Saturday, June 7, 2014

God's Little Acre

God's Little Acre (Anthony Mann, 1958) Back to Erskine Caldwell territory although, as opposed to "Tobacco Road," this one never made the transition to the stage before being adapted to film (unless you want to count its pornography trials as theater). 

Anthony Mann's a good choice to direct this, especially at this time, having coming off a series of "adult" psychological westerns with James Stewart, that stretched both the genre and the actor. His approach to the "white trash" pretensions of Caldwell border on the comic, but don't belly-flop into the slapstick just this side of Al Capp's "Lil Abner," as did John Ford's direction of Tobacco Road. And Mann's history with black-and-white cinematography (dp'd here by Ernest Haller) during his noir phase, gives God's Little Acre a shady high-contrast look whether the scene is day or night. 

God's Little Acre is primarily the story of Ty Ty Walden (Robert Ryan, lightening up), who, at the film's opening, is mid-way through his project of digging up every square hectare of land, looking for the fortune in gold supposedly left by an ancestor on the farm. A man of Faith (as far as that goes), Ty has tithed an acre of his land to God...but keeps moving the location of that acre while he digs to avoid any gold from being rendered to the Almighty and out of his own hands.  His craven hypocrisy posing as piousness is as slippery a slope as any of the edges of the pits he and his sons (Jack Lord, Vic Morrow) have dug for themselves.

Nice visual metaphor, this. The Walden farm is a wasteland, like a WWI no-man's land, as opposed to a well-worked straight-tilled farmland teeming with life and growth. Such are the wages of sloth, and the Waldens are putting an awful lot of effort into it.

In his pursuits, Ty's morality changes as much as the landscape—going so far as to kidnap a local albino (played by a young Michael Landon, in an oddly comic performance that brightens the picture somewhat) rumored to have divining powers that might aid in locating the alleged treasure.

But, he's not alone. The town's local factory has shut down, putting the local populace, including son-in-law Will Thompson (Aldo Ray), out of work. Married to Ty's oldest daughter, Thompson has eyes on desperate acts: storming the closed factory and turning on the dormant equipment; and on the beautiful Griselda (Tina Louise) the wife of Ty's son Buck (Lord). All that restless, unsatisfied energy can only come to no good. Nor does it, resulting in empty dreams and broken lives.
Director Mann, who returns to black and white after making some gorgeous color westerns with James Stewart, shows that he's still a master of shadows and the dark, filling the frame with corners of blackness whether on the farm or on a deserted work-floor, and one appreciates his command of landscape that ripples with heat, even in the darkest of times. The film benefits from an early score by Elmer Bernstein, but it's the notoriety of the book that got the film made, not the superiority of the material it contained.

Currently, God's Little Acre (in the black and white version) is in Public Domain. The colorized version...I don't think I'd bother with.

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