Paul Newman

The Secret War of Harry Frigg (1968, Jack Smight)

Paul Newman can’t play stupid. Harry Frigg is, for the first thirty to forty minutes of the movie, stupid. Even after he’s not stupid anymore–Sylva Koscina, quite believably, inspires him to improve himself–Newman’s stuck with the dumb, New Jersey from a Planters Peanut commercial accent. It doesn’t bother much in the scenes with Koscina, since the pair have great chemistry (though hearing Newman talk about going to college and having the Depression take the opportunity away is goofy sounding).

The Secret War of Harry Frigg is a war farce. Newman’s trying to rescue a quintet of generals from an Italian resort, where the guards are friends, et cetera, et cetera. He’s also pretending to be a general himself, so there’s plenty of opportunity for humor. Except the film’s not very funny, because Newman’s too good an actor for such a slight script. And his scenes with Koscina suggest a straightforward take on their relationship would be much more rewarding.

The problem–trying to do a screwball comedy in 1968 in Panavision and Technicolor–is no surprise. Even though Smight doesn’t screw up as much as usual (because Frigg doesn’t have the script for him to hijack), it’s obvious the film needed a far better director. Smight gets the absurdist comedy well-enough–like if it were a mistaken identity comedy with Abbott and Costello–but he doesn’t get the nuances of setting a comedy in World War II with the Nazis about to torture people… though the scene with Newman spitting, repeatedly, on a Hitler portrait is amusing.

The supporting cast is fine, with Charles Gray giving the best performance of the generals and Vito Scotti is good as the hotel manager turned warden… but there’s really so little going on and the movie’s incredibly long. It’s over halfway through–right after Newman gets a history–and the rest is just waiting for the reels to run out. Even the ending, which would be incredibly hard to screw up, gets screwed up.

It could have been a lot better with a fixed up script, but it wouldn’t have taken much to be just a little bit better and a little bit would have gone a long way here.

1/4

CREDITS

Directed by Jack Smight; screenplay by Peter Stone and Frank Tarloff, based on a story by Tarloff; director of photography, Russell Metty; edited by J. Terry Williams; music by Carlo Rustichelli; produced by Hal E. Chester; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring Paul Newman (Pvt. Harry Frigg), Sylva Koscina (Countess Francesca De Montefiore), Andrew Duggan (Gen. Newton Armstrong), Tom Bosley (Gen. Roscoe Pennypacker), John Williams (Gen. Francis Mayhew), Charles Gray (Gen. Adrian Cox-Roberts), Vito Scotti (Col. Enrico Ferrucci), Jacques Roux (Gen. Andre Rochambeau), Werner Peters (Maj. von Steignitz), James Gregory (Gen. Homer Prentiss), Fabrizio Mioni (Lt. Rossano), Johnny Haymer (Sgt. Pozzallo) and Norman Fell (Capt. Stanley).


The Drowning Pool (1975, Stuart Rosenberg)

The Drowning Pool is a strange sequel. Not only doesn’t it continue Harper‘s attempt to make PIs hip and modern (more hip than modern, actually), it’s also doesn’t seem like the same character. In Drowning Pool, Newman’s Harper is the standard 1970s Newman character. He’s sick of the world, but he can’t quite give up on it. And even though Drowning Pool has a familiar cast, it doesn’t have the Technocolor glow Harper did. When the film started, I noticed there was nothing going on for Newman in the film, it was all about his exploration of the events around him. It all works out beautifully in the end. It’s like a Chandler set in the modern day, without drawing attention to the time between the novel being written and the film being produced. It’s a rather simple mystery, the kind Hollywood made all the time in the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s and have always been the standard for mystery novels. (They’re too expensive for Hollywood to make any more and probably even in the 1970s… except Drowning Pool had Newman and he was the biggest or second biggest star in the world in the 1970s).

As a mystery, it’s not particularly surprising. Detective stories like this one–in that Chandler vein–aren’t so much about the surprising motive or the identity of the killer, but about the detective’s adventures forcing his way through the case. In The Drowning Pool, Newman’s surrounded by interesting people to interact with. The film’s got a number of great performances: Murray Hamilton’s fantastic as a crazy oil baron (crazy as in criminally insane, not ha ha funny crazy), Gail Strickland’s great as his wife, Andrew Robinson is good. The best performance–besides Newman, who’s perfect at this world weary thing–is Anthony Franciosa. His character goes through the most change and Franciosa just gets better throughout. Joanne Woodward’s good, though she seems like she belongs in a different movie, not just more serious, but one centered around her. The only bad performances are Melanie Griffith and Richard Jaeckel. Griffith’s limp, basically repeating her performance from Night Moves, only with more to do and she can’t handle it. Jaeckel’s just bad.

