Arthur Penn’s art, flesh and blood and signs and senses. Out of Boston and into the Alabama manor, Annie Sullivan (Anne Bancroft) peers through tinted specs, "not lost, just out of place." Her charge is the young Helen Keller (Patty Duke), who lashes from inside her husk of blindness and deafness like a dervish. "One child teaching another" describes the apprenticeship, the gradual steering of mind and soul toward the discovery of language, one letter at a time. The opposing forces are pugnaciously matched: The Irish governess is a weak-eyed asylum alumnus who’s made herself strong and at home with madness, the plantation girl is a feral protector of her own inner world and no stranger to violent mischief. The first great clash between them unfolds around a breakfast table, their grueling slapstick leaves a demolished chamber and a famous punchline: "The room's a wreck but her napkin's folded." An early yet central work for Penn, his inarticulate outlaws and bemused parents all reside within these two women thrashing in the dark. His direction is a purposely unsettled transmutation of theater into film, or rather a rectangular proscenium that’s continuously splintered into flares of combative stimuli. (Fingers running over spilled ink or digging into food, a sudden slap, a memory bubbling up through a grainy filter, a grimace that changes into a grin and then back, everything is remarkably tactile.) The clenched fist that’s also the first letter in the alphabet, Baudelaire’s monstrous child, "the wonders of modern medicine" versus the eternal sightless night. The breakthrough at the water pump is nothing less than the cracking of the chrysalis, and as ecstatic a system of vision and meaning as cinema itself. Truffaut in L’Enfant Sauvage has his own view of the entrance into civilization, Herzog in The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser is keenly on the side of chaos. Cinematography by Ernest Caparros. With Victor Jory, Inga Swenson, Andrew Prine, and Kathleen Comegys. In black and white.
--- Fernando F. Croce