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Geraldine Fitzgerald

Review: The Last American Hero

[Originally published in Movietone News 26, October 1973]

The Last American Hero is an entertaining genre picture with a serious-sounding title, and so it runs the risk of being underrated in some quarters and overrated in others. Its vision is more casual than the title would imply, yet richer than its unadorned folksiness pretends. First and foremost, it is a highly charged but straightforward story about a young stockcar racer (Jeff Bridges) riding skill, arrogance, and need into the big money. Lamont Johnson and crew prove responsive to both the racing scene and the cars themselves, and give a sense of the action that is close to the excitement but free of adulatory packaging. Although the title suggests the possibility of an exercise in the pre-digested, pre-fab cynicism which seems to be a staple of contemporary American cinema, this action film focuses on its people as much as its action, and a good deal of its power comes from the way its sharply etched characters develop in various convincingly observed milieux. Valerie Perrine as a sort of stockcar groupie overcompensating for a lonely adolescence, Gary Busey as Bridges’s oafish yet alert brother, Art Lund as their wearily rugged-individualist father, and Ed Lauter as a sinuously efficacious racing manager are all major collaborators in enlivening and authenticating a project that might easily have been routine.

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Blu-ray: ‘The Pawnbroker’

The first few minutes of The Pawnbroker, the 1964 screen version of Edward Lewis Wallant’s novel about a concentration camp survivor in New York City, takes us from an idealized memory of a family picnic in pre-World War II Europe (a soft-focus dream about to tip into nightmare) to an anonymous Long Island suburb to the slums of Harlem, where Sol Nazerman (Rod Steiger) runs a cluttered pawnshop. It’s a series of whiplash culture shocks that doesn’t exactly tell us what we need to know about Sol’s journey but sets the stage for his dislocation. Once he lived his life. Now he simply endures it.

His young, energetic assistant Jesus (Jaime Sánchez of The Wild Bunch) talks a mile a minute and many of the shop’s walk-ins, a stream of addicts, hookers, thieves, and a few lonely souls more desperate for contact than cash, try to engage Sol in the most rudimentary of conversations. But Sol is an impenetrable wall of business. He’s not rude or dismissive, even when slurs are spit his way, simply terse and direct and unyielding. “I have escaped my emotions,” is how he explains it to Tessie (Marketa Kimbrell), the widow of his once-closest friend. To an insistent social worker (Geraldine Fitzgerald) who keeps gently pressing him to talk, he’s more forthright about his dispassion and disinterest in his customers or anyone else. “Black, white, or yellow, they are all equally scum. Rejects.” After losing his wife, his children, and his parents to the Nazis and the concentration camps, Sol has lost faith in God and humanity alike.

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