THE SOUTHERNER (Jean Renoir, 1945)

Expertly written by Jean Renoir, Hugo Butler, William Faulkner and Nunnally Johnson from George Sessions Perry’s Hold Autumn in Your Hand, The Southerner was Renoir’s favorite among his 1940s Hollywood movies. (It was largely shot on location in Texas.) It is passionate, humane, beautiful.
     Renoir evokes a famous scene from Aleksandr Dovzhenko’s Earth (1930) as a cotton-picker, at work in the field, dies on the ground surrounded by other sharecroppers. With his last breath, he tells friend Sam Tucker (Zachary Scott, superb) to work for himself. The implication is this: Since work is going to kill you no matter what, you might as well at least have the dignity of being your own boss.
     Sam indeed quits his job and moves with his family into a dilapidated shack—“nothin’ extra” is how Nona, his wife (Betty Field, also superb), describes it—on a small piece of fertile land by a river. The Tuckers have two young children and “Granny,” Sam’s irrascible grandmother (Beulah Bondi, heavily made up but memorable). The film chronicles a year of their struggles against poverty, illness, an antagonistic neighbor (J. Carrol Naish, giving the film’s most complex performance), and God and Nature, with a torrential rainstorm seemingly aiming at wiping them out.
     Early on, Renoir uses inserted objective shots to stabilize traveling camera’s-eye-view shots of the land and the approaching shack—subjective tracking shots recalling the Joad family’s entry into the camp in John Ford’s somewhat similar The Grapes of Wrath (1940). Renoir’s integrated themes both refer to humanity’s cooperative spirit: the socioeconomic need of country and city folk for one another; the bond that farmers should nurture. Sam describes this as “neighborliness.”
     The film took the top prize at Venice; the National Board of Review named Renoir best director.

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