Friday, February 21, 2014

Neglected Gem #51: Old Man (1997)

In a career spanning more than half a century, the unassuming workaholic southern writer Horton Foote turned out probably a hundred scripts for the stage, TV, and the movies. And of the many I’ve seen, the only one I’ve ever liked is his adaptation of William Faulkner’s story “Old Man,” which he did for the anthology series Playhouse 90 in 1958 and then refurbished (and improved upon) for a Hallmark Hall of Fame telecast in 1997. The old man in the story, which Faulkner interlaced with the tragic romantic main plot of his great 1931 novel Wild Palms, is the Mississippi River; the setting is the legendary flood of 1927. The two nameless main characters are a convict on rescue detail and a pregnant woman, abandoned by her husband, whom he’s sent, in a skiff with another prisoner, to round up from the tree she’s been clinging to since the water washed her home away. The convict’s companion, who lied about his skill with a boat because he had his eye on escaping under cover of the flood, doesn’t get very far; he and the protagonist are separated, and he ends up back in camp, with years added to his sentence for his effort. The protagonist, a laconic and unimaginative soul whose refusal to bend the rules of his assignment becomes a badge of honor, does indeed save the woman, sees her through her labor, keeps them both alive, and takes her back home, as he promised he would – though the process takes weeks and requires a detour through the Louisiana bayou.

The 1958 version of this material, which John Frankenheimer directed, was energetically overacted by Geraldine Page and a number of actors in small roles; its glory was Sterling Hayden’s performance as the convict. The remake was directed by a newcomer named John Kent Harrison, and it’s a beautiful, Renoiresque piece of work. Harrison’s style is lyrical and understated, and his sense of time and place run deep. He’s a succinct, eloquent filmmaker: the glimpses he supplies of the victims of the flood in the opening sequence and later at the Red Cross camp when the convict and the woman make it to shore are as piercing as great social photographs. And Harrisons and the photographer, Kees Von Oostrum, do miraculous things with a limited palette – faded browns and greens and the mostly silvery gray hues of a mud-soaked, ruined landscape.

Arliss Howard in Old Man
The story has an underlying Faulknerian irony. The doggedness of the characters pulls them through, and it’s clearly what he loves about them (and what he makes us love in them, too); it gives them their humanity. But it infuriates others who come in contact with them, because it flies in the face of their world vision. The convict (Arliss Howard) disappoints his companion when he refuses to escape with him, and he and the woman (Jeanne Tripplehorn), picked up at one point by a New Orleans-bound boat, are treated to a tirade by an exasperated doctor who says he knows all about their kind: low-class rednecks (though he doesn’t use those words) who think they can survive floods and drop babies without asking anyone’s help. And when the two show up at the prison camp, the warden (Leo Burmester), who’s assumed the man died in the flood and who has built, for his own benefit, a heroic legend around the incident, is caught short by the reality of the man’s stoic survival. (Foote preserves Faulkner’s distinctly southern black-comic tone in this memorable homecoming.) Old Man celebrates the unassailable quirkiness of these characters, the odd angles that refuse to be smoothed out into good, civilized geometry.

Tripplehorn and Howard are both superb. Howard has been so self-effacingly good in so many kinds of roles through the years that he generally slips through the cracks, but it’s hard to believe that anyone who saw him as the convict, his bright, peeled eyes crossed with wonderment as he cradles the woman’s newborn, has forgotten him. There aren’t many lines for these two actors to speak, and they don’t need them; they’re working at the capacity of magnificent silent-movie actors. Old Man showed up on TV, not at the movies, but it seems to me that it provides everything you could reasonably want from a movie experience.

– Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting StyleNo Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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