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The Sound and the Fury

The Sound and the Fury(1959)

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teaser The Sound and the Fury (1959)

The title card of this 1959 film reads "William Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury," but admirers of the novel--and there are many--are hard put to find much of a connection between this movie and the original book, which was ranked sixth on the Modern Library list of the 100 best English-language novels of the 20th century.

At the same time, there are viewers who harbor fond memories of the picture, and on many cinema blog sites, you'll find claims for this as one of the favorite movies of those who post comments. In general, these fans, while acknowledging the near impossibility of adapting Faulkner's multi-generational stream-of-consciousness novel into film, appreciate the movie as a steamy melodrama of the Southern gothic school and as a kind of coming-of-age story about a rebellious teenage girl. Detractors, however, decry the fact that Hollywood has taken such a rich, complex modernist work about the decline of a family and turned it into....a steamy melodrama of the Southern gothic school and a kind of coming-of-age story.

The coming-of-age aspect is one of the major areas of contention regarding the film adaptation. For one thing, the character of Quentin, just one of several in Faulkner's novel, is put front and center here, in constant conflict with her stern tough-love step uncle Jason and the family's wise old black housekeeper (the legendary Ethel Waters in her final feature film role). As played by Yul Brynner in a wig, Jason's ethnicity is never quite clear, nor is his relationship with Quentin. The film also gives the story an almost happy ending, incongruously suggesting the girl and her "uncle" are the perfect match to redeem the wasted lineage. This willful teenager is played by the 29-year-old Joanne Woodward, a year after she won the Academy Award for portraying the housewife and mother with multiple personalities in The Three Faces of Eve (1957). To top it off, Woodward was well into a pregnancy during shooting, and various means had to be found to disguise that fact. But director Martin Ritt had a lot of faith in and respect for Woodward, who he had directed in two previous films, No Down Payment (1957) and The Long, Hot Summer (1958), another Faulkner adaptation and her first co-starring role with husband Paul Newman.

Martin Ritt was a Jewish New Yorker who became fascinated with the South while attending college in North Carolina. Ritt had an affinity for dark stories with social significance and was drawn to Faulkner's tales of the decay of the aristocratic South. His first foray into that territory was The Long, Hot Summer. He was brought to that project by producer Jerry Wald, who had once employed Faulkner at Warner Brothers during the writer's generally unhappy time in Hollywood. Now working at Fox, Wald persuaded the studio to pay $50,000 for the screen rights to Faulkner's The Hamlet and The Sound and the Fury, two ambitious projects he planned to shoot in color and Cinemascope, and he hired Ritt, who had made No Down Payment for him. Ritt collaborated with the writing team of Irving Ravetch and Harriet Frank, Jr., and the result, a star-studded project taking in bits and pieces from several of Faulkner's stories, was in the eyes of many critics more Tennessee Williams than William Faulkner, and a transformation of the author's intentions into something of a social comedy, but The Long, Hot Summer was a commercial success nonetheless.

Wald was pleased enough with the success of this first adaptation (which earned Paul Newman a Best Actor nomination at Cannes) to claim it was merely a rehearsal for the follow-up. "The Sound and the Fury is a different kind of motion picture," he wrote to Fox executives during shooting. "It is daring and will appeal to our long lost audience who have come to regard Hollywood as a Western factory. ... The Long, Hot Summer was an experiment, and a very successful one. It was the first time the public had been given Faulkner in heroic doses--and they went for it."

Despite the enthusiasm for the project shared by producer and director, the odd choice was made to forego the location shooting (in Louisiana) that had given the first picture such an authentic feel for the South in favor of filming primarily on a Fox sound stage. Equally odd was the casting of Yul Brynner as Jason. He was, of course, a major star after winning the Oscar® for The King and I (1956), and it didn't seem to bother the filmmakers that this Russian actor would be playing a Southern character. "Temperamentally, Yul fit the role perfectly," Wald wrote in an article before the film opened. "Yet he has an undisguisable accent and a touch of exoticism about him that at first glance seemed out of place in the locale of our story. We made this acceptable by changing the nationality of Jason and his aging mother to French--from the bayou country of Louisiana."

Another choice made for the production was to jettison Faulkner's method of moving the story back and forth in time; instead it was set in the present and the novel's events unfolded in a chronological order. This brought about the decision to have a major character, Quentin's mother Caddy, return to the present day family home, although in the book, once she embarks on her life of promiscuity, she exists only as a memory, a kind of specter that haunts the other characters. Wald initially thought of Lana Turner for the role but eventually Margaret Leighton was cast. Both the decision to bring Caddy into the story and to have her played by Leighton, a British actress acclaimed for her classical roles and appearances in Tennessee Williams plays, was not well received by most critics. Although some thought Leighton had several effective and touching moments, the New York Times review said she played the part "as if she were the Blanche DuBois right out of a stranded road company of A Streetcar Named Desire."

Unfortunately, Fox executives viewed The Sound and the Fury much as the critics would and decided not to give it the prestige release originally intended for it. "I can't think of a better way to put a knife into the heart of this picture," Ritt remarked after hearing it would be dumped into general release in March 1959. "This picture represents a lot of sweat and hard work. I broke my back to help organize it and brought it in four days under schedule, apparently so that the brass could then use it as a cheap picture." Ritt rarely spoke of the film in the years to come, except to acknowledge that "I made some mistakes on that."

Not all the reviews were negative, however. Variety praised Woodward's "firm conviction" in the role of the girl and called Leighton's performance "remarkably realistic," concluding that The Sound and the Fury [is] a work of cinematic stature...mature, provocative and sensitively executed...."

The jazzy score is by Alex North. Although an item in the June 1958 Hollywood Reporter noted that North and Sammy Cahn would compose a title song for the movie, no such number exists.

An earlier adaptation of Faulkner's novel was presented on NBC television's Playwrights '56 series in 1955. It starred Franchot Tone as Jason, Janice Rule as Quentin, and Ethel Waters as Dilsey, the same role she played in the movie version.

Director: Martin Ritt
Producer: Jerry Wald
Screenplay: Irving Ravetch and Harriett Frank, Jr.
Cinematography: Charles G. Clarke
Editing: Stuart Gilmore
Art Direction: Maurice Ransford, Lyle R. Wheeler
Original Music: Alex North
Cast: Yul Brynner (Jason), Joanne Woodward (Quentin), Margaret Leighton (Caddy), Stuart Whitman (Charlie), Ethel Waters (Dilsey), Jack Warden (Ben).

by Rob Nixon

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