USA / 1955
Director: Joshua Logan
Writer: Daniel Taradash (based on play by William Inge)
Cast: William Holden, Rosalind Russell, Kim Novak, Betty Field, Susan Strasberg, Cliff Robertson, Arthur O’Connell, Verna Felton, Reta Shaw, Nick Adams
Joshua Logan’s adaptation of William Inge’s Pullitzer Prize winning play is a sweltering tale of deception, betrayal and illicit love in small-town Kansas. When you think of William Holden it’s usually as the crumbling hard-man leading The Wild Bunch through the blood and dust of Peckinpah’s spaghetti West. But that image is taken from a period in Holden’s career when his star had all but burned out, leaving only the cynical core of a man who’d fallen from a great height and landed in a vat of whisky.
However, his earlier winning mixture of looks, presence and menace is perfectly demonstrated in Picnic. Made at the peak of his career, Holden’s performance is scintillating. He plays Hal Carter, a wandering bum who rides into a tight-knit Kansas community on a freight train, hoping to get a job with the wealthy father of his old buddy Alan (Cliff Robertson). It’s a chance for Carter to recreate himself and he’s soon regaling the attentive townsfolk with romanticised stories of his wild and heroic life. He fools everybody, especially dowdy teacher Rosemary (Rosalind Russell) and young Millie (Susan Strasberg – daughter of Method guru, Lee), who hurl themselves at him with lusty fervour.
But Carter has fallen for Alan’s fiancée Madge (Kim Novak – in her first lead role), and her reciprocation is in striking evidence during the film’s most famous scene, as the couple dance with exquisite sensuality to the tune of Moonglow (which subsequently became a huge hit). Their relationship causes consternation, of course, and, goaded into a brawl with Alan, Carter finds himself on the wrong side of the law when he batters his old friend and is forced to flee town, with Madge in tow. Only then does his conscience get the better of him and he comes clean about his true character. But will Madge still love him now she knows who he really is?
Picnic enjoyed huge box-office success, was nominated for six Academy Awards (including Best Picture and Director) and won two (for Best Editing and Art Direction). Sizzling performances from Holden, Russell and Novak earned Logan (who already had a string of Broadway hits under his belt) a reputation in the film industry as an actor’s director. He would cement that reputation in the following year’s Bus Stop by coaxing Marilyn Monroe through the finest ‘serious’ performance of her career.