Thursday, January 24, 2008

Clarence Brown

Did anyone else see Intruder in the Dust on TCM earlier this week? I had never seen this movie before, though I had read about it in several books (this was one of those late '40s/early '50s MGM movies that pissed off Louis B. Mayer with his studio's new, unexpected forays into gritty subject matter and style).

I don't think I liked it quite as much as others do, mostly because of the balance of screen time: the structure of William Faulkner's novel dictates that the best character, the proud elderly black man falsely accused of murder (Juano Hernandez) doesn't actually get a whole lot of screen time, since he spends most of the story in jail. The biggest part, and the major character arc, is that of the lawyer, Gavin Stevens, played by David Brian, but Brian, a fine actor, comes off to me as a little wooden. Also, the movie has a problem that's not of its own making, which is that Faulkner's story has been copied so many times since then (To Kill a Mockingbird has virtually the same story) that it's become very familiar.

But the movie deserves its high reputation, especially for the work of Clarence Brown, the MGM veteran who produced and directed this film and got it made over Mayer's objections. Brown also somehow talked his way into shooting the film in Faulkner's home town of Oxford, Mississippi (how exactly do you convince a town to let you portray it in such a creepy way, even if it's technically under a different name?). It's of a piece with some of the other "modern" films MGM was doing in that period, rebelling against all those years of being the studio of artifice and extravagance: there are a bunch of movies from about 1947 to 1953 that have location shooting, lots of natural light, violent plots, controversial topics, minimal use of music.

What makes Brown's film different from most other "issue" movies is its incredible lack of sentimentality or self-congratulation. He doesn't sentimentalize any of the characters, not even the falsely-accused Lucas, who is easy to respect but difficult to like. He doesn't sensationalize the portrayal of racism and it has all the more impact that way, because racism and violence is portrayed as something that is just part of the accepted fabric of society instead of something that only exists in over-the-top cartoon characters. The location shooting and shot setups are beautiful but not in a self-conscious John Ford kind of way, and the picture moves like a jackrabbit: you expect "issue" movies to be slow, long, and talky -- Stanley Kramer movies, that is -- but this movie is 87 minutes and gets many of its best moments with few or no words.

Brown had an odd career and I've sometimes been close to thinking that he was a great director who just didn't happen to work under the right conditions to make a lot of great movies. He was one of Mayer's favorite directors and also one of Greta Garbo's favorites (he directed her in Flesh and the Devil, her first talkie Anna Christie, and several others); he also worked a lot with Joan Crawford and was generally considered one of the best directors for MGM's big female stars. A lot of these movies from his prime are not really my cup of tea, so I can't really evaluate them well, though his movies are always well-acted and well-made. But starting in the mid-'40s he made a bunch of movies that really should have been sentimental treacle and instead were quite beautiful and touching, movies like National Velvet, The Yearling, The White Cliffs of Dover. Maybe even Angels in the Outfield. And his '30s movies include some similar pictures -- movies that are warm and human instead of just pure MGM gloss. I would have to think that nobody could have as much as he did with some of the material he handled, and working with sharper scripts and material, he'd have made some amazing movies. (Not that I think he had any problem with the scripts he handled at MGM, just that, again, MGM style isn't to my personal taste.) He also retired fairly early, so we never got to see if he would try anything like Intruder in the Dust again.

(Update: in the original version of this post I absent-mindedly mixed up the names of two characters and actors. I have corrected the mistake. I really, truly did see the movie, honest.)


Anonymous said...

The lawyer character is actually Gavin Stevens, played more than a little stiffly by David Brian. Chick Mallison (Claude Jarman, Jr.) is the little boy who persuades Stevens to take on the case. Jarman is excellent in the film, as is Juano Hernandez as the accused Lucas Beauchamp. No other movie in Metro's heyday ever looked or sounded like this one, and as you note, it moves like a shot.

Jaime J. Weinman said...

Yikes. Thank you -- I've corrected it. (Mixing up the names of actors is one thing; mixing up the actor and the character is qualifying me for the absent-minded hall of fame.)

Thad said...

I've only read the book, and since, I've been less praising towards both the book and movie "To Kill a Mockingbird".

Anonymous said...

About small towns letting themselves be portrayed in less than sympathetic light: In his audio commentary for 'Hot Fuzz', Edgar Wright talks about how he filmed a lot of the exteriors of Sandford in a small Welsh town where Sam Peckinpah's 'Straw Dogs' was filmed. Wright said that all of the residents really liked the fact that 'Straw Dogs' had been filmed there, and were proud of the fact that peckinpah had chosen their town. So I think that small towns just like the attention, no matter how horrible the film makes them look.