The Drowning Pool‘s greatest asset, however, is the production quality. Stuart Rosenberg’s got some amazing shots, one after the other–though I’m not thrilled by the editor–and the way Gordon Willis shoots Louisiana is something particularly special. Whoever did the sound design–maybe Hal Barns (it’s hard to tell from IMDb)–did an amazing job.

It all comes together very nicely. The Drowning Pool, as a mystery, isn’t rewarding in that sudden, rousing way. But a bunch of people who knew what they were doing put together a film and they did a pretty damn good job.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Stuart Rosenberg; screenplay by Tracy Keenan Wynn, Lorenzo Semple Jr. and Walter Hill, based on the novel by Ross Macdonald; director of photography, Gordon Willis; edited by John C. Howard; music by Michael Small; production designer, Paul Sylbert; produced by Lawrence Turman and David Foster; released by Warner Bros.

Starring Paul Newman (Harper), Joanne Woodward (Iris Devereaux), Anthony Franciosa (Broussard), Murray Hamilton (Kilbourne), Gali Strickland (Mavis Kilbourne), Melanie Griffith (Schuyler Devereaux), Linda Haynes (Gretchen), Richard Jaeckel (Franks), Paul Koslo (Candy), Andrew Robinson (Pat Reavis), Coral Browne (Olivia Devereaux), Richard Derr (James) and Helena Kallianiptes (Elaine Reavis).


Harper (1966, Jack Smight)

Harper may very well be an anachronism. I’m not quite sure how to use the word. There’s certainly something off about it. It’s based on a novel written in 1949–a detective novel in the vein of Chandler, which explains why it feels like Chandler–but then it’s filmed in 1966 and it’s not a period piece, but that discrepancy isn’t what I’m talking about. Harper was on the cusp between studio-based filming and location filming. A lot of Harper is location work, shot by Conrad L. Hall, who does a beautiful job. Except there’s some studio stuff in there–driving with rear projection–and it just doesn’t work. When the movie started and I realized–around the time Johnny Mandel’s name showed up with the music credit–it was directed by Jack Smight. All I could remember from Smight’s oeuvre was one of the Airport movies, but I knew he wasn’t going to work out. The combination of him and Johnny Mandel doing a detective movie, just wasn’t going to work.

But Harper does work to some degree. It’s incredibly well-written by William Goldman and incredibly well-acted by the entire cast. Except you’ve got a cast and a writer–whether they knew it or not (though I imagine Goldman did know)–working against the director. Smight wasn’t trying to screw up the movie, his background just didn’t provide the tools required to make Harper work to its full potential. Watching the movie, I couldn’t help thinking about Bullitt and how Peter Yates did something different with Bullitt and Jack Smight didn’t do anything different with Harper and Harper was written to be a different kind of movie. There are scenes going on too long for emphasis and these music cues to clue the viewer in on this film being “cool” maybe… I don’t know. It’s not a cool movie. Listen to the searching, sadden dialogue. The scenes between Paul Newman and divorce-in-progress wife Janet Leigh are fantastic. Not even Smight misunderstanding Goldman’s script and Newman and Leigh’s acting can cut down on how wonderful their eventual scene (after they’re in a couple telephone conversation scenes) turns out.

Harper‘s opening credits are a treasure-trove of good actors who’ve become punch lines or just forgotten. Lauren Bacall shows up, playing–to some degree–her character’s father from The Big Sleep. She’s only around for a couple scenes, but she’s good in them and having fun. She’s playing for the camera though, which is sort of what Smight was going for. A laugh. Specifically, those punch line actors are Shelley Winters and Robert Wagner. Wagner’s damn good here. Winters is playing herself, which is funny for a bit, and then it becomes clear she doesn’t have much else to do. In the forgotten department, Robert Webber’s scary good and Strother Martin shows up in a straight role (probably the first time I’ve seen him not being funny). Julie Harris is actually the only disappointing performance. Arthur Hill’s good and I thought it was strange to see Newman share so much of the film with him, but then I looked at Newman’s filmography and realized he doesn’t monopolize. A lot of the friendship between Newman and Hill is verbalized though and maybe it was the unexpected.

I’ve seen Harper before. Maybe seven years ago it aired on AMC, probably letterboxed. I remember not being impressed with it. Seeing it again, I definitely appreciate it more, but there’s a bit of sadness along with it–just because it could have been so much better, if only it had a different director.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Jack Smight; screenplay by William Goldman, from a novel by Ross Macdonald; director of photography, Conrad L. Hall; edited by Stefan Arnsten; music by Johnny Mandel; produced by Jerry Gershwin and Elliot Kastner; released by Warner Bros.

