Director: Vincente Minnelli
By Roderick Heath
Vincente Minnelli’s highly stylised dramas, like Douglas Sirk’s and Nicholas Ray’s, were rich and strange by-products of a ’50s Hollywood which, as the studio system went into decline and television was a constant foe, began to blend its traditional gloss with attempts to stretch the limits of its permissible dramatic repertoire. Minnelli’s dramas were admired in their time—Home from the Hill was entered in the Cannes Film Festival—but they resembled neither the earnest minimalism of the era’s often TV-influenced, black-and-white dramas, nor the emerging New Wave style. They soon fell by the critical wayside as a result, only to be revived later as a new appreciation of their specific brand of textured artifice evolved. Minnelli made his name as a director of lovingly colourful musicals, but began to change focus with 1949’s Madame Bovary. His oeuvre is violently uneven, and some of his films simply don’t work, particularly later fare like the classy yet oh so inert Gigi (1958) and the candied The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1962). But he also turned out a string of impressive films defined by his own anti-realist, expressive palate, transforming Van Gogh’s life into one of his own fervent paintings for Lust For Life (1955), and his reconstruction of James Jones’ gritty bestseller Some Came Running (1958) as a delirious hunk of Technicolor-hued cues and choreography. Minnelli, who had captured with iconic perfection a sentimentalised version of American Midwestern life in Meet Me in St. Louis (1944), returned in Some Came Running and Home from the Hill to portraits of that world with as much beauty of design, rendering melodrama as melody + drama, but with far darker reflections on its neurotic, oppressive qualities, the living room brutalities, facile facades, and the bleak lot of the outsider in places where everyone presumes to know your business and have a say in it.
Home from the Hill, an adaptation of a novel by William Humphrey, isn’t as flagrantly infused with Minnelli’s stylisation as Some Came Running or his next film, Two Weeks in Another Town (1962), but for me it stands up with both amongst Minnelli’s best work. Moreover, what’s especially interesting about Home from the Hill is the way it takes several fundamental mid-century American narratives and sets them in free-ranging conflict with each other. There’s the Hemingway-esque tale of the young man who proves himself in a valiant hunt; Faulknerian regional portraiture blended with a King’s Row and Peyton Place-ish evocation of multifarious small-town travesties; a Death of a Salesman-like portrait of a young man set in conflict with his father in learning his history of infidelity and hypocrisy; and anticipation of Larry McMurtry-type down-home studies. Touches of noir, women’s pictures, and subtexts that hint at gay liberation, the sexual revolution, and the civil rights movement bubble within, too. These elements comment upon each other and reveal fascinating blind spots and a cross-pollinating sensibility.
Like last year’s The Help, Home from the Hill depicts the pseudo-feudal precepts still infusing the (unspecified) southern setting in the 1930s milieu in which Robert Mitchum’s Colonel Wade Hunnicutt is the king, a strident bull male, famed hunter with more guns than the Belgian army, a den where he lounges in regal command with his hunting dogs and liquor, and a possessive attitude not only toward the town where he’s the major financial power but also toward its people, chiefly its females. At the outset, on a set so obvious it announces Minnelli’s wilfully psychological style, Wade is nearly shot dead by a cuckolded husband whilst he’s out duck hunting, saved only when his young squire Raphael “Rafe” Copley (George Peppard) senses threat and leaps on Wade. The offender is hurried off with Wade’s contempt: “You only had one shot in you.”
Wade’s fiefdom encompasses much of the land around the town and some of its biggest businesses, but ironically, his own home is in the grip of its own cold war and dotted with invisible frontiers. His wife Hannah (Eleanor Parker) maintains aloofness, but her unnerving blue eyes radiate microwaves of fury and fixation. Wade’s 17-year-old son Theron (George Hamilton) has barely been influenced by his father owing to Wade’s long-ago deal that gave Hannah exclusive right to raise Theron. But when Theron is humiliated by practical jokers, Wade extracts the shame-faced youth and inducts him into “how a man lives,” which is, apparently, a matter of drinking bourbon and shooting things. Theron, with his spindly physique and doe eyes, soon takes to his new macho lifestyle with obsessive enthusiasm, as Wade puts him under Rafe’s tutelage. His rapid development as a hunter is soon put to the test when a huge wild boar begins harassing farmers. The locals approach Wade, who took down such a fearsome beast himself years before, to catch it and kill it, but Wade passes the job along to Theron. With Rafe backing him up and Wade’s hunting dogs at his side, Theron ventures into the woods outside of town and after a two-day chase in which two of the dogs are killed, Theron stands his ground as the boar charges and brings it down.
