Paul Newman

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).


The Hustler (1961, Robert Rossen)

It’s an hour into The Hustler before the film offers any real information about protagonist Paul Newman. We’ve seen Newman and mentor slash manager Myron McCormick pool hustle their way across the North American continent, getting Newman to New York City so he can play the best pool player in the world, Minnesota Fats (Jackie Gleason). And Newman does play Gleason. In this beautifully shot, acted, and especially edited twenty-five plus hour pool game between the young upstart and the assured master. McCormick pleads with Newman to remember their plan—ten grand and out—but Newman’s just too cocky.

When Gleason beats him, thirty-five minutes into a two hour and fifteen minute picture, we don’t even get to see Newman lose. He just see him lost. Past lost. We’re left to imagine how he reacted to hours of losing, while Gleason—and his bank, George C. Scott—grew bored beating Newman. McCormick sits quietly devastated while Newman drunkenly lashes out and crumbles from exhaustion.

Scene.

But actually prologue. The Hustler doesn’t really start until after Newman’s snuck out on McCormick and is working to get himself lost in the city. At the bus terminal (to dump his belongs in a locker), he meets Piper Laurie and tries to pick her up. It’s complicated and he’s got to wait until she’s quite drunk, but he manages to do it. Only for her to rebuff him at the door to her apartment; “you’re too hungry,” she tells him. So off Newman shuffles into the anonymous city, finding a room, trying to play some pool (but he’s now famous for losing to Gleason and can’t).

The initial pickup scene—with Laurie simultaneously softened and steeled to Newman’s advances and flirtations—is just as phenomenal as the pool game. It’s the first time we’ve gotten to see Newman act outside the hustler bravado. It’s the first time we’ve seen a woman in the film. It’s the first time director Rossen and editor Dede Allen have done a conversation outside the pool hall—and they use a similar but amplified editing rhythm. Now there are jump cuts, exclamation points focusing on Newman or Laurie. Rossen and Allen keep with this editing style going forward, even after Newman gets back to the pool table. After a freely roaming narrative distance in the first forty minutes, once Laurie arrives, Rossen focuses and refocuses it forcibly. Occasionally harshly. Rossen’s evolving methods to handling the narrative distance parallel Newman’s character development, which doesn’t even start when he meets Laurie the first time. We’ve got to wait another twenty or whatever minutes until McCormick tracks him down.

And then, an hour into the film, both Laurie and the audience find out we haven’t got the slightest idea about Newman as a person. Laurie stands silent, frozen, crying, as she listens to Newman berate McCormick and cast him out. The reality of their “romance,” with Newman living with Laurie and them filling their days with liquor then sex, hits her and breaks her. Did Newman hustle her? Laurie’s got a limp from a childhood case of polio and it’s 1961 so she’s seen as broken—honestly, it’s an indictment of 1961 the word “crippled” didn’t fall out of use after this film—but Newman doesn’t make her feel that way.

At least until she’s now got to wonder if he’s entirely full of shit.

But then Newman hustles in the wrong pool hall and all of a sudden he’s entirely dependent on Laurie. She’s even slowing down on the boozing, with Newman initially reluctantly but then more earnestly following suit. It’s this whole second story, with its own rhythm and feel—all about urban isolation and loneliness and desperation and connection—and when it ties into the prologue, it’s like the apple. When Newman runs into George C. Scott while out on a liquor run for he and Laurie, he finds the snake. Scott thinks he’s too cocky to ever amount to anything but is still talented enough to bank roll for certain jobs.

In one of the quieter tragic twists, once Newman’s found some humility (and humanity), Scott’s the only place he can go to get real work. And bringing in Scott, who’s more than willing to break Newman to make him fit the mold, is what sets everyone on the path to destruction.

The last third or so of The Hustler is just watching Scott crush Newman and Laurie’s tentative, desperate hold on their reality. Laurie has to endure Scott’s intentional cruelty as well as Newman’s slow corruption; it’s pretty easy to corrupt Newman it turns out, there just needs to be booze around. The foundation of Newman and Laurie’s relationship is loving not being sober. It’s loving being loose enough to get free from responsibility. What makes it all even worse is Scott’s already given Newman a character evaluation and told him how he’s going to fail and Newman can’t get off that track. The difference is he’s now got Laurie with him, bringing her along on his first job for Scott; they’re going to the Kentucky Derby to play skeazy blue blood Murray Hamilton. Hamilton likes hustling hustlers at pool and Scott thinks Newman’s got a shot.

The film says a whole bunch about masculinity, toxic masculinity, boozing, sex, romance, money. It doesn’t have much to say about pool. Gleason’s only in the bookend pool games and ends up with an exceptionally subtle, appropriately devastating arc about what it means to have talent.

