Starring Robert Mitchum, Eleanor Parker, George Peppard, and George Hamilton
My rating: ★★★★ stars
Captivating tragic melodrama about a wealthy southern landowner and his dysfunctional family.
Vincente Minnelli, although primarily remembered as a director of musicals, had a run of successful melodramas in the 1950s, capped off by Home from the Hill, based on the novel by William Humphrey, in 1960. Unlike the cold and ironic films of Douglas Sirk, who is a better known as a director of ‘50s melodramas, Minnelli’s films show an appreciation for the emotional heart of the genre.
Minnelli embraced the heightened passions of melodrama. Home from the Hill contains several scenes of characters exposing their emotions at their rawest. Yet, one characteristic of Minnelli’s melodramas is to present a contrasting calm and understated character. Here, it is Captain Wade Hunnicutt (Robert Mitchum), the local land owner and hunting legend, who presides over his area of east Texas with the power of an old-time landed aristocrat.
The movie starts with a bang when the Captain is shot by an angry husband. Wade takes it all in stride as one of the hazards of his reckless love life. This is a change from the book and draws the audience immediately into the story. Another change from the book is the addition of the character of Rafe Copley (George Peppard), who as Wade’s employee and confidant becomes essential to the story. The book could have used his presence, as the only sane man in town.
The film does capture the elegiac tone of the novel, the title of which comes from the Robert Louis Stevenson poem “Requiem.” Even though it doesn’t recreate the flashback structure of the book’s narrative, it does give off a prevailing sense of sadness and loss: loss of love, of life, of innocence, and of happiness.
The loss of innocence provides the key theme in the story of Wade’s son, Theron (George Hamilton), who, at the beginning of the story, has been protected from the faults of his parents and the reality of their miserable marriage. His mother, Hannah (Eleanor Parker), has kept him away from the hyper masculine world of his father. Seeing how callow and gullible the teenager is, Wade separates him from his mother’s care and introduces him to the adult pursuit of hunting. In doing so, he turns the cold war he and his wife have been waging into an all-out vicious battle.
The major weakness of the film is the performance of George Hamilton, who doesn’t have the depth or power to portray Theron as the major tragic figure that he is. Theron’s tragedy begins when his mother unleashes a major attack against Wade, turning the boy against his father. However, the more Theron rejects Wade, the more he takes on his father’s worst qualities, becoming calloused, selfish, and violent. Theron, here, seems pitiful in his quest to prove himself, making all the wrong choices, with Hamilton lacking the pathos to bring the audience to feel Theron’s plight.
Mitchum, however, gives a flawless performance as the confident and charismatic Captain Wade. His low-key cool conveys the unflappable power of the character. In one classic scene, Hannah shrilly declares that Theron will not easily fall under the Captain’s control, “He’s got a mind of his own. I gave him that. Don’t think he’s going to come to heel like one of your hunting dogs at the snap of your fingers.” With absolute self-assurance and very little movement, Wade snaps his fingers, and the hunting dogs come to heel at his feet. Interestingly, during the moments when Wade displays his greatest power, he remains seated while the other characters are forced to stand awkwardly, altering the usual configuration where the more powerful character is given the higher position.
Peppard does a great job of hinting at emotion in the outwardly imperturbable Rafe. He has a great scene where he calmly explains how he came to be so levelheaded, saying, “When my mama died, Chauncey [the Hunnicutt’s butler] came down here [to Rafe’s shack] and he said, ‘You’ve got to learn to make out on your own. These tears and crying and carrying on is a waste of time. Colored folks know that. Little white orphan boys got to learn it too, so hitch up your pants and be a man.’ I never cried again where anyone could see me.” Peppard shows Rafe’s emotions by forcing a pathetic smile as he begins the speech, as if he’s calling up a good memory.
Everett Sloane and Luana Patten prove moving as a father and daughter who unfortunately get caught up in the Hunnicutts’ war. And Constance Ford shines in a small role as one of the Captain’s women, a cheap tramp who tries to pick up Theron in a bar.
Minnelli uses color in the film to great effect, with greens to show courtship (highlighting the uncertainty of it), blood reds for masculinity (and its violence), pinks for Hannah (and her femininity), and sickly yellows for danger. His direction shows great care in the composition of shots. Early on, when Wade visits the doctor to get treatment for his bullet wound, Rafe stands off in a corner, silently, unmoving, his attention never wavering from Wade. This positioning in the background brings a sense of intrigue to the character and his role in the Captain’s life.
When Hannah and Wade find congenial moments, the camera remains level and focuses straight ahead with the background at a distance. As they fight, the camera angles high and low to show the power structure, while placing them in corners or closed in spaces with the backgrounds boxing them in.
For the most part, Minnelli presents the domestic nature and intimacy of the narrative by jamming up the backgrounds, both interior and exterior, with decoration that fills the widescreen space and crowds the characters. Even though the film is about outdoorsmen, it lacks shots of broad, open vistas. Every shot in this film is densely filled, the outdoor scenes most of all, with suffocating foliage. The world around the characters is metaphorically suffocating them.
The climax of the film develops out of a misunderstanding. Normally, I would criticize such a move as a cheap contrivance by a writer who can’t think of something organic. In this case, however, everything in the film has been leading up to this misunderstanding. It’s the inevitable consequence of the confluence of events that have preceded it. It is narratively and thematically right.
Home from the Hill remains an overlooked classic, probably because the melodrama has fallen out of favor. Yet, with the strong storytelling and filmmaking it displays, it deserves to be included among the best films of its era.