Twilight Time has released the 1959 Fox film adaptation of William Faulkner's classic novel The Sound and the Fury as a limited edition (3,000 unit) Blu-ray release. The film was a follow-up venture between producer Jerry Wald and director Martin Ritt to their screen version of Faulkner's The Hamlet, which was released the previous year under the title of The Long, Hot Summer. That movie was a boxoffice smash that helped elevate Paul Newman's status as one of the industry's most promising leading men. Good fortune did not smile on The Sound and the Fury, however. Ritt's screen version made dramatic changes to the acclaimed source novel, eliminating much of the plot and eschewing much of the drama that extended over a period of many years into a segment centering on a few days. Ritt and the screenwriters also chose to tell the story through the eyes of a teenage girl who is only a secondary character in the novel. The result was scathing reviews from disappointing critics, though the film has been more favorably re-evaluated in recent years.
Faulkner, like his contemporary Tennessee Williams, excelled at dramatizing the plight of dysfunctional people in the modern South. The story focuses on the Compson family, a once prominent staple of a backwater Mississippi town. They've fallen on hard times. The deceased father ran up debts prior to drinking himself to death and left it to his son Jason (Yul Brynner, sporting a full pate of hair) to salvage the family mansion. He's done so by selling the family store to someone else and he has to suffer the daily indignity of working for the new owner. On the surface, he's a hard-nosed, humorless man whose only vice seems to be chain smoking cigars and cigarettes. In truth, he has little to be joyful about. The mansion is in decay and he is stuck caring for an alcoholic brother (John Beal) who doesn't work at all, as well an aging, constantly griping mother (Francoise Rosay) and a younger brother, Ben (Jack Warden) who suffers from a mental disability and cannot speak. His biggest challenge is raising his step-niece Quentin (Joanne Woodward), a wayward teen grappling with issues of self-esteem and raging hormones. She's heading to the wrong side of the tracks and is in a constant state of rebellion. She hates Jason because of his disciplinary measures and takes up with a no-good but hunky carnival worker (Stuart Whitman) who is gearing up to relieve her of her virginity and any family savings she can pilfer so they can run away together. Tensions rise even further when Quentin's mother Caddy (Margaret Leighton) returns home, ostensibly to finally get to know the daughter she abandoned at birth. She gets a cold reception from Jason, who reminds her that while she was sleeping her way through the state, he was raising her illegitimate daughter and trying to overcome the social stigma so Quentin will have some self-esteem. Nevertheless, seeing she is desperate and homeless, he invites her back home. Quentin initially welcomes her estranged mom but quickly sees her as the selfish and vain woman she really is. Tensions in the household are brought to the boiling point and are sometimes only diffused by the family's long-time cook, Dilsey (the great Ethel Waters in her final screen role.)
The episodic screenplay meanders quite a bit, never reaching any kind of dramatic conclusion other than Quentin's ultimate acceptance that Jason has been acting in her best interests. This gradual realization leads to a couple of rather daring sequences in which it is made clear there is a sexual attraction between them. (The script emphasizes they are not technically related by blood, but there is an uncomfortable feeling to these scenes that reminds one of the similar relationship between Burt Lancaster and Audrey Hepburn in John Huston's The Unforgiven. The studio shamelessly capitalized on the incest angle, creating a misleading poster of Brynner standing above Woodward, who is laying prone on her bed. The tag line even proudly proclaimed that the story broke "the unwritten commandment!") The movie is more satisfying in parts than as a whole, but is consistently engrossing thanks to the uniformly fine performances. Brynner is especially good, playing against type as an everyday man trying to cope with leading a middle class existence. Woodward is excellent in terms of performance but she is ultimately miscast for one reason: she was 29 years old at the time and simply isn't entirely convincing as a teenage girl for obvious reasons. Margaret Leighton is in full Blanche Dubois mode as the faded and sullied Southern belle and Whitman provides fine support as the transient heel with seduction on his mind.
Ritt, like Faulkner, also always excelled at making films about deeply troubled people having to interact with each other and The Sound and the Fury is no exception. Aside from his fine direction, the movie boasts a terrific jazz score by Alex North that alternately evokes romance and suspense. The fine Blu-ray presentation doesn't have any extras but there is that mainstay of Twilight Time releases: the collector's booklet with excellent liner notes by Julie Kirgo. (Read it after you view the film, as it unavoidably contains spoilers.)