Henry Tawes (Gregory Peck) strides with an air of superiority, decked out in a perfectly pleated, crisply pressed sheriff’s uniform, patrolling the East Tennessee hill country and, by extension, its humble folk in John Frankenheimer’s drama, I Walk the Line (1970). Tall, broad-shouldered and lean, he is bestowed with a shock of salt and pepper hair that sweeps across his brow. A sharply pointed nose and narrow lips betray a common Scotts-Irish ancestry, though Henry’s are sculpted with privilege whereas most of his constituents’ are shaped by harsher elements.
The good sheriff’s home is equally impressive, well built and roomy with a covered porch and rocking chairs painted white. His wife (Estelle Parsons) is an overly accommodating, talkative bird open to pleasing her husband by way of articles in The Readers Digest. He reciprocates her advances with an iceberg shoulder.
Similarly, he barley tolerates his daughter–she is about twelve–acknowledging her with pursed lips and a slight tilt of his head. He treats everyone this way, yes even himself.
One day he pulls over a shabby pickup bearing a load of sugar and a comely blonde somewhere in her early twenties. She too is talkative, but to her Henry actually listens as his unaccustomed lips form the beginnings of a smile.
Her name is Alma (Tuesday Weld). She is the daughter of an itinerate bootlegger and the sibling and caretaker of his two sons. The sheriff’s attraction to her is instantaneous, but he tries not to show it. Alma is not fooled.
Later, around a slovenly dinner table, she and her father plot the good sheriff’s seduction. It goes off without a hitch–at first. What Alma and her father underestimate is their mark’s susceptibility to obsession through the conduit of unrequited passion. Of course, Henry underestimates it most of all.
Director Frankenheimer’s film cannon is comprised most notably with early 1960s political dramas (The Manchurian Candidate, Seven Days in May) in which his masculine protagonists are besieged by external plots that coalesce around their own psychological disturbances. I Walk the Line, made in the early 70s but set a decade earlier, is a continuance of such themes with Alma and her family representing a festering rebellion threatening to erupt in response to suffocating repression.
Unfortunately, coming on the heels of revolutionary counter culture films like Easy Rider, The Swimmer, Midnight Cowboy and Five Easy Pieces, Frankenheimer’s offering got lost in the turbulence of the times. However, when viewed without the late 60s early 70s coke bottle lens, focusing instead on its panoramic photography, affecting cast and a starkly eloquent screenplay–not to mention the Johnny Cash infused soundtrack–I Walk the Line is a simple, yet, convincing personal drama about the unraveling of a tightly wound man.
I Walk the Line was filmed in Gainesboro, Tennessee and along the dam and banks of the beautiful Center Hill Lake, some eighty miles from our Nashville home. My family and I use to boat, camp and hike there when my children were small.