(Welcome to The Best Movies You’ve Never Seen, a series that takes a look at slightly more obscure, under-the-radar, or simply under-appreciated movies. In this edition, we put our hands together, drop to our knees, and then realize that’s a terribly uncomfortable position in which to watch movies featuring men of God as lead characters.)
When it comes to priests (preachers, pastors, etc) in movies, they typically fall into just a handful of character types. There are exceptions, of course, but the majority of them seem to find life as casual guys (Mass Appeal), pervs (Spotlight), or the last line of defense against the devil Himself (The Exorcism of Emily Rose). As with most professions, though, people who choose this line of work are typically more complicated than those one-note descriptions suggest. They’re not all good or all bad and instead usually offer the same gray slate as the rest of us.
Keep reading for a look at six movies with memorably atypical lead portrayals of men of God.
5 Card Stud (1968)
A poker game in a small Colorado town ends in violence when one of the players is found cheating and the others turn quickly into a lynch mob that leaves him hanging dead from a bridge. Only one man, Van Morgan, tries to stop the hanging and is knocked unconcious for his efforts. A short time later, the town welcomes a fiery, pistol-packing preacher into the community, but as The Rev. Jonathan Rudd tries encouraging people to attend his Sunday sermons, someone else is killing off the remaining poker players.
This western is a delightfully odd genre blend of frontier action, whodunnit, and near slasher with a dose of comedy and romance thrown in for good measure. A murder mystery set in the wild west of the 1880s is a fascinating premise, and while the mystery element is a bit too easy to guess, the pieces still fall into place with suspense and satisfying action beats. Playful music belies the death-dealing on display at times and creates a fun atmosphere despite the violence, but that doesn’t stop the film from featuring a (most likely) unintentional commentary on the danger of easy gun access. As the body count rises, people begin arming themselves out of fear, and the consequences of an openly armed populace soon play out in a chaotic sequence of reactionary carnage.
Dean Martin and Robert Mitchum headline as the cowboy and the preacher, respectively, and the two create an interesting dynamic as the plot moves towards its inevitable conclusion. Martin’s clearly in his element here as a playboy with a quick-draw, and he even sings the movie’s theme song! Mitchum meanwhile gets to stretch his acting chops into darker territory than most people know him for, and the supporting cast is equally terrific with two highlights in Roddy McDowall as a weasely prick and Yaphet Kotto as a reliable barkeep. The film is an early effort from the True Grit pairing of director Henry Hathaway and writer Marguerite Roberts, too.
5 Card Stud is available to buy on DVD from Amazon and to rent on Amazon Video.
Wise Blood (1979)
Hazel Motes returns home from war with a single intent. He wants to do things he’s never done before, and while he starts by sleeping with a prostitute, the anger and rage he’s brought back with him soon leads towards God. More accurately, it leads away from God as “Haze” becomes a street preacher advocating for his own creation, The Church of Truth Without Christ. There is no God, and he’s prepared to preach his truth until the very end.
The legendary John Huston directs this character drama adapted from Flannery O’Connor’s novel, and the result is a compelling look at one man’s response to war and the emptiness of those around him. His convictions are challenged by the times and a handful of hucksters, and the film portrays these exchanges with a mix of humor and pathos. The combination entertains and carries viewers along what amounts to an intentionally meandering tragedy of sorts.
One of the biggest reasons to give the film a watch is the cast starting with its lead actor, Brad Dourif. Known mostly for One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and as the voice of Chucky from Child’s Play, Dourif’s experience with leading roles is limited mostly to a handful of horror films, but here he gets to shine with all of his character-actor strengths on full display. He walks a fine line between pitiable and fearsome, and like those around him, viewers will find themselves both amused and terrified of his next move. Harry Dean Stanton, Ned Beatty, William Hickey, and Huston himself add to the film’s weight.
Wise Blood is available to buy on Blu-ray/DVD from Amazon and to rent on Amazon Video.
True Confessions (1981)
Los Angeles is a bustling city in post-war 1940s, and with growth comes corruption. Two brothers see it happening from remarkably varied perches – Tom is a tough homicide detective, and Des is a monsignor serving a large community of the faithful. When a young prostitute is found brutally murdered, Tom’s investigation brings him into dangerous circles around both his brother’s past and his own.
You don’t hear a lot of people talking about this pairing of Robert Duvall and Robert De Niro – their second film together, but the first where they share the screen – and it’s both a shame and easy to see why. To the latter, the film is a methodically paced affair that’s clearly less interested in the murder than it is the complicated relationship between brothers, institutions, and officials. Shady businessmen, morally suspect church leaders, and the dregs of society populate the film, and the mystery behind the killing is treated like no mystery at all. I’d argue that’s a strength though.
The murder is loosely inspired by the tragic case of the Black Dahlia, a gruesome unsolved murder from the city’s darker days that became the stuff of legend thanks to its combination of sex, savagery, and secrecy. The film allows that impression to exist here, but it’s insistent on following the effects on these two men. Duvall’s detective is a no-nonsense guy, but his desire to be closer with his brother is palpable to the point that what he sees as rejection turns into tragic circumstances. De Niro displays an inner calm as the priest that’s missing from many of his characters, and his slow disintegration beneath pressure, truths, and responsibility injects a note of sadness brought home in the end.
True Confessions is available to buy on Blu-ray/DVD from Amazon and to rent on Amazon Video.
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