Tuesday, May 03, 2011
George Stevens' Giant (1956), in One Scene
As the Siren's contribution to her friend Raymond de Felitta's valiant efforts to resurrect the sadly shredded reputation of the marvelous George Stevens, she was going to write up the movie Giant. (Part 3 of Raymond's musings right here; please, pretty please, read them all.) After noodling around for a couple of weeks, she decided that all she really needed was this scene, one that ranks with the Siren's favorites in all of 1950s cinema and constitutes a remarkable piece of acting by the perpetually underappreciated Rock Hudson. Gather round, Stevens lovers and Stevens skeptics, and the Siren will explain.
A primary theme of Giant is bigotry, specifically bigotry against Mexican Americans. We've seen it throughout; Rock Hudson, as the stalwart Texas rancher Bick Benedict, kind to his Hispanic workers by the none-too-exacting standards of the time and place, but patronizing, tone-deaf and inclined to ignore what's going on in front of him. Like many people before and since, he first must find someone he cares about personally in order to comprehend what his wife (Elizabeth Taylor) and son Jordan (Dennis Hopper, in a sensitive and intelligent performance) have understood all along.
Late in the movie, the Benedict family--Hudson, Taylor (as Leslie), Carroll Baker (as their headstrong daughter Luz) and Elsa Cardenas (as Hopper's wife, Juana) have stopped at a roadside diner on their way back from a catastrophic weekend. James Dean, as the oil magnate Jett Rink, got spectacularly drunk at his own tribute dinner and, after making a horse's ass of himself in front of Texas society, confessed his love for Leslie to a near-empty banquet hall--watched by a heartsore Luz, who had loved him herself. Benedict decides a good hearburn-inducing meal will help them get back in touch with the real Texas. Unfortunately, the salt of the Texas earth is going to contain a lot of dirt.
We've already seen Juana, a gentle and idealized young woman, humiliated when she tried to go to a beauty parlor in Rink's hotel to get ready for the banquet. We've seen Jordan stomp into the proceedings and slug a smirking and unapologetic Rink. We've seen also that Benedict's initial reaction (although he later confronts Rink, for personal reasons that go way back) was more discomfort and embarrassment than sympathy with his enraged son. In the four minutes that this scene runs, we see Benedict finally, irrevocably, on course to getting the point.
What a superb rhythm Stevens and his editor, William Hornbeck, bring, as the scene starts with shots looking down the whole of the diner, and then picks up bit by bit as the confrontation grows and the camera gets more intimate with the fight and the people looking on. Raymond writes, with regard to A Place in the Sun, that "for Stevens, its not a matter of where the actors heads, hands etc. actually were that amounts to continuity; rather an emotional continuity and the power of the cut to bring that forward is what he was looking to achieve." Emotional continuity is here in this scene, in spades.
The Benedicts are seated at a back booth, with their menus. Sarge, played by Mickey Simpson, a character actor built along the lines of a brick outhouse, has already insulted the baby ("I'd think that kid would want a tamale") but permitted them to sit by virtue of the Benedicts being white enough to counteract the presence of Juana and Benedict's grandson. The camera looks down the long length of the diner, steel, white paint and red vinyl chairs, as a Spanish speaking family, evidently Mexican, comes in to eat. They timidly take a booth. "Hey you," Sarge calls from the left of the screen.
Cut to Benedict, sitting up, menu sliding back, a profile shot that emphasizes his social stature--the lord of the Reata ranch is not pleased. Leslie tries to talk about planes and arrival times. Back to the camera looking down the diner, Sarge advancing on the family--a woman with her parents, it seems--and telling them to get lost, with a few mispronounced Spanish phrases that are far more insulting than English would have been. (Simpson sounds about as Texan as Fiorello LaGuardia, but he's so good here it doesn't much matter.) From the left we see people at the counter watching the moment over their shoulders, with no more than idle detachment. Sarge towers over the old man, plants the old gentleman's hat on his head like he's a schoolboy, and starts to 86 him. Far in the back of the shot, we see Benedict rise to his feet and begin to advance. The men at the counter turn all the way around.
Benedict walks up with the spreading beer-belly gait of late (very late) middle age, but he's almost as tall as Sarge. Sarge's physical advantage is telegraphed by the way his back almost blots Benedict out of the shot. Hudson's body language isn't that of a man anticipating a fight, just that of an aristocrat pulling rank in the easy expectation that the peon is going to roll over. Simpson's planted feet and posture suggest no such thing.
Cut back to the opposite corner of the diner, now looking at Benedict's back, which is stiffening, a cake tower separating the two men (the Siren loves that) and Sarge pointing to Benedict's grandchild: "That there papoose down there, his name Benedict too?" The waitress is the only one in the diner who takes a look. Benedict turns; everyone else is still focused on him.
Back to the first shot, only closer in. "Yeah, come to think of it"--it may in fact be the first time Benedict has truly thought of it, and his voice finally gets aggressive on the next part of the line--"it is." Now to the Benedict booth for the first time since the confrontation began, Juana staring ahead in silent misery, her son just visible at the bottom of the frame, and Leslie in profile--hand resting on her pearls.
Sarge's back again, full-length; the old man has sat back down. Sarge pulls him back up and Hudson's first move is covered up by the actor's bulk--you only see Benedict's leg bowing out as he almost crouches to push back. Back against the counter Sarge goes; the men seated in the middle of the shot have abandoned all pretense of not watching the floor show. Benedict stands there like he's waiting for Sarge to pump him gas.
