John Huston, celebrated for star-driven literary adaptations of macho genre fiction like The Maltese Falcon and The Man Who Would Be King, occasionally turned his attention to higher-brow fare like Reflections in a Golden Eye, The Dead, and his late-career, counterintuitive version of Flannery O’Connor’s darkly comic 1952 debut novel Wise Blood, billed by her publisher as a work of “sin and redemption,” O’Connor’s tale is the odyssey of Hazel Motes (Brad Dourif), a newly discharged veteran who angrily denounces Christian orthodoxy by taking to the streets of a small, indifferent Southern city to preach the message of his Church Without Christ, a blasphemous belief system where “the deaf don’t hear, the blind don’t see, the lame don’t walk, and the dead stay that way.” Huston’s take on the evangelical milieu isn’t far short of contemptuous (aided by Alex North’s insistently ironic musical adaptations of trad pieces like the “Tennessee Waltz”), but as embodied by Dourif’s blazing eyes and petulant, thrust-out jaw beneath his big-brimmed black hat, Hazel’s crusade of denial and self-martyrdom displaces the jaundiced spoofing with a peculiar striving for sainthood.
Haunted by recollections of a fire-and-brimstone grandfather (Huston) and his own childhood penance of walking in rock-filled shoes, Motes doesn’t draw committed disciples with his heresies but a gallery of rogues, including a faux-blind preacher (Harry Dean Stanton) and his conspiring, Haze-crazy daughter (a blissfully cracked Amy Wright); a manic, unbalanced teenager (Dan Shor) obsessed with his alleged prophesying gift of “wise blood” and a shrunken mummy in the local museum; and a slick grifter (Ned Beatty in a perfect cameo) who, having failed to persuade the maverick to partner with him, goes into business with an outfitted Motes stand-in (William Hickey). Undaunted by the populace’s deafness to his gospel as well as other realities (“This is a good car,” he baselessly assures everyone of the leaky, smoking wreck he drives), Dourif’s Motes spirals into the girl-child’s bed and homicide before he turns with single-mindedness toward expiation.
If the film fails to find many visual metaphors for the book’s focus on the interior struggle of its antihero (O’Connor wrote that Motes was plagued by a shadowy Christ moving “from tree to tree” in the back of his mind), its use of grotesque frissons, like Wright’s Madonna-and-child pose with the pilfered mummy, and salt-of-the-earth bit players balances the broad, wacky-cracker antics of Shor’s moron in particular. The budget-limited choice not to set the film consistently in the novel’s period—the urban scenes are clearly contemporary despite occasional mid-century vintage trains, cars, and clothes—further lends a surreal timelessness. “The world’s an empty place,” Hazel’s lonely landlady (Mary Nell Santacroce) assures him once he’s taken up self-mutilation as his means of atonement, but Huston’s Wise Blood is a sharp, busy canvas that, like a man with a good car, doesn’t need to be justified.
The restored Criterion transfer, preserving the slightly soft-focused lensing that lends a drab tenderness even to the location shots in the streets of Macon, Georgia, looks about as good as a quick million-dollar shoot (with a nonunion crew) could. The monaural sound mix is clear and efficient, even with the mix of authentic and affected Dixie accents.
The only known recording of Flannery O'Connor reading her fiction, a hissy but audible 1959 presentation of the lean, mean, and witty short story A Good Man Is Hard to Find is a jewel of the extra features, with the drawling, deliberately-paced speaker first distancing herself from the "Southern grotesque" label. A recurring theme in the remaining extras is how John Huston, a strident atheist who fancied making a lampoon of evangelical nuttiness, came to acknowledge the power of the Redeemer over the narrative in much the way Hazel Motes ultimately surrenders. "I believe I've been had," the director is reported to have exclaimed near the end of production. "Jesus wins." Screenwriters Michael and Benedict Fitzgerald, whose parents had been O'Connor's literary executors, recount their maiden Hollywoood venture and speak well of the veteran filmmaker's instincts and support. (Their father's work on an Oedipus Rex translation apparently inspired O'Connor's choice of Motes's most extreme ascetic act.) Lead actor Brad Dourif describes how the Fitzgeralds drew upon the family friendship with the novelist to aid Huston and the cast in divining her themes. Dourif also crystallizes Motes's essence as the author's vision of how a Pentecostal, brimstone-minded man would try for sainthood. In a half-hour Creativity with Bill Moyers TV profile in 1982, Huston speaks of the film director's role as "surrogate God" for actors in the live audience's absence-and then is seen lording over the set of perhaps his most inexplicable project, the movie incarnation of Broadway's Annie musical, and chatting at his seaside Mexican hideaway about his peripatetic youth and early failures. An essay in the disc's booklet by novelist Francine Prose credits the film with capturing "the earthy and the celestial" from its source.
A low-budget success in capturing the flesh, and some of the soul, of O'Connor's twisted salvation fable.