Tuesday, January 8, 2013

A Patch of Blue (1965)

Guy Green has created a small miracle with A Patch of Blue.

The British-born director (Great Expectations, Oliver Twist) took Elizabeth Kata's novel, Be Ready With Bells and Drums, and made a powerful film about friendship and acceptance. This 1965 release is not as well known as other movies that came out the same year such as The Sound of Music, Cat Ballou and Doctor Zhivago, but it packs a punch and still deserves to be seen nearly 50 years later.

Selina D'Arcey (Elizabeth Hartman) is a young, blind woman who continues to live with her dysfunctional family. Her mother, Rose-ann (Shelley Winters in an Academy Award winning performance), beats and neglects her. They share a tiny one-room apartment with Rose-ann's drunk father, Ole Pa (Wallace Ford, in his last screen performance). It's because of Rose-ann that Selina lost her sight when she was five and, about a decade later, raped. Ole Pa is more in love with the bottle than doing what is right to help his grand-daughter.

Selina has little, if any, schooling ("I ain't been taught nothing," she notes early on), can't read braille and doesn't have the living skills to get by outside her home. She strings beads for Mr. Faber (John Qualen) to earn money.

It's when she's working with the beads in the city park that she meets Gordon Ralfe (Sidney Poitier). He helps her right from the start of their relationship when she gets upset when a caterpillar lands on her. Again, Selina has no idea what's on her skin. Her time in the outside world is limited.

A friendship develops. Ralfe gradually learns about Selina's troubled background and wants to help. He starts to teach her how to get around by herself by recognizing the sun's location and using crosswalks.

"It's wonderful to have a friend," she tells Gordon. Her feelings intensify. She's falling in love with the kind man who does so much to help. He's interested, but is more concerned about offering her a new start to her life.

It's during a conversation between the two that Gordon learns Rose-ann, years earlier, cut off contact between her daughter and a black girl who also tried to help her out. Selina doesn't know about the colour of his skin.

A race against the clock starts when Gordon tries to get help for Selina while Rose-ann schemes to take her daughter, desert her father and open what sure sounds like a brothel with her friend Sadie (Elisabeth Fraser).

A Patch of Blue reminds me of 2009's Precious which featured an even more horrifying relationship between mother and daughter (Mo'Nique and Gabourey Sidibe). Selina is also living through hell, but still sees beauty in the world and appreciates the kindness of others.

"It's great eating and talking," she tells Gordon during lunch at the spacious apartment he shares with his brother Mark (Ivan Dixon). There's nothing but a cheap transistor radio to listen to at her apartment. The brothers Ralfe have a record player and a selection of classical records. Selina becomes enchanted with a musical box owned by Gordon's grandmother. She too saw an important relationship affected because of racism. Composer Jerry Goldsmith (Seconds) deserves a nod for composing a great score.

Poitier is solid as a decent man who makes the effort to help Selina. Many others walk by her when she's in distress. He didn't.

A typical Hollywood approach to such a story would be to focus on a romantic relationship between the leads. That's not the big focus here. A Patch of Blue, just like later films like Educating Rita and Green Card, may not give some viewers the tidy wrap-up they want. Good for Guy Green.

A Patch of Blue is about stepping up to help someone else. It's about appreciating people for who they are, not damning them for what they look like. A Patch of Blue is a great film.

RATING: 10/10

FUN, AND NOT SO FUN, FACTS: Ivan Dixon is best known as James 'Kinch' Kinchloe in Hogan's Heroes. He also appeared with Poitier in A Raisin in the Sun and Porgy and Bess.

Elizabeth Hartman earned an Academy Award nomination for her film debut in A Patch of Blue. But life didn't end well for her. She committed suicide in 1987. She was 43.

What a resume. John Qualen also appeared in Casablanca, The Searchers and The Grapes of Wrath.

No comments: