Joe Don Baker

Cool Hand Luke (1967, Stuart Rosenberg)

Maybe a third of the way into Cool Hand Luke, the film all of a sudden starts getting really good. It’s when Jo Van Fleet makes her appearance, which provides the film both its single best acting—Newman and Van Fleet are exquisite in the scene—and also director Rosenberg showing he’s actually got a handle on the film’s style. Luke’s got an excess of style—about half of the more ambitious shots work (though they always look great thanks to cinematographer Conrad Hall)—and it’s not clear to Van Fleet’s exit whether or not Rosenberg actually knows what he’s doing.

Unfortunately, even though it’s initially a big positive Rosenberg’s got ambitions, the lumpy second half (and especially the third act) show such a lack of ambition—outside the forced Jesus symbolism, which Rosenberg feigns big but feigns empty. Rosenberg goes on to press with the Jesus stuff without exactly having prepared for it, which also ends up being a problem for editor Sam O'Steen. O’Steen and Hall enable most of the great early filmmaking stuff, but once Rosenberg gives up on anything but religiously themed production design and what not… well, Hall can still make it look good, but O’Steen’s slicing at… soft-boiled eggs. It’s hit and miss.

It also doesn’t help Lalo Schifrin’s first half score seems entirely disconnected from his second half score. Luke’s from a very strange place in time, when you weren’t going to have leading man Paul Newman getting accused of glorying criminals but you also were going to acknowledge criminals were people too (as long as they’re White and it’s the late 1940s and there’s no such thing as prison rape or or beatings or even bullying). Rosenberg’s initial approach is to acknowledge the unspoken through the, let’s just say, mise-en-scène. But instead of actual engaging with that unspoken in the second half, when the film very directly says it wants to question the idea of humanity and empathy and brotherhood and whatever… it just cops out and becomes a disjointed Jesus parable with some amusing chase sequences throughout.

The stuff in the beginning, with Schrifin’s score turning the road gang vehicles driving Newman and his fellow prisoners to and from the prison camp into a nightmare scene… it doesn’t go anywhere. It doesn’t figure in. It’s just Rosenberg flexing. And he’s got some good flexes throughout; how could he not with this cast and crew. Newman, Hall, O’Steen, Schifrin, George Kennedy, Strother Martin, and the entire supporting cast. Rosenberg’s able to mix a lot of acting styles, like gravel-voiced straight shooter J.D. Cannon and mumblecore Harry Dean Stanton. The direction of the cast is impressive. It’s just the scenes aren’t great. Not after a while.

When Rosenberg’s got to figure out how to show Newman alienated and abandoned by masculinity and what not… Luke just shrugs. It does whatever it can to avoid Newman. It’s like a character study until it decides it doesn’t want to get too close to that character.

And instead there’s a bunch of Christian imagery. Only not assembled in any meaningful way, it’s just another gimmick for Rosenberg to utilize. He doesn’t seem to be malicious about it. He’s not covering for any perceived lack in the picture… which is kind of the problem. Rosenberg’s got some moves, a great crew, a fantastic cast, and a script in need. He gets about as far as you can without being able to fix the problem and then throws in some crosses to get to the finish line.

It’s a bummer.

Some great acting from Newman though. Just great. Like, Kennedy’s good and whatnot, but Newman’s big swings hit.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Stuart Rosenberg; screenplay by Donn Pearce and Frank Pierson, based on the novel by Pearce; director of photography, Conrad L. Hall; edited by Sam O’Steen; music by Lalo Schifrin; costume designer, Howard Shoup; produced by Gordon Carroll; released by Warner Bros.

