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Paul Newman

Review: The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean

[Originally published in Movietone News 22, April 1973]

Curious that both films built around the legendary Judge Roy Bean, self-styled purveyor of Law West of the Pecos, should suffer so grossly from mode trouble. The Westerner, directed by William Wyler in 1940, featured one of the all-time great performances on screen in the presence of Walter Brennan (nominally a “supporting actor,” in which category he copped a richly merited third Oscar); Brennan’s irrepressible craziness as the lethal scoundrel with an unreasoning devotion to the beauty of Lily Langtry and an ill-advised sentimental tolerance of drifter Gary Cooper, who ended up killing him, almost saved this confused western that vacillated without conviction between freakishly comical behavioralism and socioeconomic sanctimoniousness about farmers in cattle country, and, visually, between the near-stereoscopic crispness of Gregg Toland’s realistic cinematography and some jarringly pointless and punk process work. John Huston’s new Roy Bean film has no problems as gross as that, but neither has it anything as potently good as Brennan’s characterization to recommend it. Paul Newman can’t resist waving his professional integrity like a flag, and this generally works for the worst (e.g., the hysterical and monolithically conceived WUSA); here integrity takes the form of flamboyantly trying on an unglamorous character part and, moreover, playing it in a single comic key. As George Roy Hill remarked in his documentary about the making of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Newman can play comedy successfully only when he doesn’t remember to tell himself he’s playing comedy. (There is, incidentally, an unforgivable Son of Butch Cassidy number involving Newman, Victoria Principal, a bear, and a song about the marmalade, molasses, and honey that keep falling on my head.)

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Review: The Mackintosh Man

[Originally published in Movietone News 27, November 1973]

John Huston’s newest, a spy thriller of sorts, had a short first run downtown and has slipped almost unnoticed to the neighborhood circuit. It’s just as well. Reviewers have criticized The Mackintosh Man‘s convoluted plot, but the principal weakness is a slowness of pace which allows even the moderately intelligent viewer to stay well ahead of each complication and resolution. Every twist and surprise is so over-prepared that any possibility for suspense or shock is eliminated. A motor chase through Irish mountain roads, which could have been gripping or at least flashy, is dragged out to the point of boredom. An equally promising finale, expressing Huston’s customary ironic view of the respective moralities of good guys and bad guys, is executed with a total lack of inspiration, becoming pedestrian and predictable. An impressive cast, ranging from good to excellent, is totally wasted.

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Review: The Sting

[Originally published in Movietone News 30, March 1974]

The Sting‘s credit sequence offers an immediate clue to the directorial tone and aesthetics which slimily pervade the whole film: it consists of vintage pictorials depicting various scenes in the movie; pretty soon these old-time pulp-fiction illustrations begin to include not only characters but also cameras and technicians. The viewer is set up to be grabbed by the artifice, the imitation of a past genre and time, only to be forced to recognize the underpinnings of the illusion, the fact of ultimate fakiness. Don’t get me wrong: I’m not objecting to artifice—it’s what makes all art, and much of life, worth paying attention to. Art is artifice, lying, the highest form of the confidence game. Films are not real; they demand, like novels and poems, one’s suspension of disbelief, a willingness to be taken in, and thus, to be taken out of one’s limited human experience. But there’s a profound difference between the cinematic magician who performs prodigies of illusion for our delight and instruction, or the one who mesmerizes us even as he calls our attention to the ways and means of his prestidigitations (Hitchcock and Truffaut, for instance), and the charming but heartless hack who cons us into a queasy delight with his fabrications, then pricks the bubble, and laughs hugely at our gullibility.

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Review: The Towering Inferno

The Towering Inferno is a good movie about a fire. That is its strength. Its weakness is that, despite a promising array of characters and several passable actors, it is a very bad movie about people. Time was when virtually all disaster movies were essentially character studies, and examined (with varying degrees of success) how extreme circumstances bring out the best and the worst in human beings. The concerns of films as diverse as W.S. Van Dyke’s San Francisco (1936) and William Wellman’s The High and the Mighty (1954) were essentially the same: how will the characters behave under stress? Will the ordeal change them dramatically, or simply reaffirm already existing strengths and weaknesses? Even the big revival of the disaster epic, George Seaton’s Airport (1970), attempted a modest amount of character study, most notably in its treatment of the Guereros (Van Heflin and Maureen Stapleton). But already types had begun to replace characters.