Great performances from everyone; it’s Newman’s show but Laurie’s the essential. So much of the film plays out on she and Newman’s faces, every expression has to be perfect. Scott’s amazing. Gleason and McCormick are excellent. The Hustler is definitely a “uses up all the superlatives” film. Allen’s edited, Eugen Schüfftan’s photography, Kenyon Hopkins’s music—whoever came up with the titles—it’s a technical masterpiece. I mean, it’s a masterpiece overall—Sidney Carroll and Rossen’s script is singular—the film’s constantly wowing; it’s exhilarating.

And, simultaneously, an abject downer.

It’s so good.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Produced and directed by Robert Rossen; screenplay by Sidney Carroll and Rossen, based on the novel by Walter Tevis; director of photography, Eugen Schüfftan; edited by Dede Allen; music by Kenyon Hopkins; production designer, Harry Horner; costume designer, Ruth Morley; released by 20th Century Fox.

Starring Paul Newman (Eddie Felson), Piper Laurie (Sarah Packard), George C. Scott (Bert Gordon), Myron McCormick (Charlie Burns), Murray Hamilton (Findley), and Jackie Gleason (Minnesota Fats).


Twilight (1998, Robert Benton)

Unfortunate bit of trivia to start us off—Twilight is supposed to be called The Magic Hour, but just around the time of release, Magic Johnson’s high profile (and quickly cancelled) TV show had the same title and they changed the movie’s title. Titles are both important and not. They definitely establish a work’s intention—you may know nothing about something but once you see the title, you ostensibly know something. The problem with Twilight’s title change is two-fold. While, sure, Twilight is The Magic Hour as far as a time of day when Los Angeles looks particularly hot and haunting, but Twilight also carries with it some implications given the film’s all about being old and dying. Whereas The Magic Hour does not carry those similar implications.

So about a hundred and fifty words to say, you most likely know it as Twilight, but it will always be The Magic Hour to me.

Twilight opens with Paul Newman having a beer at a Mexican resort, then another. He’s on the trail of seventeen year-old Reese Witherspoon; she’s run away with inappropriate older boyfriend Liev Schreiber. We get a little of the Newman charm as he extricates Witherspoon from Schreiber, but things soon go wrong; Newman’s passive gender expectations get him shot.

Fast forward two years and Newman’s living above the garage of seventies Hollywood stars Gene Hackman and Susan Sarandon. Newman does odd jobs around the house, plays cards with Hackman, flirts with Sarandon, bickers with their daughter… Witherspoon. Hackman felt bad for wounded Newman and gave him a place to stay. Then Hackman got sick and they needed Newman around. The inciting action is Hackman asking Newman to run an errand… which may or may not have something to do with Hackman’s simultaneous news—his cancer is back and he’s not going to be doing anymore treatment, which is pissing off Sarandon.

What unfolds is a mess of dreams and nightmares. Newman’s got his own dreams and nightmares, but he’s wading through everyone else’s. There are the older folks’—retired ex-cops James Garner and M. Emmet Walsh, who’ve gone on to the private sector with differing results; Newman’s old cop partner, Stockard Channing, who’s got commonalities with the old ex-cops but very different dreams; Giancarlo Esposito’s Newman’s de facto old partner from private investigating days, still starstruck at the possible glamour of the profession. You’re in Hollywood, even if you avoid it, it’s a magical place where dreams come true. Even the obvious villains—Margo Martindale’s blackmailer, for instance, or Schreiber—are just mired in the cultural magical thinking. The script—by director Benton and Richard Russo—does an exceptional job layering in all that subtext. Essential in getting that subtext across is Piotr Sobocinski’s lush, deliberate photography, Elmer Bernstein’s lush, deliberate score, Carol Littleton’s lush, deliberate editing, and David Gropman’s… no, not lush and deliberate, but sharp yet functional production design. Twilight is very much about people in their chosen environments. The difference between locations speak volumes about the characters who live in them, who visit them, as well as the setting in general.

Because Twilight is exceptionally smart.

And should’ve gotten whatever title it wanted.

(The Magic Hour).

Anyway. Great performances. Benton and Russo’s script provides just the right amount of foundation, Benton’s direction stretches the canvas—all the mixed metaphors—and the actors then inhabit and expand. Should’ve gone with some kind of sculpture thing.

The best performance, just in terms of pure unadulterated success, is Martindale. She’s magnificent. But the most successful with the least is Esposito, who seems to be taking what ought to be a caricature and turning it into the film’s realest person. Witherspoon’s got some really good moments, ditto Schreiber. But it’s all about the older adults—though Newman, Hackman, and Garner are a decade and a half (at least) older than Sarandon. It’s all about the complicated relationships Newman’s forged with Hackman, Garner, and Sarandon; as the film progresses, we find out more and more about Newman before the opening mishap in Mexico. Twilight’s a Raymond Chandler story about seventies Hollywood done twenty years later with Hollywood stars playing type and against but also a character study. Kind of more a character story. It’s not really an L.A. movie only because Benton doesn’t dwell. He’s all about the locations, but showcasing the action occurring in them.

