THE SOUTHERNER (1945)D: Jean Renoir; with Zachary Scott, Betty Field, Beulah Bondi, J. Carrol Naish, Charles Kemper.
As the war he left France to escape was coming to an end, Jean Renoir, by then a naturalized U.S. citizen, set his scope on the American South. With screenwriter Hugo Butler (alongside William Faulkner and Nunnally Johnson as uncredited consultants), he adapted troubled Texas author George Sessions Perry's Hold Autumn in Your Heart
, retitled it The Southerner
, and cast Austinite Zachary Scott -- known previously as the consummate villain -- as Sam Tucker, a man on a mission to grow his own crops and earn a little old-fashioned prosperity for his dirt-farming family. The result is perhaps Renoir's last great film, his Hollywood masterpiece, a forgotten classic whose wholesome story of feuding families and Old Testament adversity gestalts unexpectedly well with the grand illusionist's technical genius and subjective realism. Or maybe it should be expected: The imagery here is of the stark, scorched variety, uncompromising amidst an uncompromising landscape. (Although the foreground shot with the determined, denim-clad Betty Field leading mules across the Tuckers' virgin farmland as Scott looks on must be one of Renoir's sexiest.) The sense is one of impending doom, and despite all the action, it's the things that don't happen that drive the narrative. When doom does strike, in the form of a 50-year flood, The Southerner
is charged hard with oppositional forces: man vs. nature, town vs. country, agrarianism vs. industrialism, optimism vs. pessimism, neighbor vs. neighbor. But that's simplifying a deceptively simple film. Renoir had the eyes of an artist, thanks mostly to his father, and those eyes saw in this work performances alternately brilliant and overwrought, sequences subtle and contrived. Ultimately, subtlety and brilliance win out, overcoming an incidental plot and a Capraesque ending. After all, it's the meat of the thing that counts, much like the textured, chunky opossum that serves as the Tuckers' first proper country meal. "Much obliged, lord," Sam prays awkwardly as he digs in. "Looks like the Tuckers are going to make the grade, after all." That's before the flood. After, Sam tells Cousin Tim (Kemper), "All the fields and the trees and the river, I just can't look at 'em no more. I gave 'em everything I had to give, honest, and what'd they give me back? Nothin'. Nothin' but trouble and misery." Maybe so, but they also gave Renoir an Academy Award nomination for Best Director. It would be his first and last.