The year is 1946 and this stretch of Georgia land has been bought for cultivation by wealthy local Henry Warren (Michael Caine) who got the place by dint of being married to its owner, his wife Julie Ann (Jane Fonda), but there's a problem. There are two plots of land which have not been sold, and that's a nuisance for Henry and his company, so much so that he decides to devise a method of getting it for himself; firstly, his cousin Rad McDowell (John Phillip Law) is home from the war and ready to farm one of the plots. Can he be persuaded?
One of the most lambasted movies of all time, Hurry Sundown might have sounded like a winner to its director Otto Preminger, but his perverse drive to bring out the worst in people and be satisfied that he was in control of such situations simply because he was their instigator was well to the fore in this production. It was based on a bestselling schlock paperback in which he apparently saw a new issue for his often willfully controversial material to discuss, which was racism. Bearing in mind that the United States was in the middle of a human rights struggle in the Deep South during the period this was made, you could envisage dollar signs lighting up in Preminger's eyes as he pondered his next move.
However, for full authenticity the director wanted to take his Hollywood crew to Georgia, a plan which was scuppered when he was refused by the authorities. Louisiana was his next choice, and he managed to secure permission only for his production to face resistance from the white locals, to put it mildly, with a campaign of intimidation put in motion against everyone involved in making the film, apparently because it had the temerity to shoot there when there were two African American actors in leading roles. That Hurry Sundown ended up a sad, bloated laughing stock was one of the great pities of the affair: you'd like to watch it and think, yeah, they were doing their bit for equality, but more likely you'd be cringing at the terrible taste on display.
Diahann Carroll and Robert Hooks, the two black performers who were the highest profile, spoke eloquently about how concerned they were while making Hurry Sundown (death threats can do that to a person), but when it came to portraying that prejudice onscreen, Preminger could only muster up the most hamfisted depiction possible, the result being the film flopped after some of the worst reactions to any movie. On the other hand, move forward a few years and Preminger's late career nosedive into the tacky was being reassessed, and there were those who pointed out that few artists were facing up to social problems during this era in the way that he was, and perhaps he should be applauded for trying. Then again, the detractors would point out, how seriously can we take such scenes as Jane Fonda sucking suggestively on Michael Caine's saxophone?
This addition of an attempted erotic atmosphere (that steamy climate is supposed to addle the characters' brains, apparently) could have been a distraction to the message, but there were other drawbacks. Caine's accent for a start, the set your teeth on edge performance of the kid playing his disturbed little son to continue, and the manner in which everyone seemed to be instructed to play up to as broad a personality as possible for a finish. Burgess Meredith was utterly ludicrous as a judge so racist that it seems to have driven him quite insane; the courtroom scenes where the deeds to the plots are discussed are almost entertaining for his risibility alone, and you wonder if the critics were missing something and this was actually one big send-up. Take a look at respected poet Beah Richards' big heart attack scene, for example (she looks as if she's been struck by a lightning bolt), or George Kennedy's spectacularly dim Sheriff. But more often than not it they looked all too sincere, leaving a folly at best, a farce at worst. Melodramatic music by Hugo Montenegro.