Sunday, February 27, 2011

I Walk the Line (1970)

          Gregory Peck’s campaign to complicate his image throughout the ’70s was admirable, and the public’s expectation that he would always play morally righteous characters gave him an edge whenever he ventured outside of his wheelhouse. Unfortunately, not all of the material he used for his experiments was worthy of the effort. I Walk the Line is a good example. A standard melodrama about a small-town Southern sheriff tempted from morality by the sexual charms of a moonshiner’s young daughter, the picture is salacious, but far too sluggish. Worse, Peck isn’t loose enough to convey the extremes of a man driven beyond his inhibitions by animal lust; instead of coming across as feverish, Peck comes across as psychotic. The blame for this atonal portrayal can probably be shared equally by Peck and by director John Frankenheimer, a wizardly storyteller when handling the right action/suspense material but a hit-and-miss filmmaker in the world of straight drama. Given that he specialized in generating close-quarters tension through mano-a-mano psychological warfare, Frankenheimer probably had no more business tackling this sort of simplistic Southern-fried pulp than his leading man did; Frankeneheimer doesn’t come close to creating the sort of sweaty, melodramatic aesthetic that would have kicked this thing into the realm of, say, Tennesse Williams-style hysterics.
          Still, the picture looks great, thanks to Frankenheimer’s characteristically slick camerawork and the participation of strong artists in front of and behind the camera. As the moonshiner’s daughter, Tuesday Weld brings more than enough wild sex appeal to make her role in the story convincing, and cinematographer David M. Walsh creates a glossy look capturing the untamed openness of the picture’s Tennessee locations. While the device of scoring the movie entirely with Johnny Cash songs is gimmicky, the Man in Black’s haunted drone is an effective sonic signifier for the torment inside the sheriff’s soul. The picture also benefits from supporting actors who sink their teeth into screenwriter Alvin Sargent’s meticulous dialogue. Charles Durning gives a sharp turn as Peck’s sly second-in-command, Ralph Meeker is appropriately odious as Weld’s pragmatic father, and Estelle Parsons suffers poignantly as the sheriff’s cast-aside wife. With all of this talent involved, I Walk the Line offers many rewards for the patient viewer, but lackluster storytelling keeps the picture mired in mediocrity.

I Walk the Line: FUNKY

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