Wise Blood (John Huston, 1979)

By Tara Judah

The most memorable movies aren’t always the best, but there’s something about an earnest stinker that can make the heart swell. Featured in the festival’s Universal Pictures: the Laemmle Junior Years strand, Tay Garnett’s Destination Unknown (1933) is this year’s knock-out rediscovery. A stranger to subtlety, Destination Unknown is a moral allegory warning against the social ills of post-depression America in its last years of prohibition. The men are dehydrated and their tensions rising, until a quite literal saviour appears at the eleventh hour. Clunky would be kind, so I’ll call it catastrophic instead; each allegorical reveal plays out with the nuance of a screaming child. The most amusing example of which is when the Jesus character – a mysterious 13th man, stowed aboard, who has somehow turned wine into water– tells the captain and chief that he ‘was a carpenter, once’. And yet, this ham-fisted divine intervention is forgivable in the wake of a wonderfully consistent slow creak that lends the film its stuck-at-sea rhythmic beat. There’s also Alan Hale’s occasionally Scottish, slightly Irish and altogether unfathomable attempt at a Swedish accent to enjoy. It’s hard to see this as a stepping stone to a career that would go on to boast The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946), but Garnett’s stay at Universal was brief, by all accounts.

Another strange but rich (re)discovery is John Huston’s adaptation of Flannery O’Connor’s 1952 novel of the same name, Wise Blood (1979). Showing a microcosm of pain and suffering, systematically instilled exploitation and ideological sin, Wise Blood is an unsettling account of post-war machismo and mental illness wrapped up in small town values and big ideas. When Hazel Motes (Brad Dourif) returns from war, with a pension but no visible purple heart – he has one, but doesn’t want people to know what kind of injury he’s sustained, presumably mental not physical – he is filled with rage and the realisation that God does not exist. Preaching about a proverbial church of Christ without Christ, mocking others and acting out in cold, hard meanness, Motes would be a tall order as aligning protagonist for any audience. The cast of unwieldy characters are all unlikeable, but they’re sincere insofar as they are true depictions of the corrupting nature of oppressive state and ideological patriarchal authority. The story is depressing, sure, but Huston captures its pallid essence with aplomb. The camera is never fascinated by, but looks with casual or perhaps even polite disinterest at America’s down and damned. The true impact of which is the resulting listlessness it instils in the viewer – we do not feel for Motes, at best, we judge him.

Further casting out in search of something, Helmet Kaütner’s Under den Brücken (Under the Bridges, 1944-49) is a charming story that takes the traditional love triangle and turns it into a rewarding rumination over three complex lives adrift. Superior in my mind to Jean Vigo’s L’Atalante (1934), which also screened at Il Cinema Ritrovato this year), the film is a local social realist gem and a document of Berlin, moments before it was bombed. When a woman comes aboard a barge two friends are forced to examine their friendship, lifestyle and desires. Narrative to one side, it’s lighting and cinematography that sear. In extreme close-up, the depth of wetness in spotlighted crying eyes and the texture of dirt-ridden sweat on a beaten brow allow us to feel for the characters we see. My favourite moment, though, is a rapid pan of running legs, fuelled by love and unbridled enthusiasm, up several flights of stairs. The momentum is catching and contrasts effectively with the otherwise lilting ebb and flow of life on the water. Here, God is nowhere to be found. But, in the cosiness of homemade curtains and the acceptance of having to adjust ideals to get along, there is a glimpse of something better. The shallow waters and impending war muster more in the way of hopeful humanism than allegory or eulogy.