In parts one and two of my exploration of Southern Gothic films, I examined this murky subgenre from its origins in the Pre-Code films of the ‘30s to its explosion in the ‘40s and ‘50s with adaptations of the work of American writers like William Faulkner and Tennessee Williams, as well as its connections to the South’s troubled history and complicated politics — including issues of poverty and racism — and the influence of the horror and fantasy genres. Generally existing somewhere between the horror and florid melodrama, Southern Gothic always explored themes of sex, violence, crime, and social injustice, but these took on new life and more exaggerated expression in the ‘60s with the rise of national tensions due to the Civil Rights movement, Vietnam War protests, and political dissent (and even violence) on an international scale in the late ‘60s.
In this final essay, I’m going to look at the last gasp of the genre’s most productive decades in the ‘60s and early ‘70s — at least as I see it — with a number of films that dared a more confrontational, often controversial use of exploitation, sex, and violence. These include yet more Tennessee Williams adaptations, such as Sweet Bird of Youth (1962), The Night of the Iguana (1964), and This Property is Condemned (1966); adaptations of Georgia-born writer Carson McCullers’ Reflections in a Golden Eye (1967) and The Heart is a Lonely Hunter (1968); as well as films that explored racism, like The Young One (1960), Wild River (1960), and In the Heat of the Night (1967); and several that addressed Southern Gothic’s fixation with sexual violence, like Desire in the Dust (1960), Cape Fear (1962), The Beguiled (1971), and Macon County Line (1974), among others.
While the heyday of Tennessee Williams’ adaptations came in the ‘50s, a handful were produced in the ‘60s, beginning with 1962’s Sweet Bird of Youth, directed by Richard Brooks of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958), In Cold Blood (1967), and Looking for Mr. Goodbar (1967), among others. Like The Long, Hot Summer (1958), which also starred Paul Newman, this is really more of a romantic drama and is relatively light on the Gothic themes. A struggling actor — who is actually little more than a gigolo — named Chance (Newman, in a role he originally played on Broadway) returns to his Florida hometown with his current lover, Alexandra (Geraldine Page, who was also in the Broadway production), a movie star with a waning career who is considering retirement. Chance is actually in love with Heavenly (Shirley Knight), the daughter of a local bigwig (Ed Begley), Boss Finley, who hates Chance and is determined to ruin him.
Playing out as a sort of inversion of The Long, Hot Summer, Chance manages to expose Boss Finley’s criminal actions, while coincidentally getting rid of his older lover, when her career resurfaces, allowing him to run off with Heavenly. Though this is a relatively straightforward drama, a number of Southern Gothic themes creep in: a licentious sexual relationship, blackmail, abortion, drug use, local corruption, and physical violence — though the play’s devastating ending that implies genital mutilation is excised completely and Brooks gives the film a happy ending. A similar fate met both The Night of the Iguana and This Property is Condemned, which somewhat moved away from the grimmer, Gothic elements present in Williams’ earlier work; they are also fundamentally dramas that put a similar emphasis on themes of controversial sexuality and social scandal.
In John Huston’s The Night of the Iguana, the former Reverend Shannon (Richard Burton) has left his profession due to an affair with a much younger woman and leads a depressed existence as a tour guide from Texas to Mexico. Trying to escape a similar scandal (of which he is ironically innocent), he purposefully strands the tour bus at a Mexican hotel in the middle of nowhere, where he has a breakdown and finds himself caught between the hotel owner (Ava Gardner) and a modest painter (Deborah Kerr). Sydney Pollack’s This Property is Condemned follows the familiar formula of a handsome stranger (Robert Redford) wandering into a Southern town, where a local girl (Natalie Wood) falls for him, though she is desperate to leave town. This one has more of a dour conclusion and, rather than psychological demons and small town corruption, the plot is focused on the difficulties of Depression-era life. Wood in particular stands out as a sexually bold young woman whose life has become miserable, because her mother is essentially trying to sell her to the highest bidder — she describes her daughter as “the main attraction” — manipulative mothers being one of Williams’ most pervasive themes.
