A very powerful drama. Lee Remick and Steve McQueen give fine performances as a hard-luck couple. The supporting cast is great, especially Kimberly Block, as a very perceptive and sensitive child. McQueen’s Henry never really escapes the abusive influence of Georgia Simmon’s Miss Kate, his former guardian.
McQueen spends the whole movie simultaneously waiting for his next meltdown, and trying to dodge it. That he is unsuccessful, even after Miss Kate’s death, is a tragic, if expected outcome. What’s unexpected, however, is that Remick’s Georgette, along with her daughter, simply trudge onward. They are strong enough to be on their own, given the occasional help and encouragement from a stable Don Murray-type.
Murray’s role is interesting because he’s kind of McQueen’s shadow, his opposite in every way. He acts as a surrogate husband/father to Georgette and Margaret Rose; in fact he’s available. In another movie he would marry Georgette. In my alternative plot, since McQueen’s off to prison again, he grants Georgette a divorce, knowing that she and his child will be in good hands with his friend Slim.
But this movie doesn’t go easy on its characters. It’s very poignant seeing Margaret Rose gaze hopefully at the recently-planted chinaberry tree, when she’s in fact literally uprooted just as she starts to feel at home in Columbus. She’s never very comfortable with McQueen; she admires him for his singing, and somewhat abstractly for the stability that she hopes he represents, but he seems never to really be a part of the family.
He never calls her by name, she’s merely “the baby.” Murray’s Slim, on the other hand, she just sort of naturally accepts, sensing his calm but strong nature. Outwardly, Henry’s a tough knock-a-bout, performing and carousing at the honky-tonks, getting in fights, and ripping around in his decrepit convertible. But he’s haunted by the memory and latent power that Miss Kate represents.
Her house is as scary as she is. A Victorian that’s crumbling around her; with a scary housekeeper, and the long stairs up to her dark room. Still, Henry loyally sits by her as she’s dying, only to hear one more rebuke that are her last words. Another alternative plot, again a simpler, nicer resolution, would have him cash in the silver that he gathers up from her treasures to get a jump-start on his stillborn music career.
But, no, instead he just goes nuts, cracking himself up at the graveyard along with his car. We get the feeling that Georgette and Margaret Rose won’t see him again, they’ll find another chinaberry tree in another town down the road. 9/10.