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Review: The Drowning Pool

[Originally published in Movietone News 42, July 1975]

First Artists’ logo appears at the beginning of The Drowning Pool, and the first artist to think about most of the way through the film is Paul Newman, for whom the production has been conspicuously tailored even if the cut is ultimately unflattering. Newman scored a hit with—and by his own testimony “had a ball” making—Harper, the 1966 retooling of an early Lew Archer book (The Moving Target). If director Jack Smight and screenwriter William Goldman observably strained to maintain an illusion of wry deftness, they were still clever and remained rather ingratiating about the whole thing; and Newman, cracking wise with just the right degree of collegiate selfconsciousness, seemed like a dream older-brother. Newman is almost a decade older now and his Lew Harper has moved cinemagenically closer to the Lew Archer of later Ross Macdonald novels (although The Drowning Pool happens to be an early one). As Harper brought onscreen a divorced wife who was only mentioned in the novels, The Drowning Pool has been adjusted so that the lady who calls the private eye to come to her assistance in Louisiana bayou country (a location change from the Southern California of the books, doubtlessly for the sake of fresh scenic resources) is the same slightly fading flower who shared a cozy week with him while vacationing in his territory some years earlier. Aside from permitting the husband-and-wife team of Newman-Woodward a screen relationship more satisfying to their fans, and lending new kinkiness to the play the lady’s adolescent daughter makes for Harper, the alteration serves no good purpose.

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Blu-ray: ‘The Color of Money’

“You remind me that money won is twice as sweet as money earned.”

The Color of Money (Disney) is not and will never be considered Martin Scorsese’s greatest film. It hasn’t the ragged beauty and personal charge of Mean Streets, the ambition or the intensity of Taxi Driver, or the cinematic density of GoodFellas. Yet it is possibly his most accessible film and his answer to the old Hollywood studio movie. Like the studio contract directors of past decades, he neither developed nor pursued this project, and he still turns into a distinctly Scorsese vision.

Tom Cruise and Paul Newman

It is not simply that Scorsese acquitted himself on the assignment, it is that he used the tools and talent of the production — a richly textured script by Richard Price, a mid-level studio budget bigger than anything he’d had for some time, the gravitas of Paul Newman, and the charge of young Tom Cruise in all his youthful arrogance and big-kid innocence — to make a film about regret and redemption. And he delivers the cinematic charge of the pool room culture of hustle and gamesmanship along with the education of a young protégé lacking self-restraint and a mentor who has yet to face his own conflicted feelings about the game.

Twenty-five years after walking away from the game in The Hustler, Newman’s Fast Eddie Felson has settled into success as a liquor salesman, a cross between a modern whisky drummer and a suave, slick bootlegger who sells his customers inexpensive alternatives to top-shelf brands (and the counterfeit labels to pass them off). Then he sees Vincent (Cruise), a grinning hotshot who wields a cue like a quarterstaff in a “Robin Hood” movie and outplays the neighborhood poolroom hustler (John Turturro) without breaking a sweat.

Cruise is in peacock mode as Vincent, all cocksure kid strutting his victories and feeding off the attention of the crowd, while Newman rules the room and the film as Eddie, once the student, now the mentor. He decides to stake the kid and teach him the rules of the game. Every gesture shows not just his understanding of human nature but his delight in playing the game, which for Eddie is less about playing the table than playing the odds and playing the player. But just as his lessons sink in with his undisciplined disciple, Eddie faces his own crisis in self-esteem and identity, thanks to a hard lesson from a small-time hustler (Forest Whitaker in a brilliant arrival).

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Review: Slap Shot

[Originally published in Movietone News 54, June 1977]

Slap Shot has provoked such solemn head-wagging over its failure to take a hard line, one way or the other, on the issue of sports (good, clean, manly, by-the-rules competition) vs. spectator bloodsports (decent American games—hockey in this instance—turned into vicious slugfests to parallel the psychic violence in the stands and in Our Society) that I can only conclude someone has been taking George Roy Hill seriously all these years. Why else start complaining about the absence of anything resembling moral rigorousness or a sense of narrative ethics? Surely not because Butch and Sundance only said “Oh, shit!” when plummeting down the cliffside to the rapids, whereas everyone belonging to or in the neighborhood of the Charlestown Chiefs employs every four-, ten-, and twelve-letter word in the language with the carefree abandon of yapping puppies. So OK, Slap Shot snickers into its own armpit about those crass owners and empty-skulled sportscasters and rummy fans, and then taps the oafish violence on the ice for considerable physical and/or comic exhilaration. In this case I found the moral queasiness easy to ignore, partly because I learned long ago to expect this from Hill, partly because the time to make a federal case of it was back in his more pretentious days—but mostly because Slap Shot is extremely funny, full of rowdy life and business, and irresistibly goodnatured; and you can count on the fingers of one hand all the recent movies of which that could be said, and still have enough fingers left to play cat’s cradle.

