Compassionate story of depression-era drifter

Ed has seen his share of troubles. His childhood was unhappy; he had a scrape with the law as a young man; and now he can't find steady work -- like many another willing person during the depths of the depressed 1930s. There's one bright spot in Ed's life, though: a widow named Norah, who lives down the road from a temporary job he's landed. Like him, she has troubles, with a pair of children to raise on a budget of next to nothing. But she's charmed by Ed's kind attention, his funny stories, his gentle way with the youngsters.

He moves into her modest house, and a while later they get married. Both are happier than they've been in a long time.

Up to this point, the new movie called ``Hard Traveling'' bears a strong resemblance to ``Tender Mercies,'' another thoughtful and sensitive film about a man redeemed from reckless ways by a good marriage that brings out his inner strength.

``Hard Traveling'' takes an unexpected twist, however. The body of a local citizen is found by the side of a road one morning, and hours later Ed is arrested on suspicion of murder. Norah stands by him in every way she can, but facts begin to emerge that he never told her. Most of his stories and reminiscences were lies, it turns out, made up to disguise a drab and sometimes unsavory existence.

But his new wife refuses to give up on him. She knows that he's a good man now, whatever might have happened earlier.

And she determines to support him in any way necessary, as long as he comes clean and offers nothing but the truth from here on.

The most outstanding quality of ``Hard Traveling'' is its compassion for just about every character. The screenplay probes Ed's past and his recent life with Norah, seeking out hard experiences that could have swayed him in unfortunate ways, and recognizing the economic pressures that pose especially steep challenges for people with little education and no privileges of money or position.

The film also acknowledges society's need for order and makes a case for the fairness -- if not the sensitivity or infallibility -- of the law. Yet the weight of the movie is on the side of the individual and of the need for empathy and insight in assessing all human affairs.

Based on an actual incident, ``Hard Traveling'' was written and directed by Dan Bessie from a book by his father, Alvah Bessie, one of the ``Hollywood Ten'' who were imprisoned in 1947 and later blacklisted from the movie business for not cooperating with federal investigators during the McCarthy era.

Although the movie has shortcomings -- some of Ed's yarns sound too far-fetched for belief, for example, long before his lying is exposed by the screenplay -- its humane outlook and modest style make it a welcome addition to the lineup of late-summer films. Among the cast members, Ellen Geer gives a knowing performance as Norah, and J. E. Freeman is close to perfect as the enigmatic Ed. The picture is rated PG.

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