Because even though Benton does a great job with the supporting actors—Sarandon the most-it’s all about Newman. It’s not clear in the first scene—the Mexico flashback—because Newman’s got on sunglasses, but the film’s all about his performance. About how the events wear on him, how he reacts to them. Benton makes his cast sit in their emotional states—freezing them, just for a second or two—and shows how the pressure is crushing them. Not the pressure of their failures or successes, but the Hollywood dreams.

Again, should’ve been called The Magic Hour. Or something else entirely.

Hackman and Sarandon are both great. Garner’s got this wonderful flashy ex-cop turned studio security turned old codger part. He’s really enthusiastic about taking that extra reaction time. Hackman seems used to it, Sarandon’s different—but Garner’s visibly (albeit reservedly) jazzed; the performance does a lot to establish Garner’s place in the story, which is more often than not offscreen. Hackman and Sarandon, Garner, they’re places Newman visits. Sometimes for a long time, but he’s always a guest in those places. It’s very a Chandler-esque narrative.

Because Twilight is very much within the genre constraints of a mystery, which is the only thing wrong with it—Russo and Benton are careful never to strain said constraints too hard; they’re too respectful of genre. But what they do—what the film does—is magical enough.

Because it should’ve been called the damn Magic Hour.

3.5/4★★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Robert Benton; written by Benton and Richard Russo; director of photography, Piotr Sobocinski; edited by Carol Littleton; music by Elmer Bernstein; production designer, David Gropman; costume designer, Joseph G. Aulisi; produced by Arlene Donovan and Scott Rudin; released by Paramount Pictures.

Starring Paul Newman (Harry Ross), Susan Sarandon (Catherine Ames), Gene Hackman (Jack Ames), Reese Witherspoon (Mel Ames), Stockard Channing (Lt. Verna Hollander), James Garner (Raymond Hope), Giancarlo Esposito (Reuben Escobar), Liev Schreiber (Jeff Willis), Margo Martindale (Gloria Lamar), John Spencer (Capt. Phil Egan), and M. Emmet Walsh (Lester Ivar).



Nobody’s Fool (1994, Robert Benton)

Nobody’s Fool takes place during a particularly busy December for protagonist Paul Newman. He’s got a lot going on all at once, but mostly the reappearance of son Dylan Walsh and family. They’re in town at the beginning for Thanksgiving, but Walsh’s marriage is in a troubled state—we’re never privy to the exact details, as Walsh remains something of a mystery throughout—and eventually wife Catherine Dent leaves (taking the astoundingly annoying younger son Carl J. Matusovich, leaving older, shy son Alexander Goodwin with Walsh). So Newman, who walked out on Walsh before he turned one, all of a sudden finds himself playing grandfather. Even more surprising… he likes it.

The film also never gets into the specifics of Newman’s failed coupling with (uncredited) Elizabeth Wilson, but Wilson doesn’t fit into Newman’s lifestyle. Even though her husband, Richard Mawe, thinks Newman’s a riot. We get to see more of Mawe and Newman than Wilson and Newman, which seems a little strange until you realize how little that history means to Newman. He’s a child growing older at sixty, still treading water on life, daydreaming about escaping to paradises with boss’s wife, Melanie Griffith. Griffith’s married to jackass Bruce Willis, who spends his night out with other women and his days running his inherited construction company if not into the ground then a lot closer to it than it ought to be. The film opens with Newman trying to sue Willis on a worker’s comp claim and Willis wiggling his way out. Though it doesn’t help Newman’s lawyer, Gene Saks, seems to view the case as a way to keep busy more than a potential success. While the inciting incident of the film is Walsh and family showing up, Newman’s in a new place now thanks to his bum knee. His steady, sturdy life has a major kink in it now—especially since with the lawsuit he can’t really be working for Willis any more and Willis is the only game in town.

Willis and Newman’s relationship in the film is probably its most interesting, because Newman can’t stand Willis but he’s also constantly disappointed in him. He’s never hopeful for him, because—even though Newman’s genial—he doesn’t seem to accept optimism as a rational life outlook. Even small things. Newman’s a medieval serf whose life is mostly unchanging, through entropy is breaking down some of the things around him. Particularly his truck. Whereas Willis is secure enough not to worry about change or the lack of it. Willis takes everything for granted in a detached, positive way, Newman takes everything for granted in a negative way. Yet Newman’s protective of Willis, even as Willis holds power over Newman. Not to mention Newman can’t stand Willis for cheating on Griffith.

