Probably the most unusual (and to many, disappointing) thing you can say about the American National film Poor White Trash is that it’s not an exploitation movie. The word “sleazy” comes up a great deal whenever people talk about it, but I get the feeling the people who are bandying the term about have never actually seen it.
Yes, there’s an implied off-screen rape, a fistfight at a funeral, some vaguely arty sex (images of a hurricane superimposed over two clutching hands), and the marriage of a much older man to a fifteen-year-old. But that’s it, really. Filmed on location in Louisiana, Poor White Trash is at heart an authentic, straightforward, even sensitive portrayal of daily life in a Cajun fishing village. There are no Daisy Maes here, and nothing is played for cheap yuks at the locals’ expense.
Upon its original release in 1957, in fact, the film was called simply Bayou. It was directed by Harold Daniels (whose primary background had been in Westerns) and written by Edward Fessler. This was the only thing Fessler wrote, which seems to hint that he was writing from personal experience of one kind or another. He clearly knew what he was talking about—his characters aren’t the usual hicks tending their stills in the swamp.
Bayou concerns a New York-based architect (Peter Graves), who finds himself in Louisiana because he’s competing for a big job in New Orleans. While in the fishing village to meet with the project’s contractor, he encounters Marie (Lita Milan), a beautiful young woman who is fighting off the persistent advances of Ulysses (Timothy Carey), the local shopkeeper. Even though Marie makes it clear she’s not interested in him, Ulysses still doesn’t much care for the fact that she’s paying so much attention to this Yankee interloper.
So there’s the love triangle that drives the story, which was necessary to prevent Bayou from simply becoming a documentary about Cajun life. When those relationships aren’t the focus, we’re shown the local customs, learn the language and the history, get some insight into the local economy, even receive a quick lesson in proper crab fishing techniques.
When the film was first distributed by United Artists in ‘57, nobody went to see it . The reason was simple. That title made it sound like, yes, a documentary about Cajuns. Either that or a nature film. Who wants to pay good money to see something like that? The film quickly disappeared.
Then in 1960 Bayou was picked up by the much less reputable Cinema Distributors of America, who promptly changed the title, re-edited the film, and added a scene or two—including a banjo number under the opening credits (written by Fessler and performed by Dick Noel). They also spiced up the ad campaign: “Somewhere a 15 year-old girl may be a teenager…In the Cajun country, she’s a woman full grown!…and every Bayou man knows it.”
Yes, well. Overlong and semi-literate or not, it seemed to do the trick. CDA re-released the film to drive-ins as Poor White Trash in ’61 and suddenly lots and lots of people wanted to see it.
People are still itching to see the film today, and they can generally be broken into two groups. The first are the sleazehounds, all aflutter because, the picture has a mythic reputation for being unbelievably sordid. ( “Just get a load of that title and tagline! It sounds like a Russ Meyer film, only nastier! Man, that’s something I gotta see!”)
When these people finally do see the film, they tend to be extremely disappointed, even if they do come away having learned something about Cajun culture.
The second group consists of obsessive Timothy Carey fans. For years, Poor White Trash has remained a very difficult film to track down. In general, rabid Carey fans aren’t disappointed. Ulysses represents one of the strangest roles Carey ever took on (apart from those he wrote for himself). Yet it remains unclear why he was offered the role in the first place, let alone why he took it.
After he’d already appeared in classics like The Wild One, Crime Wave, East of Eden, The Killing, and Paths of Glory, this low-budget number seemed like a good idea. Maybe he just wanted to spend some time in Louisiana, or maybe after two Kubrick pictures, he wanted to do something simple. Who knows? In any case, he is unforgettable here playing a burly, arrogant, lovelorn, proud, and quite possibly psychotic Cajun shop owner.
It was not unusual for Carey to play burly psychotics. It was his stock in trade, and there was always something magnetic about his performances. Much of it had to do with his unmistakable delivery, that slurred Brooklyn accent and those bared upper teeth. But when you take that same delivery, that same slurred Brooklyn accent, and add to it a heavy French accent and Cajun sentence structure, something strange happens. It’s so patently artificial that you simply have to accept it because it somehow makes sense. There’s no reason why it should, but it does.
Although Peter Graves gets top billing and is presented as the film’s civilized protagonist, few who have seen it would deny that it’s Carey’s picture. The architect portrayed by Graves is a whiny, self-righteous asshole who went to Cornell and looks at the Cajuns like some kind of interesting primitive tribe. Carey may well be playing an asshole as well, but at least he’s an interesting one. You never know what he’s going to do next—whether it’s chase Marie through the Bayou (in a particularly frightening scene), or pick a fight at a funeral.
There’s a scene that gets me every time. Carey and Graves are competing in a boat race during a local carnival, and as the camera cuts from one to the other as they paddle furiously, Carey begins screaming for no logical reason—but again, it still makes perfect sense.
And then there’s his solo dance routine at a local wedding reception.
He plays the role like a confused teenage gorilla, awash with too much adrenaline and too many mysterious hormones. A gorilla with a Brooklyn-Cajun accent.
Poor White Trash is neither a great film nor the sleazy one it’s been made out to be, but for Carey’s performance as well as the film’s portrayal of Cajun culture, it is an endlessly fascinating one. Even if that asshole Peter Graves gets the girl in the end.
by Jim Knipfel