Things were considerably bleaker with two adaptations based on the work of troubled writer Carson McCullers later in the decade: Reflections in a Golden Eye and The Heart is a Lonely Hunter. Born and raised in Georgia, though she left in her late teens to move to New York and pursue a career as a writer, McCullers’ eccentric novels and short fiction was generally set in the South and focused on a colorful array of protagonists and side characters that can be seen as a precursor to those found in the films and television work of someone like David Lynch. Despite the loose realism that defines her work, there is also the pervasive air of strangeness about it. McCullers herself wrote of, “nostalgia for the familiar and an urge for the foreign and strange,” which describes the overall tone of a lot of her work. Her isolated outcasts suffer from loneliness, unrequited love (both platonic and romantic), and sexual repression, and it was Tennessee Williams who said that her most fiction most frequently explored “the nearly insoluble problems of human love.”
Director John Huston, who befriended McCullers, returned to a Southern Gothic theme for his adaptation of Reflections in a Golden Eye, a film that has been bafflingly ignored despite the fact stars Marlon Brando (who replaced Montgomery Clift, who sadly passed away just before production began) and Elizabeth Taylor deliver some of the best performances of their careers. In my mind, it’s the ultimate Southern Gothic film of the ‘60s in many ways: during the Vietnam War protests, it boldly explores corruption at an army base, while also including themes of voyeurism, homosexuality, sexual perversion, suicide, and, finally, murder. The film focuses on Major Penderton (Brando) and his wife Leonora (Taylor); she is having an affair with another officer, while her husband lusts after a young soldier (a young Robert Forster), who is prone to riding horses naked and comes to develop a voyeuristic fixation on Leonora. The opening frames of the film make it clear that the events will result in a murder — by featuring a quote from the novel, “There is a fort in the South where a few years ago a murder was committed” — and it’s possible that the film failed to attract critical or popular attention because of its admittedly extreme subject matter (including a scene where Taylor beats Brando with a riding crop).
And while Robert Ellis Miller’s The Heart is a Lonely Hunter is far less Gothic in tone — lacking the themes of perversion and repression that lead to violence — its Southern setting and fixation with poverty, loneliness, and tragedy makes it at least worth mentioning here. A deaf-mute man (Alan Arkin) moves to a new town when his only real friend, another mute man (Chuck McCann), is sent to a mental institution, so that he can still visit his friend. His attempts to befriend the locals — who are all grappling with various personal, financial, and even medical difficulties — have mixed results and his sense of isolation only becomes more profound, leading to his suicide.
That film — and its source novel — attempts to sensitively (if not entirely successfully, in the case of the film) deal with issues of racism and the struggles of black Americans in the South, a theme that the Production Code effectively repressed in the cinema of the ‘40s and ‘50s. Director Miller actually updated the novel’s setting to present day, which is important in terms of one of the main subplots, which involves the difficult relationship between a black doctor and his daughter, who is employed as a maid, to his frustration. Racial themes appeared throughout a number of ‘60s films that loosely fit into the Southern Gothic subgenre, essentially beginning with La joven aka The Young One.
Directed by Luis Buñuel — shot in Mexico, but in English and with primarily American actors — the film is Buñuel’s last American effort and targets racism particularly viciously. Trevor (Bernie Hamilton), a jazz musician, is forced to go on the run when he’s accused of raping a woman; because he is black, the punishment will likely be lynching, whether he’s guilty or not. He finds his way to a strange island whose only inhabitants are an unpleasant beekeeper, Miller (Zachary Scott), and a young teen, Evvie (Key Meersman), who Miller is attempting to seduce. While Miller is gone, Trevor arrives and unexpectedly bonds with the girl. When his presence is discovered by Miller, this ultimately results in an uneasy alliance between all three, one that culminates in a sickening ending that seems curiously relevant to contemporary issues of American racism: a black man’s life is ruined when he is accused of a crime he didn’t commit (he is able to escape, but will presumably be on the run indefinitely), while a white man who did commit the same crime — not only rape, but the pedophilic rape of an underage Evvie — is not only pardoned but allowed to profit from his crime by forcing the girl to marry him.
