Fox // 1959 // 110 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Patrick Naugle // September 13th, 2012
The sound! The fury! The weird, vaguely Hungarian accents!
The Sound and the Fury focuses on the Compson family, a dysfunctional southern clan with more skeletons in their closet than Count Dracula. The narrator of this tale is young Quentin (Joanne Woodward, The Three Faces of Eve), a precocious teenager who was abandoned by her mother (Margaret Leighton, The Loved One) at birth. The head of the house is her step uncle, Jason (Yul Brynner, The King and I), who rules with an iron fist. Her other two uncles -- also living inside the Compson's sprawling mansion -- have issues of their own; Howard (John Beal, The Firm) is a functioning alcoholic, while young Ben (Jack Warden, All The President's Men) is a mentally slow mute who spends most of his time looking at people from the bushes. Also roaming the estate is Jason's cantankerous mother, Caroline (Francoise Rosay), who spends her waking moments barking commands at various members of the family. Finally, there's the family maid (Ethel Waters, Cabin in the Sky), a patient and kind caretaker who tries to keep peace in the house and food on the table.
I never read the William Faulkner novel The Sound and the Fury is based on (nor any other Faulkner writings, for that matter), and after seeing this film I don't plan on doing so in the near (or far) future. Faulkner's story was apparently deemed "un-filmable," but Hollywood clearly loves a challenge. My understanding is the film bears little resemblance to book. I hope that means the published version is far better than this drab, lackluster tale possessing all the forward momentum of a concrete slab superglued to a sidewalk.
To make matters worse, the lead casting for The Sound and the Fury is just plain odd. Yul Brynner's thick accent is shockingly difficult to understand; like watching Arnold Schwarzenegger trying to portray Big Daddy in Tennessee Williams' Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. Brynner slurs his words, as if he just walked off the set of a foreign film and into a 1950s southern drama. Dispensing with his trademark baldness, it's almost distracting to see him with a full head of hair. Brynner truly is the film's weakest link. I can't think of a movie, past or present, where an actor felt more out of place. Also puzzling is the casting of Joanne Woodward as the teenage Quentin. By 1959 Woodward was already 30 years, so her portrayal of a high school teen is dubious at best, and her character suffers for it. This overwrought performance may have been appropriate for a young inexperienced actress, but for a thirty year old woman it comes across as whiney and deliberate.
The supporting cast is interesting, if ultimately ineffective. The best is a very young Jack Warden as the mute, mentally deficient Uncle Ben. Warden does a commendable job of conveying pain and frustration, without having to speak any words. Ethel Waters lights up the screen every time she walks into frame as Dilsey, the African American maid who has become a mother figure to Quentin. Waters has an imposing presence and is given a strong personality; something that didn't happen often for African American actors in the 1950s. Francoise Rosay is shrill as the elderly Caroline, all flowing gray hair and thick accent (she gives Yul a run for his money, when it comes to questionable vocal tics). And, much like Woodward, Margaret Leighton as Quentin's southern belle deadbeat mother overacts to the point of distraction; her character coming off as flighty, dim-witted, and selfish.
Director Martin Ritt was no stranger to films dealing with southern families; he had already helmed the Paul Newman film The Long, Hot Summer, before tackling The Sound and the Fury. Unfortunately, lightning doesn't strike twice. The story meanders, even with undertones of incest between Brynner and Woodward's characters, a facet that will no doubt be off putting to many viewers. The setting is effectively gothic and sweltering in appearance. Old mansions sit collecting dust, as women with large hats loom large. Viewers will desperately try to find a sympathetic character to latch onto, but none are available. I presume we were supposed to relate to Woodward's Quentin, but she comes off as an entitled shrew for most of the film. It's a dysfunctional family filled with people you wouldn't want to share a bus seat with, much less two hours of your life. While a lot of movies produced in the 1950s are now labeled "classic," that word isn't justifiable here. For a film like this, the word that comes to mind is "sub-par."
The Sound and the Fury has, to my knowledge, never been previously available on DVD or Blu-ray. Presented here in 2.37:1/1080p high definition widescreen, though a rather mediocre watch, Twilight Time has put a fair amount of work into making sure this transfer looks as good as possible. There is a heavy amount of film grain in the image, but it still looks very attractive in HD. Colors are bright and natural, if slightly washed out, and black levels are solid. The DTS-HD 2.0 Master Audio track isn't very exciting, save for composer Alex North's atmospheric film score. It's a front heavy mix, without much in the way of surround sounds or directional effects. Then again, considering the age of the film, that's not surprising. No alternate language tracks or subtitles are included. The only bonus feature is an isolated track of North's complete film score.
As the film came to a close, I realized I was no better off for having seen it. There were no lasting impressions, except that I missed at least fifty percent of Brynner's dialogue because I didn't have a clue what he was saying. It doesn't help that the man has only two facial expressions: angry, and everything else.
Guilty. This is one classic you can easily skip.
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Scales of Justice
* 2.35:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 2.0 Master Audio (English)
Running Time: 110 Minutes
Release Year: 1959
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Isolated Music Track