Nobody’s Fool isn’t trying to be subtle. It’s a very deliberate character study of Newman, watching him interact with the various folks in his life, like landlady Jessica Tandy or now jealous of Walsh sidekick Pruitt Taylor Vince. Oh, and of course zealous idiot cop Philip Seymour Hoffman. Hoffman and Newman are hilarious in the film. Director Benton goes for laughs all the time. He goes for smiles a lot of the time and laughs all of the time. Newman’s always got something to say, usually the wrong thing, which is a tried and true comedy formula. Nobody’s Fool packages it a little differently—Newman doesn’t just give a strong lead performance, he makes Nobody’s Fool feel very serious, even as it stays genial, even as it goes for laughs. Newman anchors it.

Good performances from everyone. Newman in particular, Vince—Josef Sommer’s awesome as Tandy’s creep bank guy who Newman wants to punch out but can never find the right opportunity. Great supporting cast too—Jay Patterson, Alice Drummond, Margo Martindale. Ellen Chenoweth’s casting is excellent. Walsh is fine but could be better. He needs to be at least as good as Willis and he’s not. Grandson Goodwin is fine, even if he does disappear for a long stretch from second act to third. Nobody’s Fool has that limited present action—Thanksgiving to Christmas—but Benton never relies on it, instead establishing an easy going pace, never rushing things even though logically these events are occurring in what must be rapid succession. Especially with Griffith’s martial troubles; she’s going through a whole lot but we only see her during her respites where she gets to pal around with Newman.

What ends up happening is the supporting cast can’t compete with the film’s momentum—if they’re hands off, like Willis (who’s in the film a lot but treated like a cameo) or Tandy, it works. In fact Tandy’s subplot with son Sommer gets some scenes without Newman; no one else does. But if they’re more directly involved with Newman—so Vince, Walsh, Griffith—it feels like there’s something missing. Not so much with Vince, who’s a combination of comic relief and gentle heart, but definitely with Walsh and Griffith. Especially Walsh. Griffith’s got a more functional part in the story, whereas Walsh is basically the inciting incident personified. His presence kicks off Newman’s self-discovery. Or is at least the final straw to kick it off.

Excellent production—great photography from John Bailey and production design from David Gropman—and sure-footed direction from Benton. Lovely, omnipresent score from Howard Shore does a lot of the heavy lifting. If Newman’s not doing it, the music’s doing it. But it’s all very safe, like Benton’s goal really is to show how deadbeat dads would maybe be a lot worse if they’d stuck around and they’re worth a second chance once they hit sixty. Newman’s able to get a lot of mileage out of the part, but he’s staying on the track, just racking up laps.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Robert Benton; screenplay by Benton, based on the novel by Richard Russo; director of photography, John Bailey; edited by John Bloom; music by Howard Shore; production designer, David Gropman; produced by Scott Rudin and Arlene Donovan; released by Paramount Pictures.

Starring Paul Newman (Sully), Jessica Tandy (Miss Beryl), Bruce Willis (Carl), Melanie Griffith (Toby), Pruitt Taylor Vince (Rub), Dylan Walsh (Peter), Alexander Goodwin (Will), Gene Saks (Wirf), Josef Sommer (Clive Jr.), Philip Seymour Hoffman (Officer Raymer), Philip Bosco (Judge Flatt), Catherine Dent (Charlotte), Carl J. Matusovich (Wacker), Jay Patterson (Jocko), Jerry Mayer (Ollie), Margo Martindale (Birdy), Angelica Page (Ruby), Elizabeth Wilson (Vera), Richard Mawe (Ralph), and Alice Drummond (Hattie).


Sometimes a Great Notion (1971, Paul Newman)

Sometimes a Great Notion is all about the joys of toxic masculinity and apathy. At some points in the near two hour runtime, it might hint at being about the virtues of rugged American individualism, family, and maybe capitalism, but it’s not. Screenwriter John Gay avoids exploring those virtues like the plague or directly contradicts them in exposition. If not in the plot events. And director Newman is more interested in having fun. He’s serious at times, but outside one scene, he’s always most interested in the fun. The fun is usually when his character (Newman, at forty-five, is playing a logger in his early thirties) is being a rugged, adventurous, caution to the wind type, whether it’s climbing to the top of a tree he’s just cut the top off, dirt biking, brawling, whatever. You can always tell when it’s one of those moments because Henry Mancini’s score does its jazzy folksy Americana thing. Its loud, obnoxious jazzy folksy Americana thing. Newman, as director, uses Mancini’s score to do heavy dramatic lifting in scenes–not the folksy stuff–to the detriment of the performances, which is bewildering, since there are so many good performances in the film. Even if they’re not entirely successful.

