The Miracle Worker (1962)

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By Scott Ross

Arthur Penn was theatre and live television-trained, but you’d never know it looking at his best movies, such as Bonnie and ClydeNight Moves and this, his superbly realized adaptation of the wrenching William Gibson play (which he’d already directed for TV). Everything works here; Gibson’s emotionally taut screenplay about the combustible interaction between the wild young Helen Keller and her determined teacher Annie Sullivan has a sense of urgency that brings forth small miracles in the acting, the direction, the cinematography of Ernesto Caparrós, in Aram Avakian’s kinetic editing, and in Laurence Rosenthal’s intensely moving score, which nearly equals Elmer Bernstein’s for To Kill a Mockingbird in sheer, aching beauty and emotional release.

The actors could scarcely be improved upon. Inga Swenson as Mrs. Keller seems to be playing most of her scenes on her nerve endings; it must have been exhausting  for her on the stage; Victor Jory has his best role as the mercurial pater familias; and Andrew Prine gives a lovely performance as the bitter, neglected older son. But the show belongs, quite properly, to Patty Duke and the great Anne Bancroft, both of whom won Oscars for their incendiary performances. Although there is, ultimately, extraordinary tenderness between the two, their major scenes are constructed as battles royal, and they give them everything. If the overwhelming climax, in which Annie finally reaches Helen’s subterranean Id doesn’t move you, seek immediate help.

Text copyright 2013 by Scott Ross

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