And we hear the first punch--we don't see it--we're back at the booth, Leslie giving a start, Luz's jaw set, Juana refusing to turn around. A couple more punches are heard until we're at a new angle and Sarge's huge frame landing on top of a table. And the impact of his body starts up the jukebox playing the mega-hit "Yellow Rose of Texas" as he slowly rises to his feet. Benedict's back look relaxed--way too relaxed, in a way that signals once more that this fight isn't going to go well for him.
Sarge lands another punch and the camera pulls back to Benedict landing on the floor, legs underneath him as though he slipped on a wet spot, not someone who knows he's in danger, but someone who figures this is all going to work out as soon as he's back on his feet. Benedict gets to his feet; more bad news, he doesn't exactly look steady. The Benedict table stirring, Leslie sitting up further, Luz's hand wavering at her face as if to say this is so unpleasant. The grandson, too interested to start crying.
Facing the counter now, Benedict and Sarge holding one another, Sarge punching only a hair above the belt. Benedict against the Mexican family's table, hands finally up. They circle one another and Benedict gets in a right to the jaw, his best punch so far and the best he's gonna get. Benedict's face in a brief moment of triumph, then Sarge lands another punch and he goes down.
And--the Siren loves this shot--we shift suddenly to the perspective from the kitchen, and the back of the cook, looking dead at the door as a man exits the counter on the right, and on the left Sarge still whales on Benedict.
Sarge's face shows more confidence than ever. A tremendous punch at Benedict who goes down again, an off-camera whimper from (probably) Luz and back to the corner booth, Leslie really clutching the pearls now, Juana barely turning her head.
Benedict down on the floor, looking up--another shot the Siren loves, one of sheer bloody aristocratic stubbornness, incredulity still in the tilt of his eyebrows.
One more fairly decent punch for Benedict, shot from the back of the diner again. The screen evenly divided, the Mexican man standing on the left, the waitress pudgily waiting it out on the right.
Then, as Benedict wallops Sarge onto a table, dig the view through the window--the livestock truck with cows grazing on hay, and the oil derricks on the left. More customers cutting their losses and beating it. More Luz and Leslie, the baby still placid in his mama's lap. Benedict pulling up Sarge like a sack of grain--he's not going to hit a man when he's down, not Bick Benedict.
Our first shot through the outside windows, people peeking in, and then the waitress in her doughy stupor, a sign on the right of her that we're about to see again in short order.
Sarge's quickest, harshest, most brutal punch, and Benedict's fastest meeting with the floor yet. The baby really wondering what's going on now. Sarge standing over Benedict, his face saying "I've got you now." Benedict's hair flopping comically and blood coming out of his mouth; Luz sitting way up in her seat to see if her father is capable of getting up, then putting her hand on her mouth like he's embarrassing her at a school dance. The camera trying to get up from the floor with Benedict as he seems to hug Sarge's waistband. A higher-angle shot of the Benedict table. Benedict up against the counter, and Sarge lands a punch that sends Benedict sailing over the counter, and Stevens pulls the camera back again so what we notice is mostly the soles of Benedict's shoes. Luz finally crying. The baby leaning back against mama. Benedict staggering to his feet and Sarge almost centered behind him, Sarge sure of his victory now. The cook still lounging on the left.
Benedict's head on the counter. He turns around. Now look at his expression, pushed to the side of this lummox, hair still flopping--he knows he's going to lose, but by god he's going down swinging. From the back of Benedict we see them, absurdly, still raising their fists like this is a boxing match and not a rout--more punches, more Luz almost hysterical--two more punches from Benedict and the waitress momentarily a bit worried. The baby finally upset, Sarge half-grinning, Luz again calling to her father, more punches, a blindingly fast cut to the Benedicts, more Sarge, Luz's head on her arms, and then a look through the neon sign on the window--Sarge's Place--at Benedict going down. (The military nickname for Sarge's character sarcastically evokes the one soldier we see in this movie, Sal Mineo's brief cameo as the young Hispanic ranch hand, Angel, who is killed in action offscreen. It's worth noting, because Stevens, novelist Edna Ferber and screenwriters Fred Guiol and Ivan Moffat probably knew it, that Latino Americans have won more Congressional Medals of Honor than any other ethnic group.)
Leslie finally runs to her husband, leans over him and we get our first Stevens dissolve, to Sarge looking down at Benedict, with that sign on the left. He turns and grabs it (it isn't a very big sign) and dumps the notice on Benedict's chest. Leslie looks up. A close-up of Sarge, his expression hovering somewhere around smug, and then a swoosh in to the sign: "WE RESERVE THE RIGHT TO REFUSE SERVICE TO ANYONE"--the words surrounded by foodstains, heaving up and down with Benedict's labored breathing.
It's a rare movie fistfight that functions as character development, and this one plays like gangbusters. The metronome of that Mitch Miller march is bouncy enough to take the edge off the brutality, but martial enough to underline the epic nature of this battle. This is the climax of what the movie has been slowly pushing at Bick Benedict, the realization that his seigneurial little gestures toward Hispanic Texans are not, and never have been, enough. At some point, he has to pick a side and fight for it. But this isn't a noble fencing match, it's a doomed gesture against a system that isn't going to change anytime soon. And it isn't a complete epiphany for Benedict, Hudson's face and body show that to the end. There's too much lingering surprise for that. It's only when he's pulling his head off the counter that Benedict appears to realize that he's going down. And as Leslie is trying to comfort him, Benedict still doesn't know precisely what the hell just happened. It's Leslie who will have to explain at the fadeout, just a few scenes later.