Starring Joan Evans, Farley Granger, Aline MacMahon, Hope Emerson, Charles Bickford, and Raymond Massey
My rating: ★★★ 1/2 stars
Moody tale of forbidden love between a Hatfield and a McCoy.
Roseanna McCoy tells the love story between Johnse Hatfield (Farley Granger) and the title character (Joan Evans), members of the feuding Hatfield and McCoy clans. It’s loosely based on the novel by Alberta Hannum, which sticks close to the actual historical narrative. The script by short story writer John Collier diverges wildly from both the novel and history. This divergence helps give the film structure, changing the sprawling novelistic complexity into something tighter and more trenchant, like a short story.
The credited director on Roseanna McCoy is Irving Reis. During production, however, Reis was replaced by director Nicholas Ray. The resulting film fits strongly with the rest of Ray’s oeuvre, less so with the world of the undistinguished Reis, suggesting that Ray may have left a more distinctive mark on the finished film.
In the film, Roseanna meets Johnse at a county fair, and they develop an instant attraction. Roseanna attempts to deny her feelings, preferring the attentions of her stable, dependable old suitor. The film implies, given the limitations of the production code, that Johnse’s pursuit of her provides a sexual awakening. Johnse proves persistent and brings her to the Hatfield land across the river from the McCoy farm. Roseanna suffers culture shock, leaving the world of the placid, civilized McCoys and entering the one of the rough-and-tumble Hatfields.
The viewers can almost feel the threatening foreignness of the Hatfields’ cabin, with ominous shadows that creep in from the corners, spreading around the room. The film saturates its blacks throughout, giving it the look of a film noir even though it’s a historical romance. For a love story, it’s unusually dark and moody.
This style highlights the thematic thrust of the film—two young lovers opposed by a hostile and unforgiving world—the very same idea that permeated They Live by Night, the film Ray and Granger made the year before. In fact, that movie’s female lead, Cathy O’Donnell, was originally slated to play the lead here, but production politics led to the casting of Evans instead. If O’Donnell’s performance in They Live by Night is any indication, she would have been great here. But, then, audiences would have missed out on Evans’s startling honest performance. Evans is strong, yet wonderfully fey. In her first movie and being only fourteen at the time, she occasionally looks uncomfortable in front of the camera, but that quality lends an engaging callowness that enhances the character. As the title suggests, the film rests on her shoulders, and she carries it admirably.
Granger is less convincing as the ardent lover, but the directors minimize his weaknesses as an actor. The supporting cast, however, is phenomenal, particularly Aline MacMahon and Hope Emerson as the family matriarchs, Sarie McCoy and Levisa Hatfield. Both convey a heartbreaking sadness. For MacMahon’s Sarie, it is a weary sadness; for Emerson’s Levisa, it is a bitter one. Raymond Massey, as Randall McCoy, and Charles Bickford, as Devil Anse Hatfield, also deliver stellar performances of two very contrasting and contradictory men. Massey plays McCoy as irrationally hostile, belying McCoy’s belief in his own superiority. Bickford imbues the coarse, roughneck Hatfield with a quiet intelligence. Moreover, Bickford’s performance implies that Hatfield recognizes his innate reflectiveness and disdains it, preferring to view himself as a man of action rather than a man of thought.
Halfway through, Mounts Hatfield (Richard Basehart) appears. His introduction is wisely held back to the middle of the film, letting the audience learn of him by having other characters discuss him. According to the film, the actions of the psychotic Mounts started and perpetuate the feud—even though the narrative does show that the cultures of the families are inherently contrasting and opposed. Basehart is excellently creepy in the role, but the placing of the whole of the enmity on one person does seem too simplistic and convenient.
The story of lovers from feuding families and two different worlds is hardly new. But it is durable and resilient. The boundaries between lovers create both the sense of desire and of romance. This film is a classic example of such a tale, enhanced by the surrounding details and the overall strong execution.