Hazel Motes, played by Brad Dourif, is a disillusioned young man back from the Second World War, Dourif’s performance is intense, his blue eyes shine with righteousness. He travels to the town of Taulkinham, ‘to do some things I ain’t ever done before.’ His early years have been spent with his grandfather, a bible thumping preacher, we see in flash back his dreary childhood. Mistaken for a preacher by a taxi driver, he insists, ‘I come a long way since I believed in anything.’
When Asa Hawkes, a supposedly blind evangelist, played deadpan by Harry Dean Stanton, appears on the street rattling a tin, collecting money from the crowd, ‘give up a dollar for Jesus, a dollar for Jesus’ he vows to start his own church. The Church of Truth without Jesus, a church where the blind don’t see, the lame don’t walk and the dead stay dead.
Enoch Emery, a lonely young man, is sympathetically portrayed by Dan Shor. He endeavours to befriend Motes, and when he is brutally rebuffed, and in public, Enoch, bewildered, looks like a faithful spaniel which has just been kicked. He tells Motes, ‘the people here ain’t friendly, you don’t come from here but you ain’t friendly either.’
In an effort to ingratiate himself, Enoch offers to reveal where the blind preacher lives with his daughter, Sabbath Lily Hawks, played coquettishly by Amy Wright.
When Motes tells him he already knows where they live, that he lives there too now, Enoch says profoundly that if he hadn’t known he’d know now because he would tell him. It’s a scene which, though amusing, has great pathos.
Motes also casts aside the offer from a slick opportunist preacher to help him get rich from the crowds who gather to hear about his new church.
“They don’t need to pay to know the truth,” he insists.
He tells his half hearted listeners, “Jesus may have been crucified, but it wasn’t for you.”
He becomes so obsessed with truth that he kills a man for pretending to be a prophet.
The drama ends badly, Motes descends into a hell of his own making. Convinced he is unclean, he goes to a number of novel and not so novel extremes to show penance.
John Huston’s film has strong characters who display an array of human needs with pathos and humour.
The soundtrack is lively and sometimes foot tapping. The Tennessee Waltz in various tempos is an inspired delight.
Volume 33 no 6 July/August 2019, pp 35-36