Sunday, January 4, 2015

Short Take: The Southerner

This review was originally published on Pol Culture.

The Southerner, a 1945 Hollywood effort by the great French filmmaker Jean Renoir, has a gritty beauty. Its sympathetic though unsentimental portrayal of U. S. tenant farmers has much the same tone as Jean-François Millet's paintings of rustic life in France. Zachary Scott stars as a seasonal farm worker who decides to begin a new life as a sharecropper. The house on the plot he rents is a rundown hovel, and the ground is harsh and untilled. But he, his wife (Betty Field), his grandmother (Beulah Bondi), and his two young children make a dedicated go of it. Their travails are many--a hard winter, one child's illness, sabotage from a resentful neighbor (J. Carrol Naish)--but they maintain their resolve to see things through. There are also happy times, such as the beauty of the blossoming fields, the affectionate hijinks at a wedding reception, and the use of a giant catfish to settle a feud. Many filmmakers would treat this material with a patronizing eye, but not Renoir; his magnanimous sensibility suffuses it all. His cinematic mastery is also on full display. The action is staged to take maximum advantage of the deep-space compositions. The visuals always keep one aware of the farmers relative to their environment. They're sometimes the land's masters, and sometimes its fools. Zachary Scott, best known for playing cads and scoundrels, embodies the quiet nobility of the farmer as completely as can be. The screenplay, attributed to Renoir, is based on Hold Autumn in Your Hand, a 1941 novel by George Sessions Perry. Hugo Butler wrote the preliminary adaptation. William Faulkner and Nunnally Johnson made uncredited contributions. The fine cinematography is by Lucien Andriot.

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