoln's funeral train superbly photographed in MGM's Camera-65

Unsurprisingly, given the circumstances, Clift’s performance is uneven.  Clift was a trailblazer for a new style of acting and basically single-handed introduced the concept of the sensitive leading man into film-making.  Up until then lead actors had been like John Wayne, Clark Gable, Gary Cooper, Humphrey Bogart, Errol Flynn and so on, that is to say virile, tough, strong heroes.  In Clift’s début feature RED RIVER [1948] it is possible to see these two archetypes playing directly opposite each other.  In the post-war period Clift’s persona was much more reflective of the change in mood and he became the biggest male movie star of the day.

Montgomery Clift in the early 1950s

He was not strictly speaking a Method actor but he bridged the gap between the, shall we say, untutored style of the 30s and early 40s and the Method actors of the 50s.  In that sense he was and remains unique; acting has not seen such an important development since then – even the fine actors of the 70s, Jack Nicholson, Robert DeNiro, Gene Hackman, approached their craft in much the same way as Brando and Dean, who themselves took their lead from Clift.

Not only was a ground-breaking actor but he was also a handsome devil and the combination proved irresistible at the box office.  And therein lay the seeds of his demise: he was a cultured, intelligent and sensitive young man who found the excesses and adulation that went with stardom to be burdensome.  He was also a closeted homosexual – or, depending on which biographies you read, bisexual – and had a difficult, complex relationship with his mother.
Even before the car crash he had been exhibiting erratic behaviour; since FROM HERE TO ETERNITY [1954], arguably his finest couple of hours, he had been away from the screen for three years.  He had been living off loans from his management company MCA and rejecting script after script after script.  Eventually he realised he had to go back to work and chose RAINTREE COUNTY; despite what he thought was an ordinary script – he described it as “just good enough” – he was keen to work again with Elizabeth Taylor, one of his closest friends.  They had of course starred together in A PLACE IN THE SUN [1951] and no doubt MGM were banking on a hit of similar proportions.

Clift and Elizabeth Taylor c. A PLACE IN THE SUN
There is enough pre-accident footage of Clift in the film (and it is the only moving-picture colour footage of pre-accident Clift) to suggest that had the car crash not happened the film would have been significantly better.  He doesn’t look as ripped as he did in FROM HERE TO ETERNITY but then again he’s playing a teacher, not a soldier.  His voice is strong and confident and he gives off that alluring light which I suppose can be called star quality.

A still of pre-accident Montgomery Clift...

...and a post-accident Montgomery Clift.  Note how puffy and swollen the right side of his face looks and how rigid the left is.

Sadly the accident, which resulted in his lower jaw being broken off on both sides, a deep laceration on his cheek, a hole in his top lip, a broken nose and teeth being knocked out, destroyed his self-confidence.  After much surgery, including wiring his jaw, but not as is supposed plastic surgery he eventually returned to work – against the advice of his closest friends – and got the film finished.  Afterwards by his own admission he thought he’d never work again. 

His post-accident performance is frankly hard to witness.  The left side of his face was immobilised which meant that his right profile was used almost exclusively.  When you see front on his face looks puffy and kind of slanted.  He somehow looks ten years older and his voice too is croaky; he looks frail and a broken man.  If the film had been shot in sequence his new appearnce might have perversely suited the post-Civil War sequences in which his character really is damaged but films are rarely shot that way. The whole experience of watching someone whose face changes significantly over the course of three hours is bizarre and unsettling and, knowing what we know about the rest of Clift’s life and career, heartbreaking.

Elizabeth Taylor as Susannah Drake

Elizabeth Taylor as regular readers will know is someone Cinema Delirium has come to admire over the last two or three years.  For a mega-star, which she unquestionably was, she made some interesting and unusual films, particularly from the mid-60s onwards.  She played more than her fair share of Southern ladies and did eventually get the accent just right but unfortunately that didn’t happen in time for RAINTREE COUNTY.  Moreover, her character Susannah Drake is a paranoid schizophrenic and without any firm direction from Dmytryk she, by her own admission, really chewed the scenery.  Having said that she’s the most interesting character in marked contrast to the frankly rather wet John Shawnessy (Montgomery Clift) and Nell Gaither (Eva Marie Saint).

Eva Marie Saint as Nell Gaither

Eva Marie Saint is a fine actress whose feature film career is surprisingly short, considering she made her debut in 1954.  It really lasted for just over 15 years although she did continue to work a lot in TV.  However, her CV includes two stone cold classics in Elia (Boo!  Hiss!) Kazan’s ON THE WATERFRONT [1954] and Hitchcock’s NORTH BY NORTHWEST [1959].  She’s also in a good true crime TV movie called FATAL VISION [1984] about the murderer Jeffrey R. MacDonald.  Not much delirious stuff though.

