Though I appreciate Criterion DVDs almost as much as I love Flannery O’Connor’s fiction, I’m in no hurry to get the new Criterion edition of Wise Blood, John Huston’s long unavailable 1979 adaptation of O’Connor’s first novel. Forty bucks is a pretty steep price for a single disc package, and while obscurity and Huston’s auteur status have worked to inflate the film’s reputation, the sad fact is that Wise Blood isn’t all that good a movie.
I’m tempted, though, because Criterion has assembled a better than usual array of extras, chief among them an audiotape recording of Flannery herself reading “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” a story that still packs a devastating punch. If I succumb, that’ll be the reason, though I’ll probably also get a kick out of the filmed chat with Huston, as reliably entertaining an interview subject as ever sat down before a camera.
Peripherals and extras are pretty much the only reason to watch Wise Blood. Huston’s omnivorous taste for fiction led him to adapt a formidable range of novels, and while everyone correctly reveres smashing successes like The Maltese Falcon and The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, Wise Blood was too slippery and singular a creation for him to grasp. The tale of Hazel Motes, the preacher’s son who sets himself up as the head of the Church Without Christ (“Where the blind don’t see, the lame don’t walk, and what’s dead stays that way”), requires O’Connor’s narrative voice, which is as bone-dry and harshly funny as one would expect from a devout Catholic taking in the South’s cavalcade of exotic Protestant sects. Without that voice, the outward grotesquerie overwhelms the interior subtlety, the humor becomes too broad and cruel. When the story takes its abrupt turn toward Gothic horror, Huston seems to have reconceived Wise Blood as a singularly weird episode of Green Acres in which Eddie Arnold accepts Jesus by burning his own eyes out with lime.
The curious thing about the film is that while the direction and tone are all wrong, the acting is never less than excellent and sometimes superb, particularly in the case of Brad Dourif’s striking turn as Hazel Motes, which came on the heels of his touching performance as Billy Bibbit in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. (Regrettably, the sheer weirdness of the Hazel Motes character probably helped typecast Dourif into serial killer and freako roles.) There are also memorable appearances by Harry Dean Stanton, Ned Beatty and Bill Hickey. Amy Wright’s performance as Sabbath Lily is fine enough to make you regret that the screen was less accommodating to her talent than the stage.
But if Hazel Motes preaches the Church Without Christ, John Huston makes Wise Blood the film without Flannery. He found his groove again a few years later, with Prizzi’s Honor and The Dead, but Flannery O’Connor tripped him up. That’s okay: she does it to all of us. That’s what makes her worth reading, even now.