Review: Hud (1963)

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“I’ve always thought the law was meant to be interpreted in a lenient manner. Sometimes I lean one way and sometimes I lean the other.” – Paul Newman as Hud

Hud is up for contention for the finest film Martin Ritt ever made and it comes down to a truly collective effort. When you survey the talent assembled, it plays like a hit parade by pairing the director with some perennial collaborators who would see him to some of his greatest successes.

Obviously, Paul Newman was a hot commodity and Hud‘s tagline gets it impeccably right. He’s the man with the “barbed-wire soul.” Raffishly handsome, a womanizer, and a drunkard, no less. However, though Newman plays him as a villain, there’s this wonderful dissonance in the man because after all, he’s played by Paul Newman who was forever more likable than a Brando or a Dean. He stretches us to the limits as an audience as we try and discern what to do with him. Dare we say he’s still charismatic without giving the wrong impression about his lecherous attributes? I’m not sure.

Irving Ravetch served as joint screenwriter and producer and his partnership (along with his wife Harriet Frank Jr.) would be one of the most integral to Marty Ritt’s career. The production boasts the inimitable James Wong Howe as the cinematographer, set design by veteran Hal Pereira, Edith Head overseeing costumes, and a well-suited score by Elmer Berstein. This list of names stands as another feather in the cap of the studio system.

It’s a horizontal even cloudless palette in black and white that captures the malaise hanging over the characters with monochromatic lucidity. Bernstein’s arrangement, in fact, is only minutes long but is supplemented by the equally fitting stripped down effect of a guitar.

In many ways, Hud‘s a modern western like a Giant, The Misfits, or even The Last Picture Show documenting the evolution of a certain type of life whether it’s cattle being replaced by oil rigs, the onslaught of personal tragedy, or the debilitating nature of generational divides. There’s a certain dustiness and degradation proving itself to be a far cry from the glory days.

Melvyn Douglas gives a generally gray and emotionless performance that somehow fits the visual landscape. It grows on you minute by minute for its steady cadence, continuously exact and unhurried. Patricia Neal just might have the finest showing of the lot because she has to do battle in a man’s world. She’s both a housekeeper and thus, maternal but then also overwhelmingly assured in her independence. Staving off Hud’s advances and taking care of the two other Bannions — somehow remaining folksy, hospitable, and a bit sensuous too.

Meanwhile, Brandon de Wilde is crucial for the part he plays as the film’s most impressionable bystander. Though he is no longer the precocious little lad from Shane (1953), he is still the clean slate on which the world at large must rub off on.

The film’s first disruption comes from a state veterinarian (Whitt Bissell) with a verdict that the Bannion’s stock might be stricken with foot and mouth disease. Until they can get more conclusive information, the narrative is all but a waiting game and waiting makes the relationship between Hud and his father (Douglas) all the more contentious. They hold each other in contempt and it’s not simply for Hud’s cavorting reputation. There’s some other buried grievance that has never been resolved between them.

Pay attention and you’ll witness many recognizable small town trivialities. Lonnie (De Wilde) carries his transistor radio in his breast pocket. He and grandpa take in a comedy at the picture show complete with a rousing performance of “My Darling Clementine.” There’s the chasing of greased pigs at the Kiwanis Club event and boisterous brawls with the jukebox whirling away merrily. It’s a galvanizing moment of male bonding that fosters a might bit of camