Saturday, December 29, 2018

The Inescapable Domain of Babies

Life would be easier if pregnancies always went according to plan, especially when there's a rigid morality at play regarding that sort of thing. 1960's Home from the Hill is about a small southern town where everyone's biggest problem in life seems to involve a man, usually town patriarch Wade Hunnicutt, getting a woman pregnant and then not claiming the child. A unusual drama film for director Vincente Minnelli, the film improves a lot at the halfway point. The logic of its plot is noticeably weak on several points but a great cast and a general epic feeling conjured by Minnelli compensate.

The film opens with a guy trying to kill Wade (Robert Mitchum) for sleeping with his wife. Wade is mad for being shot at but for the most part takes it with Robert Mitchum's trademark equanimity, seemingly content in his public identity as a rake.

And why should he be worried? He's not the mayor but the landlord, seemingly, of the whole little Texas town. Tenants pay him rent and he owns mortgages on the factories. He lives in a big house where his wife, Hannah, hasn't been on friendly terms with him in years, fixing him with an invariable angry glare whenever he walks in the room.

Played by the versatile Eleanor Parker, she looks pretty young for Mitchum but in fact he was only five years older than her. I was even more surprised to learn she was seventeen years older than George Hamilton, who plays her son. In the south, in the 50s, that's downright plausible.

Hamilton plays Theron Hunnicutt, a late blooming mamma's boy who starts the movie off finally coming out from under his mother's wing to beg Wade to teach him the manly art of hunting. To assist him, Wade assigns his best lackey, the cool and independent Rafe (George Peppard).

If this movie succeeds in anything it's in making Rafe come off as a great guy. His improbably good character and tragic past are brought down to Earth by an unassuming performance by Peppard. There's a scene I loved where Rafe asks a girl out at the behest of Theron, who's too timid to do it himself.

Libby (Luana Patten) is scrubbing vigorously on a windshield with a wet sponge under a blooming tree when Rafe approaches from behind, sweaty from work, tipping his ragged hat. It's all perfectly innocent, folks. Of all the tragedy in the film, the idea that Libby's going to go out with dweeby Theron instead of Rafe may be the most poignant.

But her father (Everett Sloane, who's always Mr. Bernstein from Citizen Kane for me when I see him) actually won't let her date Theron because of Wade's reputation. When Hannah finally lets the oblivious Theron in on what everyone else seems to know, he's outraged and refuses to live in the big house any longer, going to work in a factory to earn his own way but it's a factory which, inevitably, Wade owns a stake in.

It's a story of old class privilege colliding with the practical struggles of life and temptations of youth with a heavy dose of melodramatic karma thrown in. Theron never seems quite conscious of the fact that he ends up doing something very similar to what Wade's notorious for, mostly because the plot goes through an improbable contortion to get there, forcing characters not to say things to each other they realistically would've said. But for all that, the sordid spectacle of the film is fun, nicely counterbalanced by Mitchum and Peppard giving such natural, understated performances. Parker goes for the quivering voiced southern matriarch a bit too broadly (see her in Woman in White or Caged, she can be great) and Hamilton, while excelling as a childish wimp, doesn't quite make the transition to manliness the movie seems to think he does. But mainly this is a good movie.

The title comes from a beautiful poem by Robert Louis Stevenson that doesn't really fit the story:


Under the wide and starry sky,
Dig the grave and let me lie.
Glad did I live and gladly die,
And I laid me down with a will.

This be the verse you grave for me:
Here he lies where he longed to be;
Home is the sailor, home from sea,
And the hunter home from the hill.

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