Available via Warner Archive;
Stars Sidney Poitier, Elizabeth Hartman, Shelley Winters, Wallace Ford.
Of all the “Super Sidney” screen showcases that Sidney Poitier headlined during the 1960s, A Patch of Blue remains my favorite — which isn’t to deny the lasting impact of In the Heat of the Night, an Oscar-winner for 1967 when Bonnie and Clyde and The Graduate likely split that landmark movie year’s “New Hollywood” vote. As with Night, this earlier picture is at once a star vehicle for Poitier plus a terrific ensemble piece, though its No. 1 takeaway is still Elizabeth Hartman’s knock-you-on-your-duff performance in what is actually Blue’s central role.
In retrospect, it’s difficult to separate the Hartman character’s tough-luck plight from the actress’s own tragic real-life conclusion, but more on that later. What impresses about this fairly modest undertaking then and now is how, through pure gut conviction and filmmaking craft from everyone involved, it triumphs over what even its late writer-director Guy Green volunteers (on the old DVD’s carried-over bonus commentary) is perilously close to a cornball premise. Which is: That a blind 18-year-old from a racist background (her mom’s a real package) is befriended by a friendly stranger she eventually falls for without realizing he’s black. In other words, everyone had better be at the top of his or her game with that baby.
Before we get to the actors, there was quite the array of table-setters working on the margins here and then some, starting with the fact that Green’s direction probably guaranteed that the movie was going to look good, given that in his day he was a top cinematographer himself. In fact, I remember that in one of the multiple feature documentaries there’ve been that’d devoted themselves to the cinematographer’s art, Spike Lee’s onetime great cameraman Ernest Dickerson (he shot Do the Right Thing and Malcolm X) was inspired to pursue his calling after seeing a telecast of Green’s work on one of David Lean’s two great Charles Dickens adaptations (Great Expectations or Oliver Twist; I forget which one, but Green shot both).
The cinematographer that Green-the-director got here was merely Robert Burks, who (Psycho excepted) shot every Hitchcock film from Strangers in a Train through Marnie — plus House of Wax, The Spirit of St. Louis and The Music Man. Burks makes working in close quarters with multiple actors (at least half of the film takes place in small apartments) look easy while delivering a crisp image that makes this Warner Archive Blu-ray quite the black-and-white looker. And highly appreciated even at the time was Jerry Goldsmith’s soft-sell score, which has some of the emotional power of Elmer Bernstein’s for To Kill a Mockingbird, which is just about on every list you’ll see of the best movie music ever.
The producer who helped assemble the package was veteran Pandro S. Berman, whom Green credits with taking on the wearying conversations with the MGM money men who were somewhat resistant to this “little picture” when they had a movie ready for release around the same time (Doctor Zhivago) that could rescue what was starting to look like a teetering studio (Ben-Hur and 2001 were, in different years, poised as similar studio saviors, though the Kubrick turned out to be a surprise one). Of course, given that Berman had produced all but the first and last Astaire-Rogers pictures, plus Father of the Bride plus Blackboard Jungle plus Jailhouse Rock, he probably could fend off at least excessive guff, and Green praises him multiple times in his commentary.
Like most of the films Green directed, Blue pounds the nail head a little too directly for it to be in my natural wheelhouse in terms of personal preference, but it wasn’t the first time he surprised me by making an unlikely premise play better than it should (see also 1962’s Light in the Piazza, also from MGM). As Hartman’s blowsy-to-the-fifth-power mother whose carelessness was responsible for her daughter’s blindness in the first place, Shelley Winters got the year’s supporting actress Oscar (her second). It’s undeniable that she’s really broad here in multiple senses, but then again, her character is a obstreperous bigot whose career ambition is to quit punching the time clock to open a whorehouse with her girl friend — one that’ll presumably service equally dumpy men and include Hartman as part of the package. Given these specifics of the role, who you gonna call?
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I’m as dazzled by Poitier’s sheer star power as much as anyone else, but the two performances that get to me most here are Hartman’s and Wallace Ford’s. The latter’s career went back to the early ’30s; he was the nominal lead in Freaks and was also the informed-against Frankie in John Ford’s The Informer. His role here as Hartman’s sympathetic old sot of a grandfather was his last (Blue came out about six months before is death) and, I think, the best of his screen career. He’d been working fairly in TV for several years, but hadn’t made a feature since Warlock and John Ford’s The Last Hurrah — both characterizations in sharp contrast to what you see here (in the earlier films, he was respectively a loquacious judge and a savvy political pro).
As for Hartman, whose screen debut this was, Green was virtually certain when he tested her that he had lucked into The One — for a role he instinctively (and correctly) thought sensed needed to be played by a newcomer. Like the movie overall, the motivating Selina character has a sweet inner core, which doesn’t mean she can’t be tough. Generally shy, she can occasionally surprise you by being unambiguously direct in the questions she asks and the personal history she reveals. There’s a scene late in the film where Hartman/Selina, alone in her family’s rundown apartment, throws an A-team fit against everyone and everything in the world, Poitier excepted; for a movie about blindness — and a new chance friend trying to get her professional help — it is a real eye opener. Green says he was personally moved and stripped of his usual professional coolness while watching Hartman play out this amazing scene, which seemed to come out of nowhere.
The year was an extraordinary one for actress newcomers and relative newcomers; Julie Christie won the Oscar for Darling, and nominations went to The Collector’s Samantha Eggar and Hartman herself — all honors deserved. After that, however, Hartman’s career floundered (she’s one of The Group in The Group), and though anyone can see from her still photos that she could be a stunner when photographed the right way, she probably didn’t automatically come to casting directors’ minds as a conventional movie lead and additionally had a tough time adjusting to so much initial acclaim. In 1987, after a long history of depression, she jumped out of her Pittsburgh fifth-floor apartment to her death at 43.
Racially speaking, Green consciously walked a tightrope, and the movie is probably tamer than it would have to be even three years later. On the other hand, this is MGM in 1965, and here’s a white actress kissing a black actor on screen, however chastely — and this was three years before all hell broke out after a TV special’s sponsor (or, rather, its head of advertising) went ballistic when Petula Clark gave Harry Belafonte’s forearm an extended touch during a musical duet. For sponsor Plymouth’s part, it didn’t take long for the guy to start looking a little silly carrying his ass around under his arm, but it was a huge deal at the time. There’s also a scene here where Poitier’s more racially militant brother (Ivan Dixon, who’s also good here) refers to Selina’s family as “trash.” If there was a major studio movie up to this time where a black character described any white person as such, its title does not immediately come to mind.
In the end, MGM was able to give both Blue and Doctor Zhivago slow platform releases in December 1965, where they both did well at the box office (Zhivago was obviously in a different league) and at Oscar time. Fortunately, Winters (whose determination I always admired despite the jokes I’ve always made at her expense) went through the car wash or something and then the beauty salon before the ceremonies. She looked more than presentable when she won her award and specifically thanked Green, who rated Blue as his favorite picture as a director.