From Peter Matthiessen’s story “Travellin’ Man,” The Young One complicates its confrontation between two American men, one black, one white, by refraining from idealizing either. “Rape!” a city white woman screams when a younger black musician declines her sexual overture, setting into motion a lynch mob. Traver skedaddles for his life, ending up on an island off the South Carolina coast. Miller, the game warden, lives in isolation there with teenaged Evalyn, whose guardian, her grandfather, has just died. Horny, Miller cannot keeps his hands off; he and Evvie have sex, but she cannot cry “Rape!” because she is too sheltered and innocent to know what has gone on. It seems more of a blatant violation to her when Reverend Fleetwood, who is arranging for her adoption, baptizes her. Before the river-dunk, Fleetwood sounds eerily like Miller in his hushed assurance that what is about to happen is not going to hurt; and he promises Evvie a “golden key”—to heaven, it turns out, a little like the “key” of Miller’s that is attached to his testicles. Hey, man, what is this? a Buñuel film?
Indeed, it is. Along with blacklisted Hugo Butler, Luis Buñuel wrote the script from which he (brilliantly) directed; and in the Buñuelian universe, it is far worse to “rape” a girl’s mind with religious nonsense, accompanied by however brief a drowning sensation for her nose and lungs, than to have sex with her where the sex, gentle and tender, assuages the loneliness of both participants. Imagine such a devil as to think that!
As befits a film in which one of the main characters is a game warden, this one is full of animals, but one in which human animals vis-à-vis other animals, like humans vis-à-vis other humans, are predatory, immersed in a Darwinian universe. In the course of this film, a crab is speared, a rabbit, shot, suffers a paroxysmal death, after which, indoors, its hanging carcass is accidentally shot again, and a spider is crushed. If this is how humans treat Nature’s creatures, no wonder that Evvie’s appropriation of Grandfather’s boots follows so closely on the heels of Grandfather’s death. Need I add that Traver is crippled when a fleeing foot of his is caught in one of the animal traps that Miller has set?
At the center of all this is the shifting relationship between Traver and Miller, who comes to believe in Traver’s innocence of the charge of rape precisely because he doesn’t want to believe, where Evvie is concerned, that he himself is just as guilty of that charge: not only an analytical bull’s-eye, but one of the most hilarious outcomes—like a trap—that one could stumble upon in a black comedy.
Miller, a redneck racist, will modify his racial views—not out of some bogus sentimental about-face, but out of the self-interest that has always been his primary motivating factor. I love this movie!
Zachary Scott, who is marvelous as Miller, is a much underrated American film actor. In 1945, his two best performances (before this one) surfaced, as the humble, persevering southern farmer in Jean Renoir’s The Southerner and as an arrogant, oily snake-of-a-man who has an affair with his stepdaughter in Mildred Pierce (Michael Curtiz). It can be no accident that his role as Miller suggests a seamless fusion of both these characters.
Buñuelian sexy shot: Evvie on the dock, ready to depart the island, her feet smoothly fitting her first pair of high-heel shoes. Oh, the heart doth jump!
From Mexico and the U.S., this is one of only two English-language films by Buñuel. The other is Adventures of Robinson Crusoe (1954). That one is in teeming color; this one, photographed by Gabriel Figueroa, in black and white.
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