Saturday, September 6, 2008

Hellhound 21: All My Love's in Vain


Now signs of the town of Greenwood are visible in the distance. Johnson sits in the shade of a tree, picking out a tune on his guitar and keeping a watchful eye on the roadhouse. When Betty Mae appears and walks hesitantly toward him, he stands up.

BETTY MAE: I cain't see you, Robert. It's not right. (mournfully) Why are you here?

JOHNSON: Baby, I had to see you--I got things to say. You gone back to town, ain'cha? I walk you there.

He picks up his suitcase and starts in the direction of Greenwood. Betty Mae stands still for a moment, torn two ways, then when Robert stops and motions to her, she reluctantly moves forward, still keeping her distance from him.


The camera move discovers Ralph's face, inside his roadhouse, watching their departure. Tight on his face then, we see he imagines the worst: Betty Mae's old love has returned to steal her away. He shows a mixture of anguish and anger.


Robert and Betty Mae walk along the highway heading to Greenville. They walk in silence at first. When they do talk, they avoid each other's eyes--when one turns, the other looks away.

JOHNSON: I need you. I ain' know till now jes' how much. (after a pause) I got to ramble, it's in me. I alluz thinkin' I could run alone or wid some buddy, an' fin' woman love whensoever I want, wherever... But that kin' ain' nothin'--no better'n wind in the trees an' dust in the road. You lonelier'n if you was alone.

Betty Mae is watching him now, but Robert stares resolutely off into the distance.

JOHNSON: Bad luck doggin' me ever'where I go... I know I have done evil--I kill one man, an' I hurt some peoples, you mos' of all I 'spect.

Now Betty Mae looks away, resisting her impulse to comfort him.


His face as he continues.

JOHNSON: I was angry, an' I give you up that way, when what I shoulda done, I shoulda hol' on tighter. Ain' been no whole man no day since--juicin' an' foolin' aroun'. (bitter laugh) I been near drownin' in that stuff.


Now he stops and faces her, pleading.

JOHNSON: But i ain't in that fast life now. No more, Mae. I come for you now--you what I been try'na fin' all these years.

Betty Mae has her hands over her ears.

BETTY MAE (wailing): Stop it, damn you, Robert! Stop...

She backs away from him before continuing.

BETTY MAE: I love you, Robert. I do. But it's too many years. I'm married now. You cain't jes' come here...


Robert is thoughtful as he resumes walking; Betty Mae falls in step beside him.

JOHNSON: I ain' come here t' take you off, Mae. Onlies' thing that's set, I be playin' at Ralph's t'night. Well, tha's my life, ain' it?

BETTY MAE: Ralph loves me strong, Robert. He's a decent man, a hard-workin' man. But he won't accept anythin' between you an' me. He's proud, an' he hol's onto what's his. I won't leave him. 'Specially now...

JOHNSON: I ain't aimin' to do no one else wrong. I ain' so greedy, Mae, no more. I been playin' these blues long enough--I reckon I kin live 'em a mite longer.

Now Betty Mae grabs his arm, stops, and turns him toward her.


She is almost in tears.

BETTY MAE: It's forever, baby. I been tryin' to tell you--I got Ralph's child in me now.


His reaction: stunned amazement, followed by disappointment, and then somehow a visible acceptance. He nods, chuckles, and slowly walks on.

JOHNSON: Well, well... he's a lucky man. (quietly, almost an incantation) God bless the chile.

Now he takes Betty Mae's hand in his; she allows it now.

JOHNSON (smiling cheerfully): That's all right, mama. Nothin' bad between us. (singing a bit ridiculously) Got a house full o' chil'ren, ain' ne'er one mine...

He winks at Betty Mae, and she laughs in pleased relief. Then, hand in hand, more like old friends than ex-lovers, the two of them amble on down the highway towards Greenwood.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Hellhound 20: Someday I Will Return


This crossing of roads (outside Greenwood, Mississippi) looks very much like the one from Johnson's earlier nightmare, though he does not appear to notice. An ancient rattletrap Ford truck wheezes to a halt, and Robert dismounts from the passenger seat, nodding his thanks to the black driver.

