Cinema Scope

Flukes & Flakes

In retrospect, I’m sure that an important part of what excited me about John Updike’s second novel, Rabbit, Run, when I read it in high school circa 1960, was the fact that it was recounted in the present tense, thus giving it some of the immediacy of a movie—rather like the thrill of the opening chapter of William Faulkner’s Light in August, which I first encountered around the same time. As Updike himself later noted, the movieness of his present tense was a conscious strategy—he even thought of subtitling the novel A Movie—although ironically, it’s precisely this sense of now and its location in the Eisenhower era that is most conspicuously absent from Jack Smight’s flatfooted 1970 movie adaptation (available on DVD from Warner Brothers’ Archive Collection), which doggedly tries to be “faithful” in its own misguided fashion, even to the point of updating the action from 1959 to the present, but only comes across as conventionally shopworn as a consequence. What’s clearly lost isn’t only Updike’s sense of history, pop-culture references and all, but the vibrant weight of the eponymous hero’s existential decision-making. James Caan may have been perfect casting as Rabbit Angstrom, but the movie offers him only a standardized void to act in.

I was spurred into rewatching Clarence Brown and Ben Maddow’s 1949 adaptation of Faulkner’s (available on another Warners Archive Collection DVD, this one remastered) by Mark Rappaport’s latest video , which includes a clip from featuring the video’s subject, Will Geer. In this case, I’m concerned less with the film’s fidelity to the novel (not one of my favourite Faulkners, though it’s probably one of his better late works) than with its fidelity to the Deep South, which is singular, and with its politics, which are unusually advanced for 1949 (and even, in some respects, for (1950), another highly uncharacteristic MGM release—not only because of the Southern small-town settings and the memorable central roles played by the magnificent Juano Hernandez in each film, but also because the virtues and wisdom of both of these masterpieces are so complementary. , for all its greatness, is not notable for any of its Southern particulars or its actorly pirouettes the way that is, whereas is generally less notable for its domestic details (apart from the cabin of Hernandez’s character Lucas Beauchamp) and family interactions than ; is more metaphysical, more social, but both movies explore both the darker and the brighter sides of small-town communities. In , the way a crowd turns up in carloads, busloads, and wagonloads in a town square with the loud strains of “Runnin’ Wild” and “Tiger Rag” piped in on speakers to watch a lynching anticipates the dark, carnivalesque atmosphere of Billy Wilder’s (1951), and it’s even possible that Wilder was influenced by it. But Wilder’s cynicism is miles away from the Faulknerian postulate that only a teenage boy (Claude Jarman Jr.’s Chick Mallison) and an old maid (Elizabeth Patterson’s Miss Habersham, whose name might have been suggested by ’ Miss Havisham) can be unblinkered enough to trust in the innocence of a black man. And, to consolidate this movie’s absence of cynicism, in the film’s final scene we hear the same festive music on the speakers to greet an ordinary Saturday afternoon shopping crowd after the lynching is averted.

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