Newman is eldest son in a successful logging family. Henry Fonda is the dad, Lee Remick is Newman’s wife, Richard Jaeckel’s a cousin. The film starts in the middle of a loggers’ union strike. Except Fonda and family aren’t in the union; they’re scabs (but not exactly because they’re just non-union; they’re still breaking the picket line and apathetic to their former friends and still neighbors literally starving around them). The townspeople aren’t too happy with them. Newman’s quiet, Fonda’s loud and demanding (and partially immobilized due to a half body cast), Jaeckel’s goofy (and religious). Remick and Linda Lawson (as Jaeckel’s wife) cook and clean for the men, but otherwise keep quiet. Their opinions aren’t to be heard. Newman and Jaeckel’s opinions aren’t worth anything (to Fonda) but they at least get to be heard.

Then, out of nowhere, younger son Michael Sarrazin–half-brother to Newman–returns home. He’s a long-haired hippie college graduate (apparently, it’s never actually confirmed he even went to college, he just gets teased about it) with a lot of emotional baggage. After Fonda drove his mother away, she killed herself. No one sent for Sarrazin, no one came to the funeral. He went through a suicidal episode as well. Most of that backstory comes out in scenes with Remick, who it turns out has interiority, even if Newman and Fonda don’t care. Sarrazin cares. Unfortunately, Gay and Newman (as director) don’t really care. The friendship (and possibly more) between Sarrazin and Remick is the most distinct thing about Sometimes a Great Notion and it goes absolutely nowhere and does absolutely nothing. Of course, even the successful elements in the film don’t really do anything.

Sarrazin starts working with the family, leading to some lengthy expository montage sequences about logging. Sarrazin comes into the picture a little while in, but Newman and Gay wait to look at the logging until he’s arrived. Except he’s presumably already been there and seen what logging looks like. But it’s a fine device. Just a little late for the audience.

The film’s set pieces usually involve logging. Then there’s a scene at the family’s house, often with Fonda yelling at someone, maybe with Remick looking sad, then it’s something else involving logging. Including the loggermen’s picnic, where Newman doesn’t just get to be manly with dirt bikes, there’s also a brawl between striking loggers and the scab family in the coastal surf. Set to the blaring Mancini.

Tensions are slow to rise in Sometimes a Great Notion. When crisis and tragedy strike, even as beautifully executed as Newman (as a director) executes them, they’re not a result of building tension. The movie has to pretend they are such a result, however, because otherwise there’d be no way to end it. And the end of the film, where everything comes together–the results of Fonda’s overbearing approach (at home and professionally), Newman and Sarrazin’s undercooked brotherly turmoil, Remick’s unhappiness, the strike, the neighbors, all of it–it’s a missed opportunity. Newman and Gay have the chance to open up Sometimes and they reject that idea, sticking with the tight focus on Fonda’s family.

The problem with focusing just on Fonda, Newman, and Jaeckel–after the introduction, Sarrazin’s got squat outside his subplot with Remick or opposite the boys–is it requires a lot of demonization to get there. If Fonda and company are jerks, but the heroes, the townspeople have to be not just godawful, but annoyingly godawful. They’re mostly personified in Lee de Broux, who’s always begging Newman to think about the town. Newman blows him off, but somehow manages to have more of an arc with de Broux than he does with Remick. Newman and Remick coexist in scenes, rarely interacting. de Broux, ostensibly, has an effect on him. But not really, because it wouldn’t be manly for Newman to develop as a character. In Sometimes a Great Notion, character development has to be regressive. Sarrazin starts the film a far better character than he finishes it.

The laundry list of problems aside, it’s well-acted. No one’s great, but everyone’s pretty damn good. Fonda’s underutilized as a thoughtless blowhard, but he’s got a couple great scenes. Jaeckel seems really thin–the movie mocks his religiosity, which is interesting and not a great sign–but turns out to have some real depth. Newman’s solid. None of his possible character arcs go anywhere, except with Jaeckel. In that one, he’s great when he needs to be great. And he’s good (and devilishly likable, of course) the rest of the time.

Sarrazin is good and constantly potentially excellent. The material’s just never there for him. Same goes for Remick. Apparently the original cut of the film had them hooking up for sure and it might have helped. Bob Wyman’s cuts are fine, but the narrative structure of the film is incredibly suspect. Nothing in the film suggests it’s going to result in its conclusion–not like foreshadowing, but doing the character development to get people places the script is going to put them. Sarrazin and Remick suffer the most. Newman prefers the dirt bikes and the brawls to the character development. It’s very strange. Like… if it did everything, the dirt bikes, the brawls, and the actual character development, Sometimes a Great Notion might be something special (and three hours long). Instead it doesn’t and isn’t.

