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Sunday, February 19, 2017

Sidney Poitier Directs: Buck and the Preacher (1972)

The great Sir Sidney Poitier is celebrating his 90th birthday tomorrow, Feb 20, and in honor of his unique, distinguished career, this weekend a number of movie bloggers are participating in the '90 Years of Sidney Poitier' blogathon, hosted by Virginie of The Wonderful World of Cinema. Check out all the fabulous posts here.  I'm contributing a review of his first directorial effort, Buck and the Preacher, in which he also starred and produced along with his good friend Harry Belafonte.

In 1972 Poitier was an established star with his most iconic films behind him.  For this first directorial effort, Poitier worked in the film genre which enthralled him the most growing up -- the Western.  In fact, his earliest dreams of Hollywood involved him becoming a cowboy.  This immigrant from the Bahamas, who epitomized the American dream when he, in fact, rose from abject poverty, without a formal education, to the pinnacle of fame, chose the most American cinematic form to tell a story that illuminates a little known piece of African-American history.  Buck and the Preacher entertains and educates, and is a must-watch for fans of Poitier, Belafonte, or Western movies. 

Poitier wasn't originally supposed to direct the film.  His long-time friend actor/producer Harry Belafonte reached out to him with a movie he wanted to make based on story by Drake Walker about African-Americans in the West.  Belafonte and Poitier would co-star and co-produce the film, and engaged Ernest Kinoy to finish the script.  The director they hired was Joseph Sargent, whose credits at that point were mostly television serials.  Early on, though, Sargent was fired when it was apparent to the producers that their epic vision of black heroes wasn't being adequately captured.  Long interested in taking up directing, Poitier did not hesitate to slide into the director's chair at Belafonte's urging, after some difficult negotiations with the Columbia studio execs. 

The narrative is a fictional account of real events -- former Southern slave families migrating west (primarily to Kansas) during the Reconstruction era, only to find themselves embattled by white bounty hunters paid to 'convince' these 'exodusters' to return to the South as sharecroppers to struggling white landowners.  The character of Buck (Poitier) is the wagon-master making a living helping the emigres, and goes on the lam after a shoot-out with a particularly nasty gang of mercenaries led by Deshay, played by Cameron Mitchell.  The gang is after Buck when he happens upon the itinerant con man-cum-preacher (Belafonte).  At first wary of each other, they forge a partnership when the Buck finds his strength is a match for his latest foes only when paired with the wiliness of the Preacher.  The two team up to lead a group of Louisiana emigres through dangerous Indian country while avoiding the mercenary gang.  In an underwritten character, Buck's wife, Ruth (Ruby Dee) only wants Buck to give up his dangerous profession so they can make a life for themselves.
Poitier as 'Buck' coming across a scene of carnage and destruction
In the early 1970s, traditional Westerns were in a decline, and the revisionist Westerns, in response to the war in Vietnam and changing cultural mores, arguably had peaked as well (think The Wild Bunch, Little Big Man, and many more).  But films marketed to black audiences ("Blaxploitation'), and films with significant African-American characters were gaining traction with the broader market. Both Belafonte and Poitier were uniquely positioned, as civil rights champions and powerful stars in Hollywood, to capitalize on this trend and make a film that they felt would reclaim some of the history of African descendants in a new land.  

In plot outline and thematically, Buck and the Preacher is a very traditional Western.  You have your heroes, or anti-heroes (cowboys or lawmen in other films), defending the helpless settlers against the powerful (ranchers, railroaders, etc.), who wish to maintain an older order, and must combat external threats (Indians) as well.  The good guys succeed due to their smarts, their willingness to fight and kill, their understanding of their enemy, and of Indians.  They are at odds with female characters over the choices they make.  Shades of Shane, Rio Grande, etc.  At the same time, here the Indians were portrayed as equals to the blacks, with legitimate claims to their land on which passage had to be negotiated.  The primary discontinuity here is that the besieged and their heroes are black, underscoring the fact that blacks in the West in the 19th century were not all servants or marginal to the action of settling the West.  In parallel, the white characters, with a minor exception, were brutal villains who deserve to be cut down at the hands of the former slaves.  These paradoxes didn't escape the notice of critic Vincent Canby of the New York Times, who wrote at the time "the film is a loose, amiable, post-Civil War Western with a firm if not especially severe Black Conscience."
Our heroes (foreground) negotiate with leaders of the Native population (Enrique Lucero and Julie Robinson)
While Mr. Canby goes on to lightly praise the film, and while I don't totally disagree with his assessment, my experience of the film was that it was more than 'loose and amiable.'  As director/storyteller, Poitier kept a kinetic pace, with fast editing, especially in the early scenes where the first shootout occurs in the first 10 minutes.  Interesting high and low camera angles and stunning scenic visuals (the film was shot in Durango, Mexico) keep your attention.  There are some outstanding scenes, including a showdown in a whorehouse where our heroes cunningly ambush their enemies playing cards and visiting upstairs whores.  And great tension is built and released multiple times in this and other confrontations along the journey.  The soundtrack by jazz musician Benny Carter adds a bluesy-style jangle that punctuates key moments. (The main theme is on YouTube here).  There also is quite a bit of humor, especially with Belafonte's portrayal of the Preacher (of the 'High and Low Order of the Holiness Persuasion Church').  Contrasted with solemn, stoic Buck, Belafonte's Preacher is all slithery energy -- when not capturing him jumping around, the camera lingers on his expressive face, where all sorts of contortions play out.  Yet he has guts, as when he doesn't hesitate to punch Buck in the face for stealing his horse.
Belafonte as the 'Preacher'
As Poitier served as the film's co-producer, director, and star, we learn much about Poitier's sensibilities, his desire to do honor to his kinfolk of African origin while advancing the art of cinema. In my opinion, he succeeded. In addition, black cultural critics, including author and critic Nelson George of the Village Voice, generally praised the film. Unfortunately, while doing modestly at the box office, the film did not turn a profit, and Columbia did not renew Poitier's production contract.  Perhaps more unfortunately, Hollywood did not pick up the main threads in the story to produce more films exploring the life of African-Americans in the West.  While Poitier apparently was not completely satisfied with the final film, and found his own performance 'dull', he thoroughly enjoyed his experience as a director.  He went on to further hone his directorial skills, with a total of nine film credits to his name.

