Thursday, May 28, 2009
Sam Peckinpah's Forgotten Masterpiece: Noon Wine (1966)
An often overlooked and sometimes completely unknown chapter in Sam Peckinpah’s influential and impressive career, 1966’s Noon Wine is one of his most haunting, important and resonate productions. Virtually unseen in the forty plus years since it was broadcast on ABC TV as part of the Stage 67 series, Noon Wine is a mesmerizing and moving near fifty minute work that stands as the equal of many of Peckinpah’s more known and celebrated big screen productions, and its relatively lost in time status is extremely unfortunate.
Based on an acclaimed short story by Katherine Anne Porter, Noon Wine concerns a farming family who hire on a strange Swedish man to help out and board with them. Things go well for several years until another stranger arrives with some news about the mostly silent Swede that alters everyone’s life forever with most tragic results.
Scripted by Peckinpah himself and starring Jason Robards, Olivia de Havilland, Theodore Bikel, Per Oscarsson, and in two smaller roles Peckinpah favorites Ben Johnson and L.Q. Jones, Noon Wine is an astonishingly adult and challenging work that is as far away from the trash TV culture we find ourselves surrounded by these days. Charged with the humanity and heart that had fueled his earlier Ride the High Country and later masterpieces like The Ballad of Cable Hogue and Junior Bonner, Noon Wine stands as one of the most subtle and sincere works of Peckinpah’s career.
Shown in stark black and white and featuring a mesmerizing score from none other than Jerry Fielding, Noon Wine will come as something of a shock to film fans who only know Peckinpah through his blood drenched reputation as the director of works like The Wild Bunch and Straw Dogs. And yet, it was the success of Noon Wine that directly led to Peckinpah to be able to shoot the string of films that would make him such a legend over the few years after its television premiere.
By pretty much every account Sam Peckinpah was finished in Hollywood by 1966. The disastrous production of Major Dundee and his firing from The Cincinnati Kid had made him all but un-hirable, and it is was these factors that made Noon Wine such a redemptive prospect for the uncompromising Peckinpah. Marshall Fine writes in his excellent Bloody Sam that it was television producer Dan Melnick who extended a helping hand to the down on his luck filmmaker in 1965 by offering him a shot at Noon Wine. Peckinpah was certainly no stranger to television, as fans will know, but Melnick’s offered surprised even him considering the troubled state of his career. Fine wrote that, “when Melnick called Peckinpah, the director seemed cautious to the point of being defensive. Peckinpah said, ‘You ought to know I’ve been blacklisted. I’ve recently been fired from The Cincinnati Kid. No one’s going to want you to hire me.’” Melnick persevered and ABC gave in giving Peckinpah the shot he needed at a much-deserved comeback.
Noon Wine began shooting in the fall of 1964 from a script from Peckinpah’s own pen that none other than Katherine Anne Porter herself and given an enthusiastic recommendation to. Fine wrote that, “Peckinpah insisted on two weeks of rehearsal”, something that was a bit uncommon for these sort of short television films, and something that no doubt helped give the performances the push that made them so strong across the board. Robards would be quoted as saying in Fines book that, “we could work like it was a play.” The inspiring actor would reportedly be so proud of his performance in the film that he kept his own private copy for years after.
According to Fine, “the production was shot in color on videotape and film” and that Melnick remembered that, “Sam shot Noon Wine like a film”, and actor Theordore Bikel recalled that, “there seemed to be a great deal of stress on him” during the shoot, which no doubt gave the proceedings an air of necessity. Because of this, and due to his inability to compromise, Melnick said, “He was very tough on the crew always” but it paid off and by the time it was ready to air Noon Wine was nothing short of a masterpiece, and it would give Peckinpah the chance to make The Wild Bunch just a couple of years later.
Fine wrote that Noon Wine was, “broadcast in November of 1966” and that it “won good reviews and put a new spin on Peckinpah’s career.” Melnick would take it even further and say that, “Sam was a hero again” after Noon Wine. Sam would receive nomination from The Writers and Directors Guild but he came home empty handed both evenings. It didn’t matter though, Sam Peckinpah was back in the game and for the next nearly ten years he would produce one of the most iconic body of works in American film history..
The holy grail of lost Peckinpah works, Noon Wine has been traded from collector to collector for years, and it can currently be screened at The Library of Congress and the Museum of Broadcasting. It is far too powerful a work to not be more readily available though and it desperately needs a proper re-release. My own experience watching Noon Wine proved to be quite a devastating one. I found it to be one of the most moving television works I had ever seen, and I will not soon forget it.
Even though Sam Peckinpah is one of the most legendary American filmmakers of the past fifty years, his career has still not been put in the proper perspective. Infamous tales of cocaine and alcohol binges combined with the overwhelming violence found in some of his most famous works have pigeonholed Peckinpah into a particularly dark corner. Noon Wine shows him as less an out of control madman and more a visionary poet…he entered his house justified.
-Jeremy Richey, 2009-