The following is one of the entries from my 100 Greatest English-Language Films list, which I invite you to visit on this site if you haven’t already done so. — Dennis
Ten-year-old Donald Peters lives in a Harlem tenement with his maternal grandmother. His father is out of the picture (dead, or just plain gone), and his mother, whom he adores, is busy with her new life—boyfriend and baby. Starved for affection, impressed by poverty, unable to read, Donald frequently skips school and takes to the streets, getting into trouble; his grandmother knows of no other way of dealing with him than with a belt. Donald is sent to a country school for delinquent boys, where his healing process begins. Gradually, after great effort by himself and staff, he ceases to be a baby, as the film puts it, and becomes a child.
The Quiet One, directed by Sidney Meyers, blends fictional and documentary elements. The boy and his family members are enacted roles, while the other detainees and staff members really belong to Wiltwyck School. The film is presented as a psychiatric case study, soberly, patiently; it is untouched by the sensationalism of the pseudo-clinical Possessed (Curtis Bernhardt, 1947) and The Snake Pit (Anatole Litvak, 1948). We do not see the actual psychiatrist, but we purportedly hear his account of Donald’s homelife, case and progress. This voiceover narration, steady and restrained, was written by James Agee, no less, and is read by actor Gary Merrill.
One of the alleged liabilities of cinema is its inability to penetrate a character’s interiority. Yet the combination of image and commentary accomplishes that task in relation to this boy. To an extraordinary degree, the film discloses Donald’s spiritual constraint and disturbed emotions. It is also, visually, a starkly beautiful, intense, poetic black-and-white film.
Shot in 16mm on a shoestring, it inaugurated the New York school of filmmaking. John Cassavetes’s Shadows (1959) exists in the shadow of The Quiet One.
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