Home from the Hill (Web Exclusive)
Reviewed by Darragh O’Donoghue

Produced by Edmund Grainger; directed by Vincente Minnelli; written by Harriet Frank Jr. and Irving Ravetch, based on the novel by William Humphrey; cinematography by Milton R. Krasner; music by Bronislau Kaper; edited by Harold F. Kress; starring Robert Mitchum, Eleanor Parker, George Peppard, George Hamilton, Everett Sloane, and Luana Patten. Blu-ray, color, 150 min., 1960. A
Warner Archive release.

In Vincente Minnelli’s previous film, Some Came Running (1958)—another ’Scope adaptation of the kind of prolix and “meaningful” novel acclaimed by American literary juries—a professional gambler played by Dean Martin insists on wearing his Stetson in all situations, public and private. It brings me luck, he tells the nun who nurses him in hospital; she dismisses this as superstition. In Home from the Hill, his most self-referential work, Minnelli enlarges on this humorous episode and constructs his epic narrative around a conflict between paganism and Christianity. 

In a world dominated by appetite—for power and status, for instant and unlimited sexual gratification, for revenge—the controlling metaphor is the hunt as both an existential trial of masculinity and as a mirror image of that man’s fate, as he goes from hunter to hunted. Wade Hunnicutt (Robert Mitchum) is a Southern Zeus whose Mount Olympus is a Texan ranch of 40,000 acres, a libidinous deity who sows his seed and discord among the mortals who depend upon him, be they close kin or trivial tenant, dependents whose only defense is the mockery that ultimately brings about the twilight of these gods. Having said that, Wade is also the archetypal Greek tragic hero, a magnificent man brought low by his fatal flaw (hamartia).

George Peppard as Rafe with Libby Halstead (Luana Patten).

George Peppard as Rafe with Libby Halstead (Luana Patten).

Christianity—the ideal Christianity of empathy, self-sacrifice, forgiveness, and redemption, not the social sham that is the root of all the hypocrisy, secrecy, and violence that destroys the vulnerable—is embodied not by Hunnicutt’s heir Theron (George Hamilton) but his right-hand man and “bastard” Rafe (George Peppard), a character radically added by Minnelli and his brilliant screenwriters to William Humphrey’s 1958 novel, named after the archangel associated with healing. In a central scene, Rafe walks from his outcast mother’s grave with arms hanging over his hoe, Crucifixion-like. Minnelli—who in Lust for Life (1956) had placed Van Gogh in a virtual reality derived from his paintings—often composes his shots in Home from the Hill after Old Master depictions of the Mocking, Crucifixion, Deposition, Lamentation, and Burial of Christ, depictions that often placed the new world ushered in by Him against the ruins of the pagan world it superseded. This is a complex and pointed set of allusions in an America torn between pagan ideals of martial virility and capitalist competition, and an adherence to gentler, more socialist Christian virtues.

Home from the Hill is the first great American film of the 1960s (it was released three months before Psycho). A genealogy can be traced through it from the oppositional genres of the preceding decade or so—the psychological Westerns of Mann, Boetticher, de Toth, and Fuller that undermined the macho patriotic triumphalism of the form; the brutal domestic melodramas of Ophüls, Sirk, Ray, and, of course, Minnelli himself; and the “thwarted teen” movies exemplified by Rebel Without a Cause (1955)to the countercultural breakthroughs at the end of the 1960s, such as Bonnie and Clyde (1967) and Easy Rider (1969).

Robert Mitchum as the Texas patriarch Wade Hunnicutt.

Ironically, this influence was felt at second hand, via the French New Wave filmmakers emulated by Penn, Hopper, et al., those filmmakers-turned-critics who asked Americans to look again at the great Hollywood films they had overlooked. Godard in particular was a fervid admirer of Minnelli’s work—opposing the stylistic dogmatisms of the day, he found in it the reconciliation of montage and the long take that he had called for in his famous essay “Montage, mon beau souci” (Cahiers du cinéma, No. 56, December 1956). If Home from the Hill can seem slow to the uninitiated, this is due to the extent of its long takes. For the Minnelliphile, these are one of the great glories of the cinema, and look stunning in this Blu-ray edition. There are about two dozen shots lasting over a minute in Home from the Hill. Although average shot length in 1950s Hollywood tended to be much longer than it is now, the rigorous use of the long take was more usual in European art films by the likes of Dreyer or Antonioni. 

Offset by flurries of fast cutting, Minnelli’s long takes perform a number of functions, beyond their evident formal beauty and technical ingenuity. They enable a theatrical record of some remarkable performances (the six leads have never been better, with Everett Sloane heart-breaking as the “average man” who fatally stands up to the feudal Hunnicutts), allowing the audience to fix on an emotionally charged content that is structured by patterns of concealment and revelation, and preparing them for a series of tense confrontations (all but one of the twenty-three long takes focus on two characters). They lock characters in time and space progressively over the film (there are four in the first hour, thirteen in the second, and six in the closing half hour), demonstrating the extent to which these characters are trapped by their own psychological makeup, their familial and wider social milieux, and by their physical environment. They restore emotional importance and suspense to the cut which, even by 1960, had declined to mere functional grammar.

Wade and Rafe after the hunt.

Wade and Rafe after the hunt.

Minnelli’s dialectic between paganism and Christianity initiates a series of thematic oppositions in Home from the Hill that lay bare the ideological contradictions of contemporary America in the guise of a 1930s soap opera overlaid with classical and biblical trimmings. Long takes focusing on two characters dramatize fundamental conflicts of worldview, between tradition and modernity, male and female, parent and child, inheritance and self-reliance. 

A buried but—once noticed—very powerful opposition is a racial one between white and black. Note how often the excluded brothers—one rejected as illegitimate, living in a hovel that is a travesty of his father’s “den,” at once the womb and graveyard of hypermasculinity; the other who rejects his birthright out of pride and shame—are identified with African Americans. Rafe’s father figure in childhood was Wade’s factotum Chauncey (Ken Renard); he both initiated him as a ‘man’ and advised him to bury his grievances as “colored folk” have always done. Theron watches his own celebration party ignored by his guests, standing with a group of black children who have not been invited; he later works in a cotton compress that rings with black workers singing of historical injustice. What could be mistaken for a white Southern soap in the Gone With the Wind or Dallas mode turns out to be a concealed allegory of national exclusion and oppression. This suppressed outrage would break cover as the decade continued. Consider Home from the Hill as a warning shot, one that continues to ring today.

Darragh O’Donoghue, a Cineaste contributing writer, works as an archivist at Tate Britain in London.

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Cineaste, Vol. XLIV, No. 1