The film is particularly interesting as a Paul Newman picture in which the star gets to exercise his penchant for de-glamorizing himself without, for once, turning his performance into a social-consciousness exemplum or an act of self-denigration. The aging player-coach he portrays is a raunchy jock (like almost all his teammates), venal, sexist, not very bright. Newman creates him for what he is, without sermonizing and without denying him his broad, likably evil good humor, his tremendous—if utterly unsophisticated—joie de vivre. The rest of the nonstellar cast matches his vigor and fairness. Michael Ontkean merits special praise as the slightly-smarter-than-his-buddies player with the most acutely developed ambivalence toward the game, and manages to keep the viewer in touch with his mood and movements even when the script treatment of his character vacillates between convenient ellipsis and middling-heavy editorializing. Altman find Allan Nicholls is especially successful at serving up the bounteous scatology with convincing spontaneity and socio-psychological precision (his pained “Fuckin’ embarrassing!” as he listens to some youthful additions to their jaded team giving out with lockerroom gung-ho is priceless), and Brad Sullivan is triumphantly scuzzy as the team’s sex fiend; one expects him to be followed about by a semi-permanent attendant whose responsibility it is to wipe the drool off his nether lip every few minutes, as a token gesture toward public decency.

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Santa Sangre and WUSA: Blood and Hate Speech – DVDs of the Week

Santa Sangre (Severin)

A student of Marcel Marceau in Paris, a founder of the surrealist theater Panic Movement in Mexico City, a Zen Buddhist, playwright and comic strip author, the Chilean-born Alejandro Jodorowsky made his fame as a cult film director with his sprawling, symbolic, surreal films El Topo and The Holy Mountain, brutal and strange allegorical odysseys written and directed by and starring Jodorowsky that became staples on the midnight movie circuit and artifacts of the head film culture. They are also crude and grotesque productions that revel in the metaphysical mix of the sacred and the profane.

Blood cult: Jodorowsky style

Santa Sangre was made more than fifteen years after The Holy Mountain (and after the collapse of his attempt to bring Dune to the screen”) and his skills as a filmmaker and storyteller have improved with time. Whether or not this is the most accessible of Jodorwsky’s films (he also dabbled in more mainstream filmmaking), it is certainly the most accessible “Jodorowksy film,” a vision filled with circus imagery, surreal scenes, grotesque violence and psycho-sexual trauma. The director casts two of his sons as Fenix, his mad protagonist—Axel Jodorowsky as the grown man (introduced as an inmate in an asylum, regressed to savage behavior and pre-verbal existence) and Adan Jodorowsky as the young boy (a junior circus magician in tux and fake mustache watching the grotesque conduct of adults around him)—and then sends us into the psychodrama that sent him to the asylum. In flashback we watch his alcoholic brute of father (Guy Stockwell in slobbering degenerate mode) take time out of his knife-throwing act to seduce the voluptuous tattooed lady and his tempestuous trapeze artist mother (Blanca Guerra, all burning eyes and hissing fury) take her vengeance in a particularly personal way. In the present, he is drawn into the urban world for a field trip and wanders off to his waiting mother, who has plans to use his arms as the instruments of her continued revenge. Think of it as Jodorowsky’s Psycho by way of Fellini on shrooms.

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Review: Quintet

[Originally published in Movietone News 62-63, December 1979]

Quintet is one of those things that Robert Altman makes from time to time: an unoriginal, lumberingly obvious, altogether hokey script coupled with a visual and aural atmosphere so overpowering that one wishes to forgive the film its lack of narrative integrity out of respect for what it does to the perception and the nerves. Indeed, a lesser director than Altman would be so forgiven; but remembering the more complete and narratively justified worlds of McCabe and Mrs. Miller, Images, Nashville and 3 Women, one is harsher, less willing to settle for a half-realized world this time out. The film’s premise is arresting: the ice-world of McCabe and Mrs. Miller has become a whole future society, and tramping heavily coated through the snow is offered as a metaphor for playing the game of life. Cinematographer Jean Boffety’s lenses give every scene a vignette of foggy soft-focus, making the chill tangible, and stressing the fact that this is another Altman dreamfilm. Unlike 3 Women, however, this dream has been consigned to too many writers for fleshing-out, and Quintet emerges as a visually fascinating film with no more real substance than a snowball, its screenplay a botched mixture of self-congratulatory weirdness, flaccid imitation, labored moralism, and just an occasional moment of really disturbing brilliance.

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Review: When Time Ran Out…

[Originally published in Movietone News 64-65, March 1980]

Going in, Irwin Allen’s latest disaster movie sounds as if it ought to be the ultimate in the genre. Entitled When Time Ran Out…, complete with ellipsis, and based on a novel called The Day the World Ended, the picture starts off with science-fiction-y images of a lone, safety-suited figure picking his way over a steaming grey landscape that surely does suggest a planet in line for burnout. I began to speculate whether a guy like Irwin Allen would bother ripping off a guy like Robert Altman, and have ol’ Paul Newman, from Quintet more recently than Allen’s own The Towering Inferno, materializing out of another bleak futuristic landscape (at least futuristic-in-the-making). But then the solitary stroller turned out not to be Paul at all; and the catastrophe portrayed in When Time Ran Out… proved to be nothing more than your basic Devil at Four o’Clock volcanic trashing of a single tropical island—and maybe only half the island at that.

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