Monday, May 15, 2017

DVR Diary: BAYOU (1957)

Turner Classic Movies ran Harold Daniels' film last weekend as part of an "Underground" double-feature, along with Timothy Carey's legendary World's Greatest Sinner. "Presenting Tim Carey" is the future auteur's screen credit in Bayou, even though Carey had already appeared in several films, most notably in Stanley Kubrick's The Killing. Edward I. Fessler's screenplay is set in the Cajun country of Louisiana, and Cajuns were still sufficiently exotic in 1957 that their name and ethnic origins have to be explained with some expository dialogue. Suffice it to say that for the film's purposes they are hillbillies with even funnier accents, perhaps more developed technologically yet just as slovenly. Lording it over the film's community is Ulysses (Carey) who runs the general store and has something like the power of life and death over the crabbers and shrimpmen through the power of credit. It's best to think of Ulysses as the Bluto of the Bayou. He's willing to extend credit to old man Emil Hebert (Douglas Fowley) if Emil will get his daughter Marie (Lita Milan) to go out to the big dance with him, and show him other attentions. Into this serpent's eden comes an architect from Poughkeepsie, Martin Davis (Peter Graves), who's come to the territory to pitch his design for a nearby project. Martin's ultimate audition for the commission is a test of character: a pirouge race in which he must compete against the mighty Ulysses and others. Martin's defeat costs him the commission, but he stays on because he feels romantic and protective toward Marie. Recognizing a rival, Ulysses intimidates him with a mating dance during a traditional chivaree for a newlywed couple. But during another showdown at Emil's funeral Martin finally makes a stand....

It is ridiculously easy for Carey to overshadow Graves, having a height as well as a charisma advantage over the future Mission Impossible star. His overwhelming dark-side-of-the-life-force performance also overshadows everyone else in the picture, few of whom make any real impression. At the same time, Ulysses is pretty unconvincing as a ruthless man of business or as someone enamored with anyone but himself. Carey's fans will see his mating dance as the highlight of the piece, anticipating similar antics in World's Greatest Sinner, but the artless exhibitionism of it really takes you out of the picture, which isn't hard when the picture's as flimsy as Bayou. Maybe it was different when the movie was new and few knew who Tim Carey was, and none knew what he would be, but to me now it's obvious that the film needs a more basic, truly threatening villain, but in Carey it has a buffoon. But maybe it wasn't so different back then. Daniel's exercise in pulp ethnography reportedly bombed at the box office until it resurfaced several years later and was sold on its new title, Poor White Trash. Bayou is described as one of Carey's largest roles, but it seems to prove that, unless you want to go all the way and OD on Sinner, he's best taken in small doses like those prescribed by Kubrick in Killing and Paths of Glory. For some, Carey may be spectacle enough to make Bayou worthwhile, but he doesn't really do the film any favors.

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