Starring Paul Newman (Lew Harper), Lauren Bacall (Mrs. Sampson), Julie Harris (Betty Fraley), Arthur Hill (Albert Graves), Janet Leigh (Susan Harper), Pamela Tiffin (Miranda Sampson), Robert Wagner (Alan Traggert), Robert Webber (Dwight Troy), Shelley Winters (Fay Estabrook), Harold Gould (Sheriff Spanner), Strother Martin (Claude), Roy Jensen (Puddler), Martin West (Deputy) and Jacqueline de Wit (Mrs. Kronberg).


Pocket Money (1972, Stuart Rosenberg)

Pocket Money is, in addition to being an excellent film, an example of a couple interesting things. First, it’s a 1970s character study, which is a different genre than what currently passes for a character study (if there are character studies at all anymore, since Michael Mann and Wes Anderson stopped doing them). The 1970s character study (Arthur Penn’s Night Moves is a good example of another) works in a kind of short-hand with the viewer. While the first act of Pocket Money takes maybe twenty minutes, Paul Newman’s character is fully established in the first five. Paul Newman’s a movie star, so there’s an expectation of him and Pocket Money breaks that expectation, but then sets him up again… in about those five minutes. Maybe six. There’s no established goal to these films (more modern character studies add a goal, something to give the story some drama). Pocket Money is following some cowboy, who isn’t too bright, but is amiable. The film never raises a single expectation of what’s going to come next. I can’t imagine what the trailer must have looked like.

Second (I almost forgot–not really), Terrence Malick wrote the screenplay. Pocket Money would have been his highest profile work at that point, followed by Badlands the next year. Obviously, Badlands looks and sounds different from the rest of Malick’s work, but Pocket Money sounds a lot like Badlands. This Malick is the one who still enjoys dialogue for dialogue’s sake, who likes to make people laugh. Since the film co-stars Lee Marvin, who delivers Malick’s comic lines (Newman’s got plenty of comic lines and a few of the exchanges sound a lot like Lucky Number Slevin of all films) with his gravelly, earthy voice, they are a lot of great comedic moments in the film.

Stuart Rosenberg directed Pocket Money. He directed a number of other Newman films, Cool Hand Luke being their most famous collaboration. Actually, he seems to have replaced Martin Ritt–Newman did a number of films with both directors and when Ritt stops, Rosenberg starts. Whatever. Rosenberg’s impressive. He distances the viewer from the actors at the right times and he pulls them in at the right times. Pocket Money’s got a great supporting cast–Strother Martin, Wayne Rogers and Hector Elizondo–and Rosenberg knows how to use them.

Since DVD’s advent and AMC’s full commercialization, a number of films have fallen to the dust. I was just thinking this morning about the difference between DVD enthusiasts and film enthusiasts. A DVD enthusiast is passive, he or she takes what is available. A film enthusiast has to look around, has to find things. Pocket Money is no longer particularly hard to find (it just aired on INHD, so there’s a beautiful print of it–it has great Laszlo Kovacs cinematography–for the someday DVD) and I hope people try to see it. While it’s never as outstanding as the first twenty minutes, it’s an excellent film.

3.5/4★★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Stuart Rosenberg; screenplay by John Gay and Terrence Malick, based on a novel by J.P.S. Brown; director of photography, László Kovács; edited by Bob Wyman; music by Alex North; produced by John Foreman; released by National General Pictures.

Starring Paul Newman (Jim Kane), Lee Marvin (Leonard), Strother Martin (Bill Garrett), Wayne Rogers (Stretch Russell), Hector Elizondo (Juan), Christine Belford (Adelita), Kelly Jean Peters (Sharon), Gregory Sierra (Guerro Chavarin) and Fred Graham (Uncle Herb).


The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds (1972, Paul Newman)

Paul Newman must have had an interesting experience directing Man-in-the Moon Marigolds. His wife played the lead and their daughter played her daughter, the film’s protagonist. The mother’s awful (Joanne Woodward isn’t awful, the character is awful) and Newman sticks with her. Woodward manages to infuse her with some humanity, but only so much is possible. There isn’t very much tension whether or not things will be all right (they won’t), but the last act is structured with lots of moments of immediate dread, so many I forgot the inevitable and it still came as a surprise at the end.

