This exercise in Southern gothic excess left Judge Steve Evans singing the blues.
A twisted love triangle, Southern gothic style.
Directed by British actor Simon Callow (A Room with a View), The Ballad of the Sad Café churns like Tennessee Williams boiling with yellow fever; never mind that this material is based on an Edward Albee play, itself adapted from a novel by Carson McCullers.
Facts of the Case
Vanessa Redgrave (Julia) plays Miss Amelia, the androgynous outcast of a dirt-poor Texas town. She brews moonshine and sells it to her white-trash neighbors with nary a nod of acknowledgement, plunking their coins in an old coffee can and waiting for the next customer while she stares at the space between them. She sings old cracker songs and occasionally talks to herself. Her bleached hair cropped short in a pageboy cut, Amelia in her workshirt and bib overalls looks like any of the sunken-eyed farmers who toil on the scorched Texas earth.
She was once married, briefly, to Marvin Macy (Keith Carradine, Nashville), who she rejected on their wedding night. The couple were married by the Reverend Willin (Rod Steiger, In the Heat of the Night, whose cameo brings the total of former Oscar winners in this cast to three). In flashback, Marvin pleads for a space in the marital bed, gradually growing angry and vindictive before he leaves town, disgraced. He eventually lands in prison.
While Amelia harbors in her heart a failed marriage and other mysteries, a hunchbacked dwarf named Lymon hobbles into town, claiming he is her kin. Believing the little man to be her half-sister's son, Amelia takes in Lymon. They develop an unusual relationship, this withdrawn woman and uncouth dwarf. A boisterous buffoon, Lymon (Cork Hubbert, Legend) urges Amelia to reopen the café on the main floor of her enormous farmhouse, which gives the locals a venue for something sorely lacking in their lives: fun.
Marvin returns from prison, slide guitar in hand, hell-bent on resuming his psychological warfare with the woman who spurned him. The dwarf loves Amelia and possibly Marvin as well, though Miss Amelia seems to appraise love as a foreign concept. All three are crazy—perhaps from hatred or maybe the heat. It could also be the cruel vagaries of life or, in Lymon's case, just because.
As Amelia, Marvin, and Lymon collide in circumstance and fate, it's painfully obvious that only two points in this po' white trash triangle can survive.
This all plays better on paper than film, where the literary qualities of nuance, detail, and character translate here into an Old South gallery of grotesques writ large in a turgid Technicolor melodrama. The thematic concerns—namely, madness and brutality—invite parallels to A Streetcar Named Desire, but the actual execution is more David Lynch than Elia Kazan. Director Callow likes to wallow in bizarre detail, as though he pored over McCullers' novel with a yellow highlighter, resolving to underline every instance of insanity, debauchery, villainy, and vice. What he delivers, though, is a sumptuously photographed landscape of the Depression-era South, with the primary highlight being Redgrave's inscrutable performance. Is she playing this material straight or aiming for satire? Evidence to support both arguments is on display in her performance, yet she never betrays her intent.
With ripe dialogue and viscous scenarios, the screenplay was clearly a powerful draw for the three Academy Award winners in the cast. The script requires these actors to deliver such flamboyant lines that they arrive triumphantly at the end of sentences, yet we wonder if scenery chewing might be next on the menu. Steiger was particularly susceptible to gnawing on hambones: witness his Oscar-winning performance in the 1967 Best Picture winner, In the Heat of the Night. Carradine fares best in a controlled performance that simmers with frustration, ultimately exploding into rage.
A first-time director, Callow clearly did not rein in his performers when he should have, yet he held too tightly to the leash when other scenes warrant reckless abandon. So we lurch back and forth in tone and feeling. The resulting uncertainty elicits an odd sensation from material that is already, at best, peculiar. Perhaps a swig from a Mason jar of Miss Amelia's home-brewed hooch would produce a greater appreciation of this esoteric nonsense.
Let me be clear: The director was obviously going for an exaggerated, operatic style to spotlight the tragic lives of sad characters. Yet these are people who are not much worth caring about. And that is the fatal flaw. Visually, the film emulates the celebrated photography of Walker Evans, whose stunning black-and-white images of Depression-era folk open the literary-documentary experiment Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, by the brilliant author and screenwriter James Agee (Night of the Hunter). Agee's incredible book is an essential contribution to 20th-century culture. The Ballad of the Sad Café is not.
Presented in association with the Criterion Collection, this is a well-produced DVD of a mediocre film. Audio and video are above average, while special features—limited to a director's commentary—are subpar. Callow dishes on his methods and inspirations, although he ultimately tries to imbue the film—his lone directorial effort—with a degree of importance that clashes with the evidence onscreen.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Despite a uniquely American literary pedigree, Callow's film is closer to Shakespeare in its tragic scope and grand ambition. But like one of the Bard's best-known titles, Ballad of the Sad Café is really much ado about nothing. All tone and texture and pretty pictures, the film is maddeningly frustrating for raising narrative expectations yet failing to deliver a satisfying story. Were it not for Redgrave's remarkable performance, the film would probably be forgotten today.
This is billed as part of the Merchant Ivory collection, but the film is a curious misfire in an otherwise sterling body of work. Truth be told, producer James Ivory was not involved with the production (this was an Ismail Merchant effort), so it is misleading to include this title in a collection of their joint ventures.
Like a fever dream, this surreal film fades quickly when the lights come up. It is remarkable, in fits and starts, only while it lasts.
Ballad of the Sad Cafe stands guilty of drowning substance in florid style.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Home Vision Entertainment
• Commentary by Director Simon Callow
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