Conrack (Blu-ray Review)7 Apr, 2014 By: Mike Clark
Available via ScreenArchives.com
Stars Jon Voight, Paul Winfield, Madge Sinclair, Tina Andrews.
Just about everybody in the screen version of Pat Conroy’s The Water Is Wide is some kind of eccentric or eight ball — and none more than the Conroy character himself, played by Jon Voight in performance that might have gotten him an Oscar nomination in a less competitive year than 1974. This really helps its feel-good message steer clear of white-guy-helps-a-bunch-of-black-kids clichés, which is what the project seems to portend if you only take a thumbnail glance at the premise. I was guilty of doing just this for years after having somehow missed the picture upon its original release, so I was pleasantly surprised to discover otherwise upon catching Conrack for the first time a couple years ago on the dreadfully programmed Fox Movie Channel. Now it’s happened again via a Twilight Time Blu-ray that does full justice to its marshy South Carolina vistas.
Culturally fashioned by the Vietnam War and all that changed in society because of it, Conrack (which is how his geographically and culturally isolated students pronounce his name) is a natural to clash with an island school superintendent (Madge Sinclair) who comes to her limiting beliefs naturally from what she’s seen as a black woman in an unfriendly or at least patronizing community that’s a boat ride away from Beaufort. That her students have never heard classical music or experienced Halloween nor can identify Willie Mays is all right with her because this kind of stuff isn’t going to do them any good in a white man’s world, anyway. Yet, this generous movie humanizes her and allows her to voice her case. Conrack even manages to like her a little — or at least enough to pay her a social visit at night to talk over business, which usually means some student who wet a schoolroom chair or condoned roughhousing in and out of class or Conrack drawing a uterus on the blackboard during a sex education unit.
Married screenwriters Irving Ravetch and Harriet Frank Jr. had an on-and-off professional association with Conrack director Martin Ritt for more than 30 years, including the two early Paul Newman movies that put them all on the map. These would be The Long, Hot Summer (1958) and Hud (1963), neither of which have yet received a Blu-ray release (Hud is controlled by Paramount, so the tortoise pacing is par for the course, even if you’d think that James Wong Howe’s cinematography Oscar might goose someone in corporate). Conrack came along considerably later in their careers (though before Norma Rae) — with its rural setting and casting of Paul Winfield as a rather off-center woods dweller making it a piece with Ritt’s Sounder (screenplay by Lonne Elder III), which had been more of a hit than probably anyone expected.
The cinematographer is frequent Ritt collaborator John A. Alonzo, whose career achievement with Chinatown came out the same year. A lot of Conrack is devoted to the entertaining, event-packed classroom scenes, but I like the way Alonzo makes the grand outdoors a major character that looms just outside these glorified bull sessions, free-form discussions about every conceivable topic that are arguably just what kids this culturally sheltered need as a jumpstart. Chinatown was a masterpiece of color noir (and there aren’t many), but I like his work here with sun — something he’d replicate a couple years later with those wonderful afternoon baseball sequences in The Bad News Bears.