This week’s mystery movie was the 1951 Argentine film “Native Son,” with Richard Wright, Jean Wallace, Nicholas Joy, Charles Cane, George Rigaud, George Green, Gloria Madison, Willa Pearl Curtiss, Gene Michael, Don Dean, Ned Campbell, Ruth Roberts, George Nathanson, George Roos, Lewis MacKenzie, Cecile Lezard, Charles Simmonds, Leslie Straughn and Lidia Alves.
Screenplay by Pierre Chenal and Richard Wright, dialogue by Richard Wright.
Photography by Antonio Utges Merayo, location shots by R.A. Hollahan, edited by Jorge Garate, sets by Gori Munoz, sound by Mario Fezia and Carlos Marin.
Music by John Elhert, song “The Dreaming Kind” by Lilian Walker Charles, vocal quintette of Katherine Dunham.
Produced by James Prades. Directed by Pierre Chenal.
An extensively restored print of “Native Son” is available on streaming via an arrangement between movie theaters and Kino Marquee, with an introduction by Jacqueline Stewart and Eddie Muller (TCM hosts, although TCM apparently wasn’t involved in this project). Check your local ZIP Code to see if it’s available. It’s $10 well spent.
I picked “Native Son” out of curiosity and I’m glad I did. You may read online critiques that the movie is “amateurish” or that Richard Wright’s performance is wooden. See the movie first before you make up your mind. To me, “Native Son” is on a par with anything coming out of Columbia studios in the noir era, despite its curious genesis (an Argentine studio producing a film in English and a cast of unknowns, including novelist Richard Wright in the lead).
Canada Lee played Bigger Thomas in the Broadway production (1941, produced by Orson Welles and John Houseman and directed by Welles) and revival of the play (1942-43, produced by the Brandts, directed by Welles), but was unavailable for the film.
According to the trade magazines, “Native Son” was distributed as a road show and none of the trades in Media Lantern published a review.
Also see the account of making the film in Michel Fabre’s “The Unfinished Quest of Richard Wright.”
Writing in the Philadelphia Inquirer (Sept. 21, 1951) Mildred Martin said:
… While the Wright-Chenal script faithfully follows the action of both the novel and, with certain additions, the play, it is awkwardly and stiffly contrived, its episodes lack the stark terror inherent in Bigger [Thomas’] story, the inevitability of the final tragedy. Episodic, fumbling frantically where it should be simple and direct, the script places a load upon the cast and director which they have been unable to carry.
Sociological points are lost entirely, or made with so heavy a hand that they appear ludicrous; while the poignancy of Bigger’s acceptance of the death sentence as release from a world which bewildered and horrified him is almost wholly dissipated by the clumsiness of both direction and performance.
In his initial acting attempt, Wright is his drama’s own worst enemy.
Writing in the New York Times (June 18, 1951) A.W. said:
“Native Son,” a novel stemming from passion, conviction and genius and a work that a decade ago was translated into a shattering and compelling drama, has emerged as a sincere, but strangely unconvincing film. Perhaps Mr. Wright, who is the ill-fated hero of this screen transcription, which began a stand at the Criterion on Saturday, is less of an actor than he is a novelist and playwright.
Obviously, his cast does not, by and large, attain the stature of his glowing words and thoughts. For their speeches merely relate this story of a sensitive Negro’s revolt against social maladjustment and bigotry without depth and true feeling. And its murder melodramatics are muscular and only occasionally professional.
For Monday, we have a mystery woman.
Note: As is my custom, I post images of unidentified cast members in hopes that someone will recognize them. This actress is referred to in dialogue as “Miss Emma,” a social worker who finds a chauffeur’s job for Bigger Thomas (Richard Wright).
For Tuesday, we have a mystery gent and a mystery critter.
Update: This is Leslie Straughn (in the credits, Straugh in IMDB) as Buddy Thomas.
We also have this finely dressed mystery guest.
Update: I heard this character’s name as “Pepe,” but it could be Stanley (Lewis MacKenzie).
For “Hm Wednesday,” we have this mystery gent.
Update: I believe this is George Roos as Scoop.
We also have this mystery woman.
Update: This is Ruth Robert as Helen Dalton.
We also have this mystery woman.
Update: This is Willa Pearl Curtis as Hannah Thomas.
Brain Trust roll call: Michael Lott (mystery movie).
For “Aha Thursday,” we have several mystery guests. This is mystery guest No. 1
Update: This is an unidentified actor playing Bigger Thomas’ father, who was lynched before Bigger was born.
This is mystery guest No. 2, with our mysterious leading man as Back of the Head Guy.
Update: This is Don Dean as Bigger Thomas’ defense attorney with Richard Wright as Back of the Head Guy.
This is mystery guest No 3.
Update: This is Nicholas Joy as Henry Dalton.
This is mystery guest No. 4.
Update: This is George Rigaud as Farley, a reporter.
This is mystery guest No. 5.
Update: This is Charles Cane as Detective Britten.
And mystery guest No. 6.
Update: This is Gene Michael as Jan Erlone.
Brain Trust roll call: Howard Mandelbaum (mystery movie) and Mary Mallory (mystery movie, Tuesday’s mystery guest No. 1, Wednesday’s mystery guest No. 3 – possible IDs are Tuesday’s mystery guest No. 2 and Wednesday’s mystery guest No. 1).
For Friday, we have this mystery woman.
Update: This is Gloria Madison as Bessie Mears.
We also have this mystery woman.
Update: This is Jean Wallace as Mary Dalton.
And finally, our mystery leading man and a mysterious companion.
Update: This is Richard Wright, left, as Bigger Thomas and George D. Green as Panama.
Brain Trust roll call: Howard Mandelbaum (Thursday’s Back of the Head Guy) and Mary Mallory (Wednesday’s mystery blind lady, Thursday’s mystery guest No. 5, Thursday’s mystery guest No. 3, and Thursday’s mystery guest No. 6.)
Note: This week’s mystery film is particularly rare and has an unusual provenance, so I’m extending its run for a day. For Saturday, we have our leading man, who also wrote the novel on which our mystery film is based.
Update: This is Richard Wright.
Brain Trust roll call: Howard Mandelbaum (Wednesday’s blind woman, and mystery mother of our leading man, Thursday’s mystery guests No. 3 and No. 5, and Friday’s mystery women and mystery leading man/novelist), Mary Mallory (Friday’s mystery women and mystery leading man/novelist) and Mike Hawks (mystery movie, Friday’s mystery woman No. 2 and mystery leading man/novelist).