To celebrate his son’s epic feat, Wade throws a barbecue where the boar is served up, and Theron has to take on a tougher challenge, that of asking out a girl. He sets his mind on Libby Halstead (Luana Patten), the tomboyish daughter of local businessman Albert Halstead (Everett Sloane), but he gets weak-kneed and he begs Rafe to ask her out for him, a task Rafe performs with winning dexterity. When Theron turns up at the Halsteads’ door to pick her up, Albert abuses him and orders him away, offended that the son of the town’s most notorious womaniser would associate with his daughter. Bewildered because he has no idea of Wade’s reputation, Theron nonetheless sees Libby on the sly. One night his mother, in a frantic exposition, reveals the truth not only about Wade’s infidelities but also that Rafe is, of course, his illegitimate son. Theron is so appalled that he confronts his father and then walks out of the house, intending never to return. He takes a job as a forklift driver in a cotton mill, and slowly almost totally disintegrates as a personality. Meanwhile, Rafe encounters Libby, who’s quietly frantic in her own way because she’s pregnant with Theron’s child and despairs of getting him to marry her because of his now poisonous disdain for any type of family. Her father’s clumsy attempt to clear a path with Wade just embarrasses them both.
Home from the Hill spins its drama out of some interestingly contradictory observations, appropriately contained within the lush facades of Minnelli’s mise-en-scene. Theron’s crisis is fuelled by his realisation that not only are physical and moral courage two completely different things, but so are morality and correct behaviour and that failure to understand these disparities can be endlessly destructive. Wade’s cocksure imperiousness is carefully mediated as he often displays his humane, forgiving side, whilst never giving up an essential hypocrisy. Hannah’s anger is justified, and yet the story reveals, with its quietly ruthless sense of implication, that her sense of offence in learning Wade had an illegitimate child before their marriage finished up destroying not only her own marriage but ruining Rafe and retarding Theron’s emotional growth.
Theron’s fury at his father for his treatment of Rafe shades into adolescent self-pity, and blinds him to the fact he’s set the circle in motion again, with Libby as victim. Wade embodies not only a readily familiar image of alpha male self-contentment but, in a way, a social philosophy too, of pseudo-benign autocracy. “I won’t be judged,” Wade tells Theron when trying to conciliate with him, but Theron insists on doing precisely that, invoking all the rage of disillusionment so many people Theron’s age were beginning to feel as the 1960s began. When Theron first announces to Rafe that “I know all about you now,” Rafe ripostes with smiling, measured irony just how little Theron does know about what it’s like to not only grow up in the underclass but conscious of his status as rejected progeny. Rafe quotes Wade’s black manservant Chauncey (Ken Renard): “You gotta learn how to make out on your own. These tears and crying and carryin’ is a waste of time. Coloured folks know that, and little white orphan boys gotta learn it, too.” This fascinating linkage between various forms of social exclusion gives the film’s melodrama a resonance beyond the limits of one family, and it becomes in some ways one of the first truly honest films about the generation gap.
But the family melodrama itself is good, as Minnelli tries to step nimbly through the minefield of censorship, just beginning to give way in 1960, in being upfront about the film’s portrait of sexuality as a defining aspect of life and a cause of many of its problems. Wade staves off Albert’s appeal with a queasy quip about selling damaged goods, but immediately retracts it, as it reflects a tawdry view of sex that he himself tries, in his own way, to dismantle. The lengthy first act of the film depicts Theron’s growth from gullible stick insect of a boy, who, raised as a kind of hostage in the Hunnicutt house, at first seems ripe to provoke that eternal cry of the panicked macho father towards the coddling mother, “You’re turning that boy into a fag!” Wade’s decision to break his pact with his wife and start manning Theron up sparks her initial, frosty complaint about whether he thinks he can order everyone about like his dogs. He merely answers with wordless irony by clicking his fingers and bringing his hounds to heel. Theron at first sublimates all of his sexual energy into the hunt, in a motif that echoes all the way back to Germanic myth, and when he brings down the boar, he’s reborn as red-blooded heterosexual. So far, so square, but Theron’s subsequent discoveries and mistakes unspool the links in the chain of man’s man causality.
Hamilton, in his second film, and to a lesser extent Peppard, in his first, would eventually become notable, ridiculed exemplars of a class of polished and classically handsome male movie actor who would be left high and dry in the ‘60s. Becoming more famous as Hollywood landmarks than actors, it is too easy to forget they had both been talented. Hamilton, whom Minnelli would use again in Two Weeks in Another Town, takes on an edge of personal avatar for the director: volatile, tortured, sexually ambiguous, and trailed by dogged self-loathing. The narrative’s almost Grecian sense of tragic geometry sees one brother slide as the other rises. Rafe’s emergence comes not from Wade—“The gesture’ll have to come from you,” Rafe tells his father who begins probing about recompense, after Rafe’s already stated refusal to ask anyone for anything—but thanks to his own life experience. Rafe steps up to make an honest woman of Libby after she tearfully confesses her problem to him in a memorable sequence in a supermarket diner, and marries her, thus rising into the petit bourgeoisie as a member of Albert’s family. Rafe’s stated reason, as well as his simmering attraction to Libby, is his determination to rescue another potential solitary boy.
Theron’s crucial confrontation of his father sees him holding back in the shadows of the hallway leading to his father’s den, his crucible of manly virtues, and hesitating before delivering his first salvo: “I don’t want any part of you,” he snarls, and then delivers the most crucial line in the film, “If you were any kind…any kind of a man you’d be proud of him and love him!” The shift in definition of “a man” from Wade’s to Theron’s packs a wallop even as Theron, in several ways, reproduces Wade’s mistakes in his lambasting bluntness, not holding back from verbal viciousness even with the potential for the physical variety ever-present. Again, it’s another scene rife with multiple dimensions, including gay subtext, as the crucial moment of generational male head-butting displaces the fear of coming out into a different set of words.
