Otto Preminger’s drama was the first of a trio of heavyweight films in 1967 – the others being In the Heat of the Night and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner – that took African American issues seriously. In post-war Georgia land-grabbing by ambitious Henry Warren (Michael Caine) pits him against World War Two vet Rod (John Philip Law) and African American farmer Reeve (Robert Hooks) who team up. Throw in a quintet of feisty women – Henry’s wife Julie Ann (Jane Fonda), Rod’s wife Lou (Faye Dunaway), schoolteacher Vivian (Diahann Carroll) – Reeve’s love interest – Henry’s lover Sukie (Donnie Banton) and Rod’s mother (Beah Richards) – and emotional confrontation comes thick and fast.
Preminger had spent most of the decade making films about big subjects – Exodus (1960), the politics behind the formation of Israel; Advise and Consent (1962), just politics; The Cardinal (1963), politics within the Roman Catholic Church; and In Harm’s Way (1965), Army politics and bluster around Pearl Harbor
Preminger is both economic and elegant. From opening dialogue to climactic court scene, the picture races along, and continuous use of tracking shots ensures the movie never gets bogged down. While there is no lynching, racist abuse, whether direct or indirect (through patronizing attitude) is never far from the surface. Corrupt Judge Purcell (Burgess Meredith) is by far the most vicious, his unrestrained language making you wince. But even those with more measured approaches have to play the game, Reeve gives a lift to Rod but has to let him off before they reach town in case anyone spots this, Rod forbidden, for example, to buy dynamite.
But the racists do not get it all their own way. Julie Ann stands up to the judge and her position in the community is so strong that others boycott the judge’s daughter’s wedding leading to the judge receiving a tongue-lashing from his wife. Weak Sheriff Coombs (George Kennedy) coming to arrest Rod is bamboozled by his female relatives while Vivian charms her way past the judge.
The women are uniformly strong. Julia Ann goes from seductive wife to distraught mother, but in between capable of defrauding Rod’s mother, her childhood nanny, out of her inheritance. Lou resents her husband’s return after in his absence taking on a full-time job while running the farm and now resisting the idea of selling up to Henry. Rod’s mother, beholden to white men all her life, now turns against them. The judge’s daughter (Donnie Banton) makes no bones about the fact that she is marrying her “dull” fiancé for his money. This is no spoiler because you will have guessed some similar outcome but at the end it is Vivian who takes the initiative in her relationship with Rod and marches into his house with her baggage, declaring she has come to stay.
And although the ruthless Henry is the bad guy, he, too, is afforded insight, soothing himself by playing a musical instrument, a man with talent who had “distracted” himself by pursuit of money. And there is another touching moment when he takes in a runaway child. Acting-wise, Michael Caine (Gambit, 1966) is a revelation. Gone is the trademark drawl and the laid- back physical characteristics. Here he talks snappily – and no quibbles with his Southern accent either – and strides quickly. That we can believe he is brutal, gentle, remorseful and ruthless is testament to his performance.
Similarly, this is a massive step forward in Jane Fonda’s (Cat Ballou, 1965) career, away from Hollywood comedies and sexed-up French dramas, and her internal conflict springs from being forced to choose between husband and son, between her innate sexiness that oozes out in every intimate scene and maternal longing to comfort her disturbed child. Her usual shrill delivery is tempered somewhat by the deeper emotions she is forced to bear. While her attempt to defraud Rod’s mother comes from a desire to keep her husband, her eyes tell you she knows that is no excuse.
What’s perhaps most surprising of all is the tenderness. There are wonderful, gentle love scenes between Caine and Fonda and Law and Dunaway.
Children, too, also unusually, play a central role. Henry’s callousness is no better demonstrated than in his earlier treatment of his son. Reeve’s eldest son also resents his father’s return and, viewing Henry as a more suitable adult, betrays his father. The Judge is obliged to drop one of the worst aspects of his racism in order to appease his daughter.
The acting throughout is uniformly good. Dunaway’s debut won her a six-picture contract with Preminger. Singer Diahann Carroll’s role as a confident young woman led to a television series. Robert Hooks would also enjoy small-screen fame. The surprisingly effective John Philip Law would partner Fonda in sci-fi Barbarella (1968) and link up with Preminger again in the ill-fated Skidoo (1969). Horton Foote (To Kill a Mockingbird, 1962) and Thomas C. Ryan (The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter, 1968) wrote the screenplay based on the bestseller by K.B. Gilden.
Unfairly overlooked by Oscar votes, who preferred the other Poitier films, Hurry Sundown, despite the rawness of the language and the innate brutality meted out to African-Americans, has been vastly under-rated. It is worth another look because at its core is not just racism but big business which scarcely cares about the color of those it exploits. It is as much about the power shift in relationships and ambition.