By Richard Winters
My Rating: 8 out of 10
4-Word Review: Life must go on.
Based loosely on the childhood experiences of writer James Agee who is best known for penning the screenplay to the classic film Night of the Hunter. The story here looks at how a southern family copes and in particular the young boy Rufus (Michael Kearney) after their father (Robert Preston) is tragically killed in a car accident.
Based on Agee’s unfinished novel ‘A Death in the Family’, which was also made into a stageplay the film makes loving tribute to the era. The sets and even the Model T car driven by the father are all authentic. In fact it was filmed near the exact neighborhood in Knoxville where Agee grew up. The mannerisms and dialogue are true to the period without any compromising for a more modern audience. The revisionism which has become so trendy in today’s period piece films is thankfully missing here. The slower and gentler pace seemed reflective of the era and I found it refreshing.
Preston gives one of his best roles second only to his signature one in The Music Man. He doesn’t get killed until the second half of the film, so the viewer gets to know and like the character and thus feels the pain of the loss along with the family members. We never see the actual accident nor given any explanation for what happened, which is just as well. Too many times filmmakers seemed compelled to have to give a reason for everything even though in life that is not always possible, so it is nice that here they did not fall into that trap. This emphasis instead is on how the family members cope and the emotional impact of the loss, which is something everyone must go through at some point and it ends up being quite compelling.
Kearney gives a terrific performance and one of the best from a child actor that I have seen. He is cute without ever being precocious. Watching him observe everyone else around him are some of the best moments in the film. It also brings up the great point that sometimes children are better at adapting to tragic events than their adult counterparts.
Durable character actor Pat Hingle gives one of his most interesting performances as Preston’s nervous and hyper brother. Preston has a great line in describing him when he says: “Talking to him is like putting socks on an octopus.”
Aline MacMahon is good as the kind, but stern aunt. I particularly liked the moment where Rufus falls to the ground in an emotional tantrum, but she restrains the others from helping him and insists that it is important that he learns to get himself up on his own. Jean Simmons as the mother and wife is also splendid, but seems to get better as the movie progresses particularly in her conversation with Rufus at the end, which is touching.
My Rating: 8 out of 10
Released: October 17, 1963
Runtime: 1Hour 37Minutes
Director: Alex Segal
Available: Amazon Instant Video