Good photography from Richard Moore. Sometimes great. Lots of Sometimes a Great Notion is sometimes great (not Mancini, who’s at least sometimes okay). Newman’s direction is completely competent, patient, and thoughtful but it’s still a shock when he does something ambitious. If he’d applied the same energy as he does in the ambitious moments–which don’t have to be high drama scenes, but can just be when he actually gives Remick a real moment with himself (as an actor)–Sometimes would be a very different, probably better film.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by Paul Newman; screenplay by John Gay, based on the novel by Ken Kesey; director of photography, Richard Moore; edited by Bob Wyman; music by Henry Mancini; produced by John Foreman; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring Paul Newman (Hank), Henry Fonda (Henry), Michael Sarrazin (Leeland), Richard Jaeckel (Joe Ben), Lee Remick (Viv), Linda Lawson (Jan), and Lee de Broux (Willard Eggleston).


Paris Blues (1961, Martin Ritt)

It’d be easily to blame Paris Blues’s lack of success on the screenplay. With three credited screenwriters and another with the adaptation, there’s literally not enough going on the film to keep it going for the ninety-eight minute runtime. There’s filler, whether it’s a jazz number or a scenic Paris walk, but there’s not enough story. There’s not enough character or there’s not enough story. But director Ritt needs to get some of the blame as well. He’s got enthusiasm, but he’s strangely inert when it comes to medium shots.

Here’s the story–Joanne Woodward and Diahann Carroll are friends vacationing in Paris from the United States. They meet Sidney Poitier and Paul Newman, who are jazz musician ex-patriates. They pair off, Woodward and Newman, Carroll and Poitier, and they all fall in love. Except Poitier and Newman don’t want to leave Paris. Poitier because it sucks to be a black man in the United States while it’s pretty darn cool in Paris; Newman because… he’s a troubled artist. Or he wants to be a troubled artist. He’s a great trombone player, but he’s not a troubled artist. He’s moody because he’s not.

Newman and Woodward’s romance and its problems are mostly just that moodiness. Newman has a bad day, is crappy to Woodward, who’s crazy about him and wants to dote on him. Meanwhile, Poitier and Carroll are having this great philosophical debate, with their romance taking a back burner to their arguments about Poitier’s refusal to participate in the American Civil Rights movement. Sure, the script never goes too far with their arguments and usually just ends a scene–Woodward and Carroll spend most of their time acquiescing to their men’s mood swings–but it’s something. Carroll and Poitier are playing characters. Newman’s a caricature. Woodward’s stuck pretending to be one, just because the script doesn’t give Newman anything more.

Oh, wait. It gives him Serge Reggiani’s cocaine problem. Newman’s trying to keep him clean because deep down he’s a good guy who cares.

There’s occasionally wonderful direction from Ritt–usually just composition, though Carroll’s performance in the third act, basically just watching Woodward and Newman, is fantastic. It’s a slight, because she should have had more to do, but she’s still developing her character. Everyone else has given up by that time. But Ritt loves trying to do the “real” Paris, cutting between sets and location, with the sets often fantastical but grounded thanks to Christian Matras’s black and white photography.

Weak editing from Roger Dwyre–thanks to Ritt’s messy medium shots and general lack of coverage–doesn’t help things. The Duke Ellington score does help things, however. And it’s awesome to see Louis Armstrong cameo as the whole package artist who Newman admires. Shame there’s not enough on their relationship. Or Newman and Poitier’s. Or Newman and Woodward’s. Or Woodward and Carroll’s. Or Carroll and Poitier’s. About the only relationship getting the appropriate attention is Newman and his French lover, played by Barbara Laage. But even she ends up just harboring slightly veiled hostility towards Woodward instead of actual scenes.

Messy, messy script.

Carroll’s great. Poitier’s great. Newman and Woodward are good, not great. Their material’s too thin to be great. Armstrong’s more cute than good. He’s having a blast acting. Reggiani’s good. Laage’s good. The problem’s not the acting. It’s the script, then Ritt, then the editing. Then, I don’t know, the rear screen projection.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by Martin Ritt; screenplay by Jack Sher, Irene Kamp, and Walter Bernstein, adaptation by Lulla Rosenfeld, based on the novel by Harold Flender; director of photography, Christian Matras; edited by Roger Dwyre; music by Duke Ellington; produced by Sam Shaw; released by United Artists.

Starring Paul Newman (Ram Bowen), Sidney Poitier (Eddie Cook), Joanne Woodward (Lillian), Diahann Carroll (Connie), Serge Reggiani (Michel Devigne), Barbara Laage (Marie), and Louis Armstrong (Wild Man Moore).



Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969, George Roy Hill)

Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid opens with a sepia-toned silent film newsreel. It’s exposition, but also contrast. The silent images of a daring train robbery distract from reading the film’s accompanying opening titles. When the film itself starts, it’s just as sepia-toned. Only it’s Conrad Hall and he’s able to suggest the lush, denied colors. Director Hill isn’t just making a Western, he’s making a comment on the genre itself. Not just him, of course, writer William Goldman’s asking some of the same questions about how the genre works. Butch Cassidy forces the audience to question the setting, not embrace it. It’s a hostile place, even when it can appear gentle, even when it can be funny. The first hour of the film, features Paul Newman and Robert Redford in something very close to constant sequence. Each scene comes soon after the other. And then it turns into a chase. A long chase. It’s exhausting. And great. Because Hall has got the color in. Once the characters are established, the color returns. But then it goes away again.

I don’t want to think too much about where the act breaks are in Butch Cassidy, but there’s definitely a big chance once it becomes clear no matter how much charm Newman and Redford have, it’s not going to end well. One of the supporting players even comments on it. The film has a very strange, very distinct approach to the supporting players. The supporting players should feel episodically placed but they don’t. They’re sprinkled throughout the film, but Goldman and Hill use them for very specific tasks. One reveals one thing, one comments on another. Goldman’s script is phenomenal.

Then the film changes. And the color goes away. Newman, Redford and Ross go to New York. It’s like 1906 or 1907 and it’s all silent, all in still picture montage. Most of Butch Cassidy doesn’t have music. Burt Bacharach’s score alternates between effervescent and melancholy. Most of the film is sound effects. The sound design is gorgeous, just as gorgeous as Hall’s photography, just as gorgeous as John C. Howard and Richard C. Meyer’s editing. Hill’s got a great crew and he gets great work from them. The montage sequence furthers the story, furthers the relationships of the characters. It’s a great device and completely out of place with everything before it in the film. Then the sepia reminds of the opening titles and it’s Hill pulling the audience back a little bit, redirecting their attention. The rest of the film, once Newman, Redford and Ross get to Bolivia, has to be watched differently; it’s certainly written differently, paced differently, even acted differently.

Redford and Newman. Goldman very carefully introduces their friendship, getting the audience invested in it. The performances are great too–ambitious but playful; Redford and Newman’s banter never gets overpowering. It never overwhelms the film or the actors. Hill’s real careful about how he directs them and how they’re edited. Newman and Redford are very close, in frame and physicality, until Ross is around all the time. Only then does Hill open up and show the characters from one another’s perspective. Until that point–over halfway through the film–they’re a unit.

Those singularly placed supporting players–Jeff Corey, George Furth, Kenneth Mars, Strother Martin among a couple others–are all fantastic. Especially Corey and Martin. And Furth and Mars. Oh, and Timothy Scott.

There’s so much to Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. It’s so well-made, anything could become a tangent. Hill starts out directing this fantastic Western only to change it up with this montage and then the Bolivia scenes. It’s awesome work from Hill. You just want to talk about it. You just want to show it to people so you can talk about it more, think about it more, appreciate it more. It’s that special kind of awesome.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by George Roy Hill; written by William Goldman; director of photography, Conrad L. Hall; edited by John C. Howard and Richard C. Meyer; music by Burt Bacharach; produced by John Foreman; released by 20th Century Fox.

Starring Paul Newman (Butch Cassidy), Robert Redford (The Sundance Kid), Katharine Ross (Etta Place), Jeff Corey (Sheriff Bledsoe), Strother Martin (Percy Garris), Kenneth Mars (Marshal) and George Furth (Woodcock).


Hud (1963, Martin Ritt)

Every once in a while in Hud, it seems like Paul Newman's eponymous lead character might do something selfless. Not redemptive or nice, but selfless. It's not the point of the film and not one of its promises–it's just visible how significant it would be for Brandon De Wilde, playing Newman's orphaned nephew.

Hud fires on all cylinders. Director Ritt and cinematographer James Wong Howe compose a breathtakingly gorgeous film. It's hard to imagine the skies as having color; in Howe's black and white photography they are an infinite gray. It's a very small cast–Newman, De Wilde, Melvyn Douglas as the patriarch, Patricia Neal as the housekeeper who both Newman and De Wilde desire–and the black nights keep the cast claustrophobically close. Newman and Douglas's dysfunctional relationship can't be escaped, with De Wilde growing up in it and Neal the outside observer.

The screenplay, from Irving Ravetch and Harriet Frank Jr., gives Douglas these wonderful monologues, full of sincerity and wisdom, while it gives Newman monologues of selfishness and cynicism. They're dueling ideologies and it becomes clearer and clearer as the film progresses they're in direct reaction to one another. It's a brilliant script.

As for the cast, the last cylinder–except perhaps the sound design and Elmer Bernstein's score–all of actors are phenomenal. The film has a relatively short present action but De Wilde goes through a visible transition as things move along, whereas Newman and Douglas more reveal themselves as the film progresses.