JOHNSON: Thank ya.


As Johnson reaches into the truck for his guitar and suitcase, the driver leans over.

DRIVER: Curtis place up the way there. (winks) Good times tonight an' ev'ry Sat'dy night!

Then he waves and sputters off in the Ford. Johnson turns to survey the surrounding countryside.


Robert's view of his surroundings: two distant farmhouses, early-spring green fields of cotton, some other plantings as well. And up the road, two hundred yards or so, set well back with its own long dirt-road entry, a large wooden structure almost like an overgrown shed--Ralph Curtis's dancehall/tavern, with proud sign "RALPH'S ROADHOUSE."


He sets out walking towards the building.


Inside, it is somewhat less impressive, though rather large--a battered bar and tables in one half and a large dance floor beyond. Ralph himself is sweeping the fance area, while his assistant Charles stands behind the bar, cleaning sink and drain; a can of "RED DEVIL" lye waits on the bartop near him.

Johnson enters from outside and saunters over to Charles.

JOHNSON: Ralph Curtis?

CHARLES (waving toward the back): 'At's him yonder.

Robert deposits his suitcase by the bar and, guitar in hand, heads for Curtis.


Ralph--Betty Mae's husband--is stocky and stolid, a perennially suspicious, easily perspiring member of the incipient Negro middle class. He looks at Johnson impassively as the bluesman near him.

CURTIS: Yeah? What?

JOHNSON (showing guitar): I play--breakdowns, blues, you name it. Need a job.

CURTIS: This ain' no dime juke or two-bit crib. If you can cut it, could be we use ya.


Johnson runs through a few dazzling runs on guitar and plays the opening to "Preachin' Blues" (heard early in the film). Curtis holds up his hand.

CURTIS: So you got that part down. The rest of it is, we open Satiddy only, you stay sober and play onta dawn on a right night. Two dollars, more if you draw folks good. Well?

JOHNSON: Better'n choppin'.

CURTIS (dismissively): Right. Be here come nine... what's you' name anyway?

Robert is already walking away. He turns back with a half-smile.

JOHNSON: Johnson. Calls me "Blues Boy Bob."


Johnson picks up his suitcase as he walks by.

JOHNSON (to Charles): So long.

Then he heads on out the door. Curtis has trailed him over to the bar.

CHARLES: Who 'zat? Look some familiar.

CURTIS: Say his name Bob Johnson.

CHARLES (thinking while he cleans mugs): Bob Johnson... Johnson... Well, sho'... 'At's Robert Johnson, from up Rob'sonville way. You heard 'is records, ain'cha? Real woman-poison too, folks say.

Curtis is already frowning and staring after Johnson.


Which shows Robert making his way down the road, Betty Mae coming towards him. She doesn't recognize him at first, but then stops in astonishment. The two ex-lovers approach each other slowly. Their initial words are not heard, as Charles continues speaking voiceover:

CHARLES' VOICE: Oh, yes, he pick 'em up an' drop 'em down. Say, Ralph, ain't you' wife come from up there?


As Curtis strides over to the screen door and yanks it open.

CURTIS (back to Charles): Shut you' mouf.


As Curtis emerges and bellows out...

CURTIS: Betty Mae!


Now the couple is in the foreground and Curtis distant in background, gesturing from the door.

JOHNSON: ... to fin' you, Mae.

Betty Mae waves reassuringly at her husband.

BETTY MAE: I never tol' him, but...

JOHNSON: I be wait out at the crossroads. We got t' talk.

Betty Mae hurries off towards Curtis, but she looks back at Johnson, very much troubled by this encounter. He turns and saunters off.


As Betty Mae approaches her fuming husband.

CURTIS: What 'uz he sayin' at you?

BETTY MAE (not meeting his eyes as she passes): Nothing. He wanted a place in town to stay at. Why, who is he anyway?

She hurries on into the roadhouse. Curtis looks stricken by this casual lie, then somehow both angry and despairing, watching Johnson recede into the distance.