Lee Marvin (R) in his sprint race against Monty

In the supporting cast are Lee Marvin and Rod Taylor.  Lee Marvin was an actor who got typecast as bad guys in his early career but who managed to break out into lead parts as he got older, a bit like Charles Bronson.  Marvin was far more talented than Bronson though and had a wider range.  More than that though he was a remarkable man whose early life is in sharp contrast to modern day actors.  These days actors seem to enter film business either from modelling, television presenting or professional sport.  Marvin was a US Marine during WW2.  As an actor, and no doubt as a man, he had an imposing physique and voice which obviously prevented him getting romantic leads but got him lots of work in tough action pictures.  He even won an Oscar for his performance in a comedy / musical / western – CAT BALLOU [1965].  The list of directors who employed him is unbelievable: Ford, Boetticher, Aldrich, Siegel, Curtiz, Boorman, Hathaway, Brooks (Richard not Mel), Fleischer.  Quite a guy.

Rod Taylor as Garwood B. Jones (L) and Lee Marvin as Flash Perkins (R)

Rod Taylor was an Australian actor who died earlier this year.  He too had a great physicality about him but unlike Marvin he could do the softer romantic stuff too.  He never quite became a major star but he certainly made some fine films.  There’s Hitchcock’s THE BIRDS [1963] of course and GIANT [1956] but also some lesser-known stuff like THE DEADLY TRACKERS [1973] in which he plays against type as a charming but sadistic villain whom Richard Harris is hunting down, and a curious TV movie called CRY OF THE INNOCENTS [1980], an Irish / American co-production about an ex-Green Beret digging into the circumstances surrounding the death of his wife in a place crash.  Neither of those two films is perfect but I’d recommend them over some of his more mainstream fare.  Naturally Quentin Tarantino couldn’t resist getting his grubby mitts all over Taylor and dragged him out of retirement into INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS [2009].  He was unrecognisable however so you have to wonder why Tarantino bothered.

Nigel Patrick as Professor Jerusalem Stiles

British actor Nigel Patrick has a prominent role as Shawnessy’s roguish college professor.  Quite how Patrick got cast in such a massive American production – as an American - is a mystery to me: both before and after RAINTREE COUNTY he worked almost exclusively in British films.  I know him best from a segment in one of my beloved anthology horror films TALES FROM THE CRYPT [1972], where he plays a callous retired colonel type who takes over the running of a home for the blind.  Ideally suited for the role too, having reached the rank of Lieutenant Colonel during WW2.

DeForest Kelley as the Confederate officer

One or two other cast members to mention: first there’s DeForest Kelley, a household name as Dr Bones McCoy in STAR TREK.  Second there’s Michael Dante about whom I wrote in my review of Charles B. Pierce’s WINTERHAWK [1975] (which you can read ).  And finally there’s Agnes Moorhead, here playing Montgomery Clift’s mother but most famous of course for playing Orson Welles’s mother in CITIZEN KANE [1941].

Edward Dmytryk: I'm not sure this is a still of him giving or not giving evidence
Director Edward Dmytryk is someone about whom I can never make up my mind.  On the one hand he directed some terrific films, including FAREWELL, MY LOVELY [1944] and CROSSFIRE [1947], but on the other hand he ratted out his former friends to HUAC during the McCarthy witch-hunt era.  As one of the ‘Hollywood Ten’ he had originally refused to testify and ultimately was jailed for it; however, he had a change of heart while inside and spilled the beans in 1951.  This meant he was free to resume his career while others were not.  He was the only member of the original ten who turned on his colleagues.  Unforgivable in my view and while Dmytryk himself maintained that he had no regrets it has been said that some of his post-HUAC films prominently featured self-loathing characters which spoke to his real feelings.  Naturally enough his erstwhile comrades have less than postive views about him.

Cinematographer Robert Surtees had a long and distinguished career behind the camera particularly during the 50s and 60s when he worked on some very big projects.  He was nominated umpteen times for an Oscar and won three.  He was particularly adept at widescreen photography which is probably why his career highs came when they did.  His son Bruce was also a cinemtographer, noted for dark interiors, and for a long time was the preferred choice of Clint Eastwood, working with him a dozen times.

1 comment:

  1. Very interesting. Saw the movie when I was 14 and loved Lincoln and Elizabeth Taylor ever after. Duncan Newcomer