Hurry Sundown (DVD Review)16 May, 2011 By: Mike Clark
Stars Robert Reed, Robert Hooks, Michael Caine, John Phillip Law, Jim Backus, Jane Fonda, George Kennedy, Faye Dunaway, Diahann Carroll, Burgess Meredith.
Along with Billy Wilder’s revisionist classic Kiss Me, Stupid and John Wayne’s artistically unsalvageable The Green Berets, this nearly 2½-hour Otto Preminger Southern opus may have been the most critically panned high-profile Hollywood movie of the entire 1960s. True, Preminger’s Skidoo (coming to DVD July 19 from Olive Films) would follow just a year later to similar disbelief. But that one-of-a-kind melter of cerebellums everywhere elicited less of an angered response than that dumbstruck look the audience gets in The Producers the first time they see Springtime for Hitler. Besides, life would be less enriched if Skidoo didn’t exist — which I’m not positive you can say about Hurry Sundown.
Not positive. Well, this last tepid wavering on my part regarding Sundown is due to a) its intriguing cast, albeit a an ill-used one; and b) the famed all-timer scene, early in the film, where Jane Fonda sticks a saxophone between husband Michael Caine’s legs and sucks on the mouthpiece — whereupon Caine comments that “some things should be left to experts.” I used to get in a lot of arguments in film school with non-disciples about whether Preminger was or wasn’t a good director. But even the senior grad assistant (no Otto fan he) conceded, “No matter what else you can say, no one will ever be able to take that sax scene away from him.”
My strong appreciation of Preminger encompasses affection for his multi-star epics, including Advise and Consent in particular (I’ve tried to get through the book six times over almost 50 years and have always failed) plus substantial parts of The Cardinal and In Harm’s Way (both films easier to defend than Exodus). Preminger’s cool objective style, though, never seemed the right one to refine a trashy racial potboiler about black-white friendship — and a lot of animosity toward it by local small-town cretins — amid a postwar housing boom (or so draft-dodging Caine and his backers hope) in 1946 Georgia. Sundown was a trouble-plagued large production whose ordeals echoed what happens in the movie. It was shot on location in the hot-summer South with an integrated crew, and to recall just one incident indicative of others, someone put a burning cross on the set. Possibly a film critic.
To pull off his financial deal, Caine needs to buy out black sharecropper Robert Hooks and the latter’s fellow veteran/neighbor (John Philip Law, who’d later be Fonda’s co-star in Barbarella). The families of both landholders were ceded the property by Fonda’s post-Civil War ancestors to keep the Yankees from getting it, though Fonda (somewhat reluctantly) is now trying to renege amid a townie atmosphere in which deeds have a way of disappearing from the shifty courthouse. Law is married to a baby machine played by Faye Dunaway, then a burgeoning star who clashed with and disliked Preminger so much on the set that she spent a lot of money to spring herself from a contract with the director following production. Playing their surly oldest son (who inexplicably loves charlatan Caine) is a blond kid actor who, if his hair were whatever color Donald Trump’s is, would suggest what Trump might have looked like as he approached adolescence. Hmmm: one wonders what that version of the d.t.’s could have made of this particular land development.
Stuck in all this is Diahann Carroll as an elementary school teacher who’s always dressed and made up to the hilt (her character learned a little something about New York ways before returning home). She’s included in what is probably the movie’s worst scene: a gratuitous spiritual-like rendering of a title tune spun off Hugo Montenegro’s prodigiously irritating score — just before she and the rest of the black community try to attempt to buy off racist sheriff George Kennedy by plying him with fried chicken as they feign obsequiousness. So, yes, the last gesture latter is a joke — and the perpetrating blacks are in on it — but it didn’t play very well in 1967 or now.
Still, a lush Olive print and the film’s fine production design make this a reasonably diverting sit-through, especially whenever Burgess Meredith is on the screen as the burg’s virulently racist judge. During these times, the film definitely becomes Cracker Sundown; Meredith’s character even has an about-to-be-married Southern belle daughter named “Sukie” — who, betrothed or not, appears to be going somewhat south herself with Caine in his convertible (sans saxophone). And whenever Meredith is in court, his elderly assistant (the inimitably prune-faced Doro Merande) brings him an innertube on which to sit. I’ve never been certain over five decades whether this means the judge is supposed to have hemorrhoids, but I hope so because it’s a nice touch.
Also making the package interesting — for wholly non-artistic reasons — is the historical timing of this onetime February release. By early the next fall, Dunaway would become a superstar by virtue of Bonnie and Clyde — and in November, Kennedy would give what became an Oscar-winning supporting performance in Cool Hand Luke. As for Fonda (who, like Dunaway, looks fabulous here), she would have to wait a tad longer for respect because of Barbarella, which still loomed before she was able to make good (or actually, make great) on a major casting break. Beyond all its other virtues, I’m not certain that 1969’s They Shoot Horses Don’t They? has ever gotten all of the specific credit it deserves for possibly saving Fonda’s screen career — or at least launching the part of it that endures.