A final note: Harry Belafonte is also celebrating his 90th birthday soon -- on March 1st.  Happiest of days to both esteemed entertainers!  Enjoy the first encounter these two have in the film, courtesy of TCM, here.

George, Nelson, Blackface: Reflections on African Americans in the Movies; Cooper Square Press, 2002.
Goudsouzian, Aram, Sidney Poitier:  Man , Actor, Icon; University of North Carolina Press, 2004.
Slotkin, Richard, Gunfighter Nation; University of Oklahoma Press, 1998. article on Buck and the Preacher

Thursday, February 9, 2017

Glenn Close is Norma Desmond again


Sunset Boulevard, Twisting boulevard
Secret of the rich, A little scary
Sunset Boulevard, Tempting boulevard
Waiting there to swallow the unwary

Don Black & Christopher Hampton, lyricists

Old Hollywood has made a return trip to NYC, with 47th and Broadway transforming into LA's Sunset Boulevard for a few weeks, as Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber's musical is revived for a limited run.  Starring in the role that brought her a Tony 20 years ago, is Glenn Close.  I was thrilled to be able to catch a preview last weekend.

In the mid-1990s Lloyd Webber embarked upon an ambitious project--to give the classic story Sunset Boulevard the operatic treatment. As a musical, it follows very closely the plot and script of Billy Wilder's 1950 film noir masterpiece starring Gloria Swanson, William Holden, and Erich von Stroheim.  (I remember seeing a touring version of the musical, then, in Cincinnati, before I really knew much about the film and certainly before I became a classic film enthusiast.) The English National Opera revived it last year with a semi-staged production directed by Lonny Price, and Close was engaged to reprise her success, along with a supporting cast of stellar singing actors.  The same production and cast opened today on Broadway.  With the old Hollywood image projections, the bright colors and sounds, and star power, sitting there in the audience I felt a connection to my recent experiences of the Turner Classic Movie Film Festival.  
Glenn Close as Norma Desmond (from
The musical would not make the impression it does without the orchestra.  This production featured unusually large orchestra by Broadway standards --40 pieces-- which was situated on stage, doubling as the Paramount orchestra during the scene at the famous studio.  At times I was worried the actors would knock over some of the musicians, they got so close, running back and forth across the expanse of the stage.  Yet no such disaster happened, the players never broke character, and they made a wonderful sound throughout.  The multi-level set was minimalist, but made ample use of image projection on a partially opaque screen, dramatic contrast lighting, movable furniture, and the occasional luxury automobile.  Costumes appropriately evoked the late 1940s with Ms. Close's costumes particularly flowing and glittery and spectacular.  
Michael Xavier as Joe Gillis, Siobhan Dillon as Betty, and
Fred Johanson as Max
Ms. Close delivered a nuacned portrayal despite her ability to dominate the stage.  Interviewed for Playbill magazine, she discussed how she feels differently about the character now, after 20 more years of life experience, and had reached back once again to the film for inspiration.  It seemed to me she projected considerable world weariness, perhaps more than Gloria Swanson did in the film, which isn't a criticism of either portrayal.  As mentioned, her costumes were appropriately over the top; in the Paramount scene, her strikingly black and white ensemble was in direct contrast to the earth tones of the rehearsing movie actors, making it all the more obvious how she really no longer belonged in 'modern' Hollywood.

The rest of the cast was first rate.  Michael Xavier had youthful swagger as Joe Gillis, and Siobhan Dillon was perky and believable as Betty Schaefer.   I especially enjoyed Fred Johanson as Max, who despite looking like a cross between Erich von Stroheim and Nosferatu (!), had an incredibly powerful and resonant bass voice.  All the best lines from the film were there, and, judging by the audience response, were eagerly anticipated, and greatly appreciated.  A standing ovation greeted the cast at the end.  If that was any indication, this Broadway run should be big.

A few snapshots of the set: