The Unfinished Task / I’ll Give My Life (1960) ***

Complete your Angie Dickinson collection with his long-lost number. Almost unrecognizable as a brunette, she carries much of the emotional weight of this tale about an outsider rejecting a chosen career. Hollywood pictures about creative outsiders such as artists and writers relied on charismatic actors – Kirk Douglas in Lust for Life (1956), Charlton Heston in The Agony and the Ecstasy (1965) – to bring the project to life. Similarly, you might think, in movies about another type of outsider, of the religious variety, having the likes of Gregory Peck (The Keys of the Kingdom, 1944) or Bing Crosby in Going My Way (1944) goes a long way to giving such ventures audience-appeal.

Here, Jim (John Bryant), the son of a successful construction tycoon, having completed a degree goes against the wishes of father John (Ray Collins) by becoming a minister instead. In due course he is sent overseas to a mission in New Guinea, and like Father Stu (2022) contracts a deadly disease. Jim is far from charismatic, just a plodding ordinary guy who has found “something more important than building skyscrapers.”

The story is instead told through the eyes of John, resentful of his son’s decision, and his girlfriend/fiancée/wife Alice (Angie Dickinson) who, expecting marriage to a wealthy engineer, instead has to set aside her own ambitions and go along with her husband’s wishes, this being post-WWII America, and independence hardly a prerequisite in a wife, never mind a woman.

This poster does not do the film justice. It’s nothing like as “heavenly” as that. Howco was an exhibition company that entered distribution in order to provide enough product for its cinemas.

But if this is a story of a conversion – as was the case in Father Stu – it’s about the conversion of the father and Alice and the bulk of the story hinges upon their reactions to the path taken by Jim rather than him taking center stage. So it’s cleverly done, and whether this is due to budgetary pressure, or creative decision, it proves the right choice. John is the kind of self-made man who would dominate any stage, forever making plans, spinning the world as he would like it to be. In Alice’s eyes we see nothing but her weighing up Jim’s choices, sometimes accompanied by shock, occasionally elation, but mostly resignation and infrequent resentment as she, too, is parted from family to follow her husband into an unknown in which she had considerably less faith.

Unlike Father Stu, conversion does not come easily. Jim is long dead, two-thirds of the way through the picture as it happens, before John comes to realize that his son’s demise should not be in vain and that he left behind “an unfinished task” for his father to complete, namely raising awareness of the power of missionaries to improve the lot of the miserable and poor in foreign parts. Bear in mind the era in which this was made, so there are some attitudes that will make you wince, but generally it is well done, not weighted down with platitudes and, in concentrating on the doubter, brings alive a difficult subject.

And although this was before questions were asked about the sexual corruption of priests and ministers, men who followed religion were still not as easily accommodated in the general community, seen as overly pious and, to the businessman, existing in a vacuum. The idea that the Church, of various kinds, had not done enough to ease global suffering, is continually raised and nobody here is giving themselves a pat on the back.

Alice is actually given more screen time than Jim, his father using her as a sounding board, and, while Jim is off in New Guinea, enjoying herself with the firm’s resident beau, Bob (Jon Sheppod), and finally taking on motherhood and coping with the premature death of her husband and still fighting to open the father’s eyes to the good being done.

Angie Dickinson (Jessica, 1962) gives a very good account of herself, especially as the narrative restricts her to the kind of wifely 1950s role rather than the frisky sexuality she exhibited in the 1960s. Her acting skill saved her from being lumbered with portentous dialogue since she could portray her feelings more easily with her eyes.

Ray Collins (famed for a running role in the Perry Mason series) is excellent as the father confused by his son’s decision, fighting him every inch of the way. John Bryant (The Bat, 1959), it has to be said, does not light up the screen, lacking the magnetism of a Peck or a Crosby but in some regard this kind of straight playing suits the film, since the character is not meant to be out of the ordinary.

William F. Claxton (Desire in the Dust, 1960) directed from a script by Herbert Moulton, better known as a producer of shorts. Although this film was released in 1960, it appears to have been made before that, some suggest as early as 1955. Given it was funded by the Lutheran Church, the script does not make heavy weather of the religious elements and John’s resistance to his son’s vocation reflected that of any father to a son embarking on as shaky a career as painting or writing.

You can catch this on YouTube, though it’s not a great print. And, yes, that is Angie Dickinson sitting demurely at a desk.

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