A Patch of Blue is a special little film. On its surface, the film is hopelessly optimistic, but surprisingly does not have an overly simplistic view of race. It is a movie that takes “love is blind” quite literally, centering on the relationship between a blind white girl, Selina, and a working-class black man, Gordon. Yet, under the tender direction of Guy Green and with delicate performances from Elizabeth Hartman and Sidney Poitier, A Patch of Blue fully embraces the beauty that lies under darkness.
The film is based on Elizabeth Kata’s novel Be Ready with Bells and Drums. Selina (Hartman) lives with her prostitute mother Rose-Ann (Shelley Winters) and her grandfather Ole Pa (Wallace Ford). One day in the park, she meets Gordon (Poitier) and is not aware Gordon is black. All she knows is he is a kind man, who helps her string beads together. Over the next few days, Gordon helps Selina learn how to live as a blind woman, something her own family never seemed to care to do.
Gordon is one of Poitier’s best performances from this period of his career. It’s a subdued warm delivery. One never feels like Gordon is pitying Selina, but has rather genuinely fallen in love with her. This cannot be an easy challenge for an actor, but Poitier pulls it off beautifully.
Poitier’s experience in film matches perfectly with Hartman’s lack of it. Not only do we see Gordon help Selina become a more independent person over the course of the film, but we also see Poitier help Hartman become more comfortable in front of the camera. It’s easy to see the chemistry between the two stars because Poitier is so giving as an actor. Throughout his career, Poitier had a way of bringing up his co-stars, be they Tony Curtis in The Defiant Ones or Rod Steiger in In The Heat of the Night. In A Patch of Blue, this talent is invaluable. Hartman even got an Oscar nomination out of it.
The one actress who did win an Oscar for this film was Shelley Winters, who gives a shocking performance as Selina’s mother. It’s as vulgar as it needs to be and unforgettable. Winters has to be if we are truly to understand the weight of the horrible conditions Selina lives under.
A Patch of Blue was among the last black and white films released by a major studio, in part because Green knew this film could not be made in color. To truly understand the claustrophobia Selina felt in her apartment, you could not make it bright and colorful. Green, a cinematographer himself who won an Oscar for shooting David Lean’s Great Expectations, picked Alfred Hitchcock collaborator Robert Burks to shoot the film.
Despite being 54 years old, the film looks magnificent, as almost all Warner Archive Blu-Ray releases do. There is no damage of any kind, but the transfer preserves a film-like quality. I also didn’t hear any issues with the soundtrack, featuring a wonderful, Oscar-nominated score by Jerry Goldsmith.
WAC carried over every supplement from the original DVD release of A Patch of Blue.
- Commentary – Before his death in 2005, Green recorded this solo commentary. While it would have been nice to hear from others who worked on the film, especially because there are some long breaks in the commentary, Green provides a detailed discussion into the making of the film. He touches on his stylistic choices, working with Poitier and bringing out a great performance from Hartman. It’s welcome to hear a first-hand look at what the studio system was like as it was crashing down in the mid-1960s.
- A Cinderella Named Elizabeth – This is a brief, 6-minute short made during the film’s production that looks into the casting of Hartman and how Green helped her prepare for the role. Seeing this today while knowing the tragedy of Hartman’s life makes it even more poignant to see this young girl excitedly work with the giants of Hollywood.
On the surface, A Patch of Blue sounds like a film that should have an almost laughable view of race relations in the U.S. and how difficult it would be for a mixed-race relationship to survive in the ’60s. But Green – possibly because he, like Gordon and Selina, was an outsider as a British-born director – understood that this story could not have an overwhelmingly positive ending. True, Selina does escape her mother, but this doesn’t end with the lead couple living happily ever after. Gordon has to teach her that there’s more than romantic love, and if they were to be together, they would face more challenges than just blindness.
A Patch of Blue is a movie everyone should see. It’s a kind film, one with plenty of little moments that make it magical. This movie has not aged a bit, and thanks to powerful performances and delicate directing, it is still important today.
‘A Patch of Blue’ is now available at WBShop.com.