Hud is a singular motion picture.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Martin Ritt; screenplay by Irving Ravetch and Harriet Frank Jr., based on the novel by Larry McMurtry; director of photography, James Wong Howe; edited by Frank Bracht; music by Elmer Bernstein; produced by Ravetch and Ritt; released by Paramount Pictures.

Starring Paul Newman (Hud Bannon), Melvyn Douglas (Homer Bannon), Patricia Neal (Alma Brown), Whit Bissell (Mr. Burris) and Brandon De Wilde (Lonnie Bannon).


Rally ‘Round the Flag, Boys! (1958, Leo McCarey)

It’s hard to describe what’s wrong with Rally ’Round the Flag, Boys!; not because its ailments are mysterious but because the sentence is just a little problematic. Rally is a light handling of what should be a mature comedy. It deals with big issues–fifties suburban malaise and boredom, not to mention a strange post-war animosity towards the military–but director McCarey tries to do it all Cinemascope slapstick.

He does not succeed.

He’s lucky to have such a strong cast, because they really get the film to its finish. Its finish involves a Fourth of July pageant. The script lays the groundwork for that pageant real early, before taking a detour into a comedy of errors where Paul Newman can’t get away from Joan Collins’s roaming housewife, much to his chagrin and wife Joanne Woodward’s anger. The first twenty or so minutes setting up this part of the film are boring but gently amusing. Woodward and Newman are great together and Collins has a lot of fun.

Until her goofy dance sequences. There are maybe three of them. They all stop the film for a moment because they’re so awkward. Maybe if the editing were better. Louis R. Loeffler does a real bad job editing Rally.

But there’s also a tangent with teenager Tuesday Weld, who’s appealing but pointless if the film’s about Newman and Woodward. McCarey seems to be aiming high with the film’s ambitions, but he fails on all of them so maybe he wasn’t.

Rally’s fine, just unsuccessful.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Produced and directed by Leo McCarey; screenplay by Claude Binyon and McCarey, based on the novel by Max Shulman; director of photography, Leon Shamroy; edited by Louis R. Loeffler; music by Cyril J. Mockridge; released by 20th Century Fox.

Starring Paul Newman (Harry Bannerman), Joanne Woodward (Grace Oglethorpe Bannerman), Joan Collins (Angela Hoffa), Jack Carson (Capt. Hoxie), Dwayne Hickman (Grady Metcalf, Comfort’s suitor), Tuesday Weld (Comfort Goodpasture), Gale Gordon (Brig. Gen. W.A. Thorwald), Tom Gilson (Corporal Opie) and O.Z. Whitehead (Isaac Goodpasture, Comfort’s Father).


The Sting (1973, George Roy Hill)

There are two immediate peculiar things about The Sting. The opening credits introduce the cast with scenes from the film, so one watches the picture waiting for a particular actor to come up. While it might have been done to get Paul Newman’s face onscreen sooner (he takes about fifteen minutes or more to appear), it also encourages the viewer not to get too involved with the picture. To remember it’s just a movie.

Second is the sections having title cards. It too breaks the viewer from the film’s internal reality for a few moments. Very interesting choices.

The reality of the film is startling. Director Hill and cinematographer Robert Surtees magically recreate thirties Chicago. And they know it. The shot zooming out from Dimitra Arliss’s bedroom window to the apartment across the street? They knew they were doing something fantastic. It’s the showiest shot in the film but it fits perfectly with the tone. But technically, it’s astoundingly good.

There are some great twists, all throughout, but the performances of David S. Ward’s character moments are why the film exceeds. Robert Redford’s desperate, touching, exasperated and wonderful. Newman’s a great sidekick (even if he is top-billed). Robert Shaw’s amazing.

Other outstanding performances are Arliss, Charles Durning, Ray Walston… and everyone else. Eileen Brennan’s sort of barely in it, but her presence is felt throughout.

The Sting moves fast–Hill only slows down just before the finale; he never lets it get frantic.

The Sting’s a masterpiece… simply magnificent.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by George Roy Hill; written by David S. Ward; director of photography, Robert Surtees; edited by William Reynolds; produced by Tony Bill, Michael Phillips and Julia Phillips; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring Paul Newman (Henry Gondorff), Robert Redford (Johnny Hooker), Robert Shaw (Doyle Lonnegan), Charles Durning (Lt. Wm. Snyder), Ray Walston (J.J. Singleton), Eileen Brennan (Billie), Harold Gould (Kid Twist), John Heffernan (Eddie Niles), Dana Elcar (F.B.I. Agent Polk), Jack Kehoe (Erie Kid), Dimitra Arliss (Loretta), Robert Earl Jones (Luther Coleman), James Sloyan (Mottola) and Charles Dierkop (Floyd the bodyguard).

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