Starring Paul Newman (Lucas Jackson), George Kennedy (Dragline), Jo Van Fleet (Arletta Jackson), Strother Martin (The Captain), Morgan Woodward (Walking Boss), Luke Askew (Boss Paul), Robert Donner (Boss Shorty), Clifton James (Carr), John McLiam (Boss Keen), Andre Trottier (Boss Popler), Charles Tyner (Boss Higgins), J.D. Cannon (Society Red), Lou Antonio (Koko), Robert Drivas (Loudmouth Steve), Marc Cavell (Rabbitt), Richard Davalos (Blind Dick), Warren Finnerty (Tattoo), Dennis Hopper (Babalugats), Wayne Rogers (Gambler), Dean Stanton (Tramp), Ralph Waite (Alibi), Buck Kartalian (Dynamite), Joe Don Baker (Fixer), James Gammon (Sleepy), Anthony Zerbe (Dog Boy), and Joy Harmon (Lucille).


Charley Varrick (1973, Don Siegel)

Walter Matthau hated Charley Varrick. He must have been stuck in a contract or something. It’s understandable why he did, however. Matthau’s whole image is one of the likable curmudgeons. Varrick casts him as a gum-chewing (for that Matthau effect) bank robber… who doesn’t do it because he needs the money, but because crop dusting has been taken over by big corporations. He loses his wife (the driver in his bank robbing crew) in the first few minutes of the film–it’s impossible to like her or particularly care, since she just got done shooting two people–and then, with the character’s only possible sympathy coming from his recent widowing, Matthau beds a woman a couple days later (after threatening to kill her). I can imagine Matthau had some problems with the film–it’s the most amoral thing I’ve ever seen. There are no good people in this film, with the exception of a few law enforcement personnel (who the film doesn’t want the audience to sympathize with) and a black family (who, interestingly enough, the film does want the audience to sympathize with). It’s unbelievable.

I’m not sure if Siegel knew what was going on while he was making it–I kind of doubt it, given how virtuously he defended it in his autobiography–but I think, reflexively, the filmmaker knew… In many ways, Charley Varrick is Siegel’s worst film, just because there’s no excuse for the badness. He had a good screenwriter (Dean Riesner) and a fantastic supporting cast. Andy Robinson and John Vernon are both excellent. Joe Don Baker–who Siegel knew the audience would like more than Matthau–plays a redneck Mafia hit man, who’s a complete piece of shit (but revels in it) and is the most entertaining part of the movie. Women are inexplicably drawn to Matthau, but, for whatever reason, one can believe they’d go for Baker. Oh, and the hit man’s name is Molly. So, obviously, Reiser and Siegel spent more time on that character. Robinson, who played the psycho in Dirty Harry for Siegel, showed a lot of promise as a comedic leading man (which, regrettably, never happened). It doesn’t help when the film spends fifteen minutes making him appealing, only to turn him into another pat bad guy. The disconnection may come from Riesner’s writing style on Siegel’s films–he and Siegel would lay out all the scripts (by various writers) and cut paste what they liked. I have no idea whether or not they did it on Charley Varrick (my copy of Siegel’s autobiography is in storage somewhere) but it feels like they did.

Some of this film–the beginning–features some excellent work from Siegel. Beautiful camera movements, a great crane shot… but it all disappears by the middle of the film. Actually, once the film stops centering on Matthau, it gets a lot better. When Universal released Varrick on DVD a couple years ago, they did it as part of their pan and scan classics of the 1970s series–a bunch of eclectic releases no one would want pan and scan. I had the laserdisc so I didn’t get upset, but Varrick’s got a really good reputation and I think a decent DVD release would have led to a (deserving) critical reevaluation of this film. It’s rather offensive and pretty lousy. The supporting cast (and the bland, not-badness of the scenic writing) make it watchable, but I can’t imagine a reason to watch the film again.

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Directed and produced by Don Siegel; written by Dean Riesner and Howard Rodman, from a novel by John Reese; director of photography, Michael C. Butler; edited by Frank Morriss; music by Lalo Schifrin; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring Walter Matthau (Charley Varrick), Joe Don Baker (Molly), Felicia Farr (Sybil Fort), Andrew Robinson (Harman), Sheree North (Jewell Everett), Norman Fell (Mr. Garfinkle), Benson Fong (Honest John), Woodrow Parfrey (Harold Young) and John Vernon (Maynard Boyle).


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