I Walk The Line

I WALK THE LINE stumbled off the road in 1970, dismissed by critics and ignored by the public. Expiring at 143rd place for the year, the take of $1,000,000 against a $4,000,000 cost marked a black eye for its star and his director, both unhappy with the movie, each having a streak of bum luck in their careers. Ragged editing is the main culprit, but what’s left remains worthwhile, better than its unjustly poor reputation. *

Small-town Tennessee. Sheriff ‘Henry Tawes’ (Gregory Peck) is bored with his job, the place, his marriage, his life. Then he crosses paths with alluring wildflower ‘Alma McCain’ (Tuesday Weld), half his age and then some, and daughter to a moonshiner (Ralph Meeker). With the Feds pressing to shut down illegal hooch-brews in the county, his kind but numbing wife (Estelle Parsons) no longer appealing, and Alma’s charms and attention ripe and available, Tawes has to make some choices about what line he’s going to draw and which one he’s willing to walk on.

Alvin Sargent based his script on the novel “An Exile”, written by Madison Jones, and director John Frankenheimer made the Tennessee location shoot in and around the small town Gainesboro, in Jackson County. The local atmosphere is a strong suit;  Frankenheimer and cameraman David M. Walsh capture telling images of the hard-times creased faces and tired postures of the residents and their  ramshackle homes. Mirroring the sheriff’s internal turmoil, the film carries a quiet tension and sense of desperation; though there’s crime involved it doesn’t go the cheap violence route. Johnny Cash did the music, using his signature tune and writing some new compositions.

Though he was in more strictly entertaining projects, the offbeat role gives Peck, 53, his most interesting part in the quarter century between To Kill A Mockingbird and Old Gringo. His conflicted, non-heroic working stiff trapped in place and position was a departure from the take-command certainty and calm he was usually tagged with. Weld, 26, is superb, smartly not laying on any fake-country gloss, giving the tempting Alma not just carnal appeal but shades of curiosity and vulnerability. If she showed up when your homelife was teetering, tottering would follow. Estelle Parsons once again touchingly conveys confusion and hurt, and Meeker, sadly underused in the era, cuts into his also complicated patriarch.

Frankenheimer abruptly took off to Europe after shooting, and left the editing askew; the beginning and ending were lopped down, hurting the development and resolution aspects of the story. Peck offered to recut the picture, telling Columbia studio he’d pay to restore the cuts, arrange a different score (he favored bluegrass) and do promotion. The studio (and/or Frankenheimer) refused. Peck: “Because they couldn’t admit they were wrong. If I made a success out of it, the whole series of blunders would be there for everybody to see.”

With Charles Durning (36, in an early appearance, nasty as an ambitious deputy), Lonny Chapman and Jeff Dalton. 97 minutes.

* While Peck was experiencing a bad run (out of 10 films between 1964 and 1976 he had one hit, Arabesque), the once on-target Frankenheimer was into a decade of duds (some mystifyingly bad) that began after Grand Prix in 1966 and didn’t stop until Black Sunday 11 years later: sadly, the weak streak resumed after that one.

Frankenheimer: “Gregory Peck has been very good in certain movies and he’s a very good actor, but having him play a Tennessee sheriff just shot credulity to hell…The audience just wouldn’t accept him in the part.”

Peck: “What audiences saw was not the picture we set out to do. John Frankenheimer, the director, left immediately after it was finished to do a picture with Omar Sharif in Europe. The studio people eliminated the prologue and epilogue which gave some sense to the story. They had Johnny Cash write songs, which simply reiterated the action on screen. Everytime I see Frankenheimer he says, ‘I owe you one.’ ”

Peck did have praise for his co-star: “Tuesday Weld is most unusual. A totally honest actress. I liked working with her.”

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