Watching Man-in-the-Moon is watching an exploration. It’s not a character study, since Woodward’s character isn’t the protagonist, and the differences between the film and a character study make it all the more interesting. We learn all about this woman, who we’ve prejudged–there are a few moments when we might be wrong about her, but there’s really only like three–and the film goes and confirms everything we’ve already decided. It’s a strange formula, since it breaks one of those major tenets of good fiction, never let the reader prejudge the character. The reader engages a work to make that decision. This observation leads me to Man-in-the-Moon’s quality as fiction. I’m not sure it’s particularly good. It comes from a play and Newman does a great job making it not feel like a play, but the film wallows in a stifling helplessness. It’s good, but it’s good because the writing–by Alvin Sargent, who also adapted Ordinary People and knows how to make things work–and the acting and the directing all go together. There’s also the setting, some sad Connecticut town, populated with people who never went anywhere. Idealism is absent from Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds and Newman makes you work for anything positive.

As a director, I’m not sure who Newman learned from. Some actors (George Clooney) have very obvious influences, but Newman’s beyond quiet. He does let composer Maurice Jarre carry some of the weight, but otherwise, the camera isn’t even present. Still, its absence doesn’t make the adapted play feel stagy, Newman just doesn’t let the viewer interact with him. It’s a great approach and probably the one to make this material work.

All of the performances are perfect, not just Woodward and real-life daughter Nell “Potts” (you’ve seen her on the Newman’s Own labels), but also the other sister, played by Roberta Wallach (Eli Wallach’s daughter–love that IMDb). After seeing the film version–and I know Woodward is a big supporter of the theater, so I’m sure this reaction wasn’t at all her intent–I have no interest in seeing a staged version. It couldn’t be as good, which is the greatest compliment an adaptation can get.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed and produced by Paul Newman; screenplay by Alvin Sargent, based on the play by Paul Zindel; director of photography, Adam Holender; edited by Evan Lottman; music by Maurice Jarre; production designer, Gene Callahan; released by 20th Century Fox.

Starring Joanne Woodward (Beatrice), Nell Polts (Malilda), Roberta Wallach (Ruth), Judith Lowry (Granny), Richard Venture (Floyd) and Carolyn Coates (Mrs. McKay).


The MacKintosh Man (1973, John Huston)

Imagine a spy thriller without any spying, without any thrills, without even any mystery, and whatever you come up with… it’s still probably more engaging than The MacKintosh Man. In the post-VHS era, MacKintosh is fairly difficult to find. TCM doesn’t run it, Warner hasn’t done a DVD yet. I only came across it on the HD movie channel (which shows it in a pan and scanned 1.77:1 versus the 2.35:1 original aspect ratio). Given it’s a Paul Newman movie, directed by John Huston, I can’t understand why it’s so hard to see. It isn’t because MacKintosh is a bad film–there are plenty of readily available, bad John Huston movies out on DVD and some Paul Newman ones too (though not many from MacKintosh’s era). So, its lack of visibility is a mystery and it’s the only interesting mystery related to The MacKintosh Man.

The film lacks characters. It has a couple great character actors–James Mason and Harry Andrews–and does nothing with either of them. The female lead, Dominique Sanda, has no chemistry with Newman and she’s a low talker too, so some scenes are unintelligible. Most of the first half–until Newman gets to drop his faux Australian accent–is told in summary. Lots of fades. There’s one point, just into the second act, once I’d realized how the film was playing out, when Newman makes a friend. Oh, it’s great. The friend is there for two scenes, then he disappears. It’s the best stuff in the film.

Besides being boring–and MacKintosh is boring not just because of the storytelling or Walter Hill’s script, but because Huston dilly-dallies. He doesn’t have to dilly-dally either. There’s a great car chase. His shot composition is good too, though it does remind a little of The Third Man in parts.

I’ve seen Newman’s other spy movie–Hitchcock’s Torn Curtain–and I don’t remember much about it, except it wasn’t good. I was just discovering Newman at that time and I was excited to see him in a Hitchcock picture, then… well… then I watched Torn Curtain. It’s possible he just doesn’t work in the spy role. Newman’s performances tend to require the viewer to examine him–I’m thinking of the great H-films, Hud, The Hustler, and Hombre. Spy movies, good and bad, do not work in that manner. Still, even with Newman’s miscasting and Huston’s lolly-gagging, it didn’t have to be so bad….

Oh, and Maurice Jarre’s score. Near as I can tell, he composed two short pieces of music for it, then used the second one over and over and over again.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by John Huston; screenplay by Walter Hill, based on a novel by Desmond Bagley; director of photography, Oswald Morris; edited by Russell Lloyd; music by Maurice Jarre; produced by John Foreman; released by Warner Bros.

Starring Paul Newman (Joseph Rearden), Dominique Sanda (Mrs. Smith), James Mason (Sir George Wheeler), Harry Andrews (Mackintosh), Ian Bannen (Slade), Michael Hordern (Brown), Nigel Patrick (Soames-Trevelyan) and Peter Vaughan (Brunskill).


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