Libby and Hannah balance out this secret men’s business in their differing versions of strained and stranded femininity. Parker, wielding her inimitable blue stare that seems to slice through reality into some otherworldly horror like an H.P. Lovecraft character, plays Hannah as the victim and perpetrator of schizoid social values, wielding at first the icy hauteur of a southern matriarch but slowly disintegrating as the cost of compromise passes down through the generations. She’s first glimpsed in the doorway to her bedroom, the pastel shades of her clothing and the decor demarcating the cordoned-off limits of the house’s feminine space, contrasting the dark hues of brown that define Wade’s den, studded with rifles and animal heads. Wade repeatedly makes overtures to Hannah to lower the drawbridge, and he, perhaps disingenuously, blames her refusal to make amends for his own dedicated womanising. Hannah’s disgust at realising she wasn’t Wade’s first lover as he was for her is palpable after 17 years to a degree that seems almost pathological, an ingrained reaction in a world that is supposed to be built along clear divisions—male/female, pure/dirty, black/white, respectable/trash—but often operates according to other imperatives and unstated codes that Wade explains with a well-worn catalog of aphorisms—“damaged goods,” “wild oats,” and the like. Hannah, at one point, encounters Rafe as he tends to a burial ground distinct from the main cemetery where the town’s unworthies are buried, including Rafe’s own mother, Hannah’s ghost enemy; the pair’s glancing meeting is mirrored in the very final scene where they meet again at the cemetery and a gravestone becomes the hinge for Rafe’s final ascension to become Hannah’s son.
Home from the Hill deliberately bears little resemblance to the style of “kitchen-sink” authenticity being defined around this time in cinema. And yet it maintains a curious charge of emotional honesty throughout and is attentive to its milieu, however stylised. The mock-casual meeting of Rafe and Libby in the ordered rows of the supermarket that will soon segue into revelations of seamy guilt and noble intent, and the eloquent pussyfooting with which Minnelli approaches Rafe and Libby’s seduction of each other, after they’re married and left alone in the Halstead house by her solicitous, if unhappy, parents. Patten, who had grown up as a Disney contract player, didn’t do much else of note, but she’s one of this film’s stand-out qualities, memorably portraying both Libby’s despair, but also a rare quality of unapologetic sensuality in a Hollywood movie of the period without losing the veneer of a good girl.
Minnelli’s sense of genuine moral complexity allows Wade, who is as often repulsive and monstrous as he is attractive and authoritative, an edge of self-awareness and philosophical depth that is at odds with the absolutism of those around him. Mitchum is customarily good as Wade, giving one of his best performances in alternating arrogance with moments of surprising tenderness and mature genuflection, though it remains a little tantalising to think of John Wayne, an actor more closely and willingly associated with the kind of swaggering machismo Wade represents in the part; Wayne wouldn’t have been as subtle, but he would have embodied the nascent schism in masculine values with inescapable force. Home from the Hill is defined by its many oppositions and doublings, and Minnelli’s staging is for the most part restrained, but erupts in two mirroring sequences, each involving Theron plunging into the woods on the a hunt, and Minnelli sets out to outdo his final murder in Some Came Running in having DP Milton Krasner’s camera rushing through the brush in frantic, flowing tracking shots, not dancelike as in the Some Came Running scene, but filled with the same urgently communicated sense of movement, and a visually coded evocation of repressed emotion suddenly finding release in hysterical action, anticipating the finale of Two Weeks in Another Town.
Inevitably, and ironically just at the point where Wade has convinced Hannah to try to revive their passion for their own sakes and for Theron’s, Wade’s wild oats come back to haunt him, as he’s shot in the back in his den. This bullet comes from Albert, who, brilliantly played by Sloane, is seen quivering throughout the film with a neurotic volatility under his seemingly mousy exterior, so ashamed in leaving the Hunnicutt house after his failed appeal that he hides in the shadows and cringes when people recognise him. This is for good reason, because the locals assume that his visit meant that Libby’s bun in the oven is Wade’s, and Albert, believing this, finally does what so many have tried to do. Minnelli depicts the flurry of characters around Wade’s slowly expiring form in a curious medium-distance shot, as Chauncey tends to his beloved feudal overlord, Theron and Rafe try to wrest the last, long-delayed words of legitimacy from him, and Hannah watches in electric, crazed intensity. Theron chases Albert and guns him down in self-defense in the same place he brought down the boar, but it’s a moment that closes the circle of generational learning and responsibility as well as completely inverting the emotional meaning of his earlier triumph. Theron tells Rafe he can’t go back to face Libby after killing her father, and instead finally departs for a larger world, leaving Rafe to be the one who watches over Hannah and finally become the heir apparent. Like everything else in the film, this conclusion is both artfully contrived and satisfies deeply.