Though few directors in the ‘60s would approach these themes as daringly as Buñuel, and notably without the controversial sexual elements, a few films covered somewhat similar ground. Elia Kazan’s Wild River followed a man (Montgomery Clift) trying to to convince Tennessee landowners to abandon their practice of exploiting black laborers in favor of building a dam on their farmland, while the most famous of these, To Kill a Mockingbird (1962), follows the children of a lawyer (Gregory Peck) as they learn about racism in their small Alabama town. This theme would also begin to creep into genre films with Norman Jewison’s thriller In the Heat of the Night — where a black detective (Sidney Poitier) from Philadelphia finds himself caught up in a murder investigation while traveling through the South — and Richard Fleischer’s slightly later Mandingo (1975), which is essentially a slavery-cum-boxing drama with numerous exploitation elements; it features everything from rape and incest to full frontal male nudity, fighting, baby murder, and someone being boiled alive.
But even more than racial themes, the uniting element of the majority of the Southern Gothic films of the ‘60s and early ‘70s is sexual perversion, generally entangled with themes of economic exploitation and emotional cruelty. In Robert L. Lippert’s 1960 film Desire in the Dust, a man, Lonnie (Ken Scott), returns home after serving time for a crime he didn’t commit, and resumes an affair with a now-married woman (Martha Hyer), who actually committed the crime in question: a car accident that resulted in the death of her brother. Their father, Colonel Marquand (the inimitable Raymond Burr), decides to do away with Lonnie once and for all.
Hysteria and violence took an even more terrifying form in J. Lee Thompson’s great Cape Fear, with Robert Mitchum as Cady, a recently released rapist, who decides to go after the lawyer (Gregory Peck) who helped put him behind bars. He begins to aggressively stalk the lawyer’s family, while resuming his old crimes, but there is not enough evidence to put him back in prison. The lawyer decides to put some distance between he and Cady after the rapist makes overt threats on the lawyer’s teenage daughter, and takes his family to their houseboat on the coast, leading to a violent showdown.
These sexual themes also crept into Southern-set thrillers, such as the wonderfully Gothic Hush Hush Sweet Charlotte (1964), where Bette Davis plays the titular Charlotte, a wealthy, eccentric woman who is believed by locals to have murdered her married lover years ago, gossip aided by the fact that she found his decapitated body and her dress was covered with blood. The state of Louisiana is planning to tear down her family mansion to make way for a new highway, which she fights stubbornly (and with a shotgun). She attempts to reconnect with her cousin Miriam (Olivia de Havilland) for some assistance, though once Miriam moves into the house, Charlotte coincidentally finds herself haunted by the ghost of her dead lover and begins a spiral into madness.
Giving a delightfully gory, demented twist to the themes of female madness, nearly all the film’s central characters are insane or at least eccentric women, who are (at minimum) capable of cruel, manipulative acts, generally inspired by sexual possessiveness, giving new meaning to the phrase “Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned.” Bette Davis, of course, gets the last laugh — and the last act of violence.
This fixation on female hysteria is also the dominating theme of Don Siegel’s 1971 film The Beguiled, one of the director’s many excellent collaborations with Clint Eastwood. He plays a handsome Northern soldier, John McBurney, stranded in the South during the Civil War. He is rescued and nursed back to health by the inhabitants of a girls’ boarding school, but his attempts to befriend each of the women in turn backfires quite rapidly. Many of them become obsessed with him and sexual jealousy inspires increasingly sordid acts of violence (some of which seem to have influenced Stephen King’s 1987 novel Misery).
Sexual violence is also the main theme of Macon County Line (1974), which came hot on the heels of other films with domestic revenge premises like 1971’s Straw Dogs and A Clockwork Orange. In it, a sheriff (Max Baer) in small-town Georgia is out for revenge when his wife is raped and murdered. He turns his attention to two brothers (Alan and Jesse Vint), who — along with a pretty young hitchhiker (Cheryl Waters) they recently picked up — just happen to be cruising through the countryside before enlisting in the Air Force. Macon County Line teeters somewhere between low budget drama and exploitation film and remains a strong example of how Southern Gothic themes would largely become the domain of horror and exploitation films in the ‘70s, thanks to efforts like Deliverance (1972) — with perhaps the ultimate expression of transgressive sexual violence set in the South, thanks to the notorious scene of male-on-male rape — and 1974’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, a film that changed the face of American horror and expressed deep-seated fears of (traditionally Southern) rural life.