The Southerner

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USA, 1945

Director: Jean Renoir

Production: United Artists; black and white, 35mm; running time: 91 minutes. Released 1945. Filmed in Hollywood.

Producers: David Loew and Robert Hakim; screenplay: Jean Renoir and Hugo Butler, uncredited assistance by William Faulkner, from the novel Hold Autumn in Your Hand by George Sessions Perry; photography: Lucien Andriot; editor: Gregg Tallas; music: Werner Janssen.

Cast: Zachary Scott (Sam Tucker); Betty Field (Nona Tucker); Beulah Bondi (Granny Tucker); Bunny Sunshine (Daisy Tucker); Jay Gilpin (Jot Tucker); Percy Kilbride (Harmie); Blanche Yurka (Ma Tucker); Charles Kemper (Tim); J. Carrol Naish (Devers); Norman Lloyd (Finlay); Nestor Paiva (Bartender); Paul Harvey (Ruston).

Award: Venice Film Festival, Best Film, 1946.



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* * *

The Southerner was the third of Jean Renoir's American films (after Swamp Water and This Land is Mine), the first of his independent Hollywood productions, and the object of controversy from the start. The debates that surrounded the film upon its release and continued long thereafter, disparate as they are in origin and intent, bear one upon the other in defining the film's central critical issue.

The Southerner recounts the struggles of a family to live in independence on the land, if not their own, at least not belonging to another visible presence. The enemies are, as one expects, the extremities of weather, and unyielding soil, illness and—less conventionally—mean-spirited, even hostile neighbors. If "the southerner" is the courageous Sam Tucker, he is also the dour, stone-hearted Devers, as well as the tight-fisted Harmie. The film's very title, in its generality (suggesting "the southerner" as a type) proved, perhaps as much as the story, a provocation.

The first of the controversies was local. Considered a sordid depiction of life in the southern states, the film was banned in Tennessee and attacked throughout the South. The Ku Klux Klan announced a boycott. To these inhabitants, The Southerner presented in realistic terms a derogatory image of the people of that region. The second of the controversies was critical. James Agee, who knew the South well, objected that, on the contrary there was nothing realistic in Renoir's depiction of the region; Renoir had failed to convey not only the character of the southerner, but the speech, the gait, the facial expressions. To Agee, in spite of William Faulkner's well-publicized consultation on dialogue, the film rang false. Agee's was, as Raymond Durgnat points out, an objection based on the definition of authenticity borrowed from naturalism: from appearance to essence, from the outside in. Renoir had understood none of the codes of the region or its people.

Renoir's South was clearly not one of surface verisimilitude, but neither did his definition of realism depend on what André Bazin called "the crust of realism which blinds us." The direction of realism is from the inside out. The camera work, particularly in the exterior locations often shot in deep focus, captures the desolate landscape of a southern winter. A foggy river bank; Beulah Bondi, alone, stubborn and miserable, atop a cart in the pouring rain; and a hut hardly fit for human shelter are a few of the quasi-surreal images that translate Renoir's vision of rural America as a land of loneliness and isolation, without the comfort of neighbor or faith, depressed materially and especially morally. It was on the spirit of the place and times, not on the accent or gesture, that Renoir based and defined his portrait of "the southerner."

—Mirella Jona Affron

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