Thursday, January 05, 2012

La Joven (The Young One)

PCMR Verdict: Pre-dates 'To Kill a Mockingbird' and 'Lolita' by two years, but could conceivably have inspired both movies.

Bunuel's multi-layered tale sins and sinners touches a lot of raw nerves, but the theme of race must have been particularly controversial in 1960. It's 50 years old and still holds up, although it's arguably not an all-time classic.

PCMR Rating: 6/10

'La Joven' (aka 'The Young One') was made a full thirty years after l'Age d'Or, and is an entirely different kind of movie. For one, it is in English, one of only a couple of movies Bunuel ever shot in the language. For another, the surrealist influence is almost entirely absent, so at first glance Bunuel could appear to be making a 'studio picture', or taking a job for the paycheck.

On the surface, 'La Joven' is the story of Traver, a man on the run from a crime he claims he didn't commit, namely raping a white woman. It's important that the woman is white, because this is 1950's America, and Traver is black.

Traver stumbles upon a game reserve island operated by Miller, a grizzled bear of a man who would shoot intruders on sight, without requiring any prior knowledge of their character. But if the intruder was black, his trigger finger would no doubt get a little itchier. Miller's only companion on the island is young Evalyn, whose age is never revealed, but she is certainly no more than a child, perhaps thirteen years old. As the film begins, Evalyn's former guardian has just died, and Miller starts to notice how she is becoming a woman...

So Traver certainly arrives at a dramatic moment, but his arrival is the catalyst for a series of events that may end up revealing Miller's dark secret, and if Traver's own secret is revealed, it could mean his death.

On the surface, this is a straight-forward racially themed drama, but look a little deeper, and Bunuel's subversive themes are there as well. The hypocrisy of Miller's conduct is plain when we see how he treats Traver. In particular, his disdain for the crime Traver is accused of is in stark contrast to how he expects to get away with his own transgression.

The arrival of a reverend on the island is an interesting addition, and he certainly reveals who is the guiltier of the two men. "Let he who is without sin..." and all that.

The Young One isn't populated with many likeable characters, bar Traver. Played with relaxed charm by Bernie Hamilton, he's smooth, almost to the point of being a 60's cliché, but manages to retain his cool nonetheless. Miller is fundamentally a bit of a cunt, and is played well by Zachary Scott. Perhaps a little one-dimensional, he is at his best when he is broodily threatening, with either Evie or Traver on the receiving end of his menacing presence.

The best part of the film is the dialogue, especially when Traver and Miller are shooting the breeze. It's extremely well written, with hardly a wasted word, and each discussion revealing more about the characters. Bunuel's skill and influence here cannot be understated, as the dialogue is remarkably fresh for a fifty year old movie. Also, in Hollywood in 1960, there can't have been many Hollywood movies evangelising black characters and vilifying their white counterparts. In this context, the film is also subversive and enjoyable.

Unfortunately, where 'The Young One' falls down is in terms of this reviewer's expectations of the director. It's a million miles away from his initial movies of the 30's, and perhaps reflects the stage of life Bunuel was at when he made it. Exiled from Spain since the Spanish Civil War, he had been working in Hollywood and Mexico for some years, but he actually lived in Mexico, where he also made a lot of his movies. (I'm working on getting a copy of 'Los Olvidados', and will include it in this retrospective if I do get it)

So, in brief, it's a 'straight' Bunuel movie, and in English. Might be a good starting point for the Bunuel-curious out there, a gentle one to dip your toe into before starting into the Spanish surrealist stuff. I think I was a little disappointed by the Young One because it's the surrealist work what I'm looking forward to!

Next Bunuel review: The Exterminating Angel
(Sounds awesome! - Ed)

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