Simon Callow makes an assured feature directing debut adapting Carson McCullers’ novella The Ballad of the Sad Cafe, a demanding, abstract fable.
Amelia (Vanessa Redgrave) is a violent, mannishly styled woman who threw out her husband (Keith Carradine) on their wedding night and has become a legendary figure in her little Southern town in the 1930s. With cropped hair and unglamorous makeup, Redgrave throws herself into the role with uncensored force.
Carradine, who replaced Sam Shepard, brings a naturalism to his embittered role as the ex-con and spurned spouse.
Catalyst in the piece is the fantasy character of Cousin Lymon (Cork Hubbert), a hunchbacked dwarf who pops up out of nowhere claiming to be Redgrave’s cousin. He gets Redgrave to convert her general store into a cafe, serving the moonshine she prepares at her still. Carradine shows up midway through the pic fresh out of the state pen. He’s out to avenge himself against Redgrave.
Film climaxes memorably in a bare-knuckles boxing match staged at the cafe between Carradine and Redgrave to settle their differences once and for all.
Redgrave’s body English, strange accent and physical outbursts are a triumph of pure acting. Carradine’s more natural approach helps bring pic closer to reality. An intense supporting performance by Rod Steiger also provides exposition as the town preacher.