(director: Luis Buñuel; screenwriters: story by Peter Matthiessen/Hugo Butler; cinematographer: Gabriel Figueroa; editor: Carlos Savage; cast: Zachary Scott (Miller, Bernie Hamilton (Traver), Key Meersman (Evalyn), Crahan Denton (Jackson), Claudio Brook (Rev. Fleetwood); Runtime: 95; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: George P. Werker; Lionsgate; 1960-Mexico/USA-in English-b/w)

“A rarely seen provocative racially and Lolita-like themed drama.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

This amoral parable is one of only two films that the Spaniard expatriate filmmaker Luis Buñuel (“The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie”/”Belle de jour”/”The Exterminating Angel”) shot in English (the other being the 1952 “The Adventures of Robinson Crusoe”). The low-budget, crudely shot black and white film, is a rarely seen provocative racially and Lolita-like themed drama that is set on a remote island off the Carolina coast. It’s taken from a story by Peter Matthiessen and written by the blacklisted writer Hugo Butler.

Traver (Bernie Hamilton) is a hip-talking black jazz musician on tour from the North, who is on the run from a lynch mob over a false charge of rape by a mentally disturbed rich white woman. His motorboat runs out of gas on a hunting preserve island where the bigoted gamekeeper Miller (Zachary Scott) is employed. The island’s only other resident, the elderly handyman named Pee Wee, has just died, and his innocent tomboyish 14-year-old granddaughter Evalyn (Key Meersman) has caught the fancy of the middle-aged bachelor. When Miller is called to the mainland to see the authorities, Traver befriends the unbiased and uncivilized orphan girl; when Miller returns, he brings Traver back to his cabin after destroying his boat but is unable to kill him because Traver has one of his rifles–forcing a draw. During the night, Miller deflowers the consenting naive nymphet. When boatman Jackson (Crahan Denton), a more openly racist than Miller, shows up in his motorboat along with the Reverend Fleetwood (Claudio Brook) to take the girl back to an orphanage and tells of the black man being wanted on the mainland for rape, the gamekeeper and Jackson go hunting for Traver before he flees the island. Traver is located by Fleetwood and the girl and after being treated by the Reverend for his injured foot caught in a trap, he convinces the Reverend of his innocence because the preacher personally knows of the accuser woman’s dubious reputation as a lush and a liar. Anyway, the Reverend is more unglued by Miller’s sex with a minor than with the black man suspect rapist. After talking to Miller about his unsavory relationship with the girl, Miller says he will marry the girl; Fleetwood promises to vouch for him before his religious superiors if he lets Traver escape and the girl agrees to his proposal. Though the Reverend is not exactly a hero, as he was shown previously to be a hypocrite when he flips his mattress after learning that Traver slept on it.

In this astutely presented comedy of manners, offering no heavy-handed messages and taking no positions, Buñuel brilliantly captures the flavor of Southern bigotry (a mixture of fear and ignorance), the cruel untamed nature as explored in the Southern geography (it was filmed in Mexico, showing such things as a badger ripping apart hens and sucking out their blood), and lays on a complexly layered tale about the loss of innocence in the backwoods and the different gradations of racism–from the most violent (Jackson), the ones passed on by tradition (Miller) and the ones that stick with us inside even if outwardly we appear fair-minded (Fleetwood). Though considered a minor Buñuel, it nevertheless satisfactorily covers most of his usual themes and is a very personal film that I believe is worth seeing in the same light as the director’s masterpieces. When compared to the other films of its day that tried to tackle such serious themes, this one stands out as far superior than most.