Judge Barrie Maxwell takes a look at this MGM release of the classic film starring Sidney Poitier, who's probably still wondering why he took that role in The Jackal.
"If it's for hire, you've got one man, for one day."
Lilies of the Field was a low-budget film shot in fourteen days and a showcase for actor Sidney Poitier. It was a 1963 release for United Artists, produced and directed by Ralph Nelson and received considerable acclaim upon its release, winning five Academy award nominations. MGM has now released a generally bare-bones version of the film on DVD as part of its Vintage Classics series.
Facts of the Case
Itinerant handyman Homer Smith is driving through the Arizona desert when he realizes that his car radiator is in need of water. He happens upon the scrub ranch of five German nuns and is persuaded to repair their home's leaky roof. It soon becomes apparent that the nuns have no money, however, and cannot pay Homer for his work.
The nuns' greatest desire is to build a small chapel on their property. Weekly worship would then not have to be celebrated by a mobile priest working out of the back of his station wagon. The nuns come to believe that Homer has been sent by God to build the chapel for them.
Homer at first refuses, but eventually agrees to at least start to clean up the proposed site. A workman is the least of the problem, though, for all the needed materials have to come from somewhere too.
Viewed some 38 years after it first appeared, it's rather hard to see why Lilies of the Field received the acclaim it did upon its release. The story is a very simple, albeit pleasant one, straight-forwardly acted and really places no great demands on the players. The film was nominated as Best Picture of the year while Sidney Poitier won the Best Actor Academy Award for his efforts as Homer Smith, as well as a Best Actor Golden Bear from the Berlin Film Festival. One has to look beyond the film for the reasons for those wins, however.
Perhaps viewers were looking for an alternative to the trend to moral laxity than was beginning to appear with such films as Tom Jones (1963, Britain, and Best Picture winner) and Hud (1963, Paramount) or relief from the furor over civil rights that was making parts of America a real-life battleground. It seems certain that the latter was a factor in Poitier's win at the Academy Awards ceremony. The timing for the Academy to make a statement about how democratic and open-minded it was concerning film portrayals by blacks was just right, and besides Poitier had a record of good acting performances since 1950 that was worthy of recognition. Why not give him the Oscar and so kill two birds with one stone? So they did.
There is no doubt that Poitier is the whole show in the film, but the character of Homer Smith is just not that interesting or complex. Consequently, as a job of acting, Poitier has to do little more than walk through the role. Opportunities to examine why Homer agrees to repair the roof and later to take on the job of building the chapel are missed by the script. In each instance, he at first refuses, then starts to drive off; then he turns around and comes back. Is it about pay or is he an instrument of God responding to the nuns' prayers? Does he just feel guilty or sorry for the nuns? Does he view it as a chance to accomplish something lasting for himself? We don't really know because we never get to share Poitier's feelings or thoughts other than through the odd quizzical look that he seems to offer from time to time.
Other than Poitier, most of the rest of the cast and crew were relative unknowns. All the players delivered likable if unmotivated performances in fairly straightforward roles. Lilia Skala, who played the head nun, was a German actress who subsequently had a modest career in American films. Stanley Adams (about half-way through a 25-year career of mainly minor parts) played Juan, the owner of the restaurant/gas station, probably the character with the most life in the film. The director, Ralph Nelson, was trained in television and Lilies of the Field was only his second theatrical feature. (The first was Requiem for a Heavyweight [1962, Columbia].) Nelson did a nice job of framing the picture, generally letting the story tell itself without any distracting directorial flourishes. The clean look of the film was likely also attributable to veteran cinematographer Ernie Haller.
MGM has done a really nice job with the transfer of this film. The black and white image is letterboxed at 1.66:1 (which appears to be the correct framing) and delivers a clean, bright picture with very good shadow detail. There are virtually no speckles or scratches and edge enhancement is at a minimum. MGM's efforts may be judged in comparison with the original theatrical trailer included on the disc. It's a very washed-out and beaten-up looking affair reminiscent of a poor VHS version of the film that I've seen. High marks on the transfer.
Lilies of the Field is presented in the original mono soundtrack. It does the job just fine for the film. Dialogue is clear and undistorted, with no noticeable hiss.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Despite the film's shortcomings (to me anyway), it did receive a Best Picture nomination plus a Best Actor award. That alone would have made me expect a higher-profile effort on the DVD by MGM. All we get, however, is a beaten-up trailer. One would have thought that Poitier might have been enticed to do a commentary given his Oscar win. There are no cast and crew profiles, no production background (except for one "fact from the vault" listed on the back of the case), and no listing of scene selections—in fact no insert sheet at all.
I point out that MGM's transfer is not an anamorphic one. Even at an aspect ratio of 1.66:1, some will deplore the omission. At such ratios, however, I believe the very slight improvement in resolution that an anamorphic transfer affords is a wash when you take into account the windowboxing that starts to come with it.
Lilies of the Field falls into the category of films that you're glad you didn't pay full price to see at the theatre. It's amiable enough and it's been competently filmed, but it fails to either arouse or inspire because the material itself seems rather flat and the actors seem generally unmotivated by it. Sidney Poitier delivers a pleasant portrayal, but one that's far from any gem of acting. The DVD's image is a particularly nice-looking rendition of the film, but the disc is totally lacking in any extras that might shed light on the making of the film.
The defendant is paroled into the custody of Sidney Poitier completists. Others should seek its release on a weekend pass from the rental outlets. This court is adjourned.
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Scales of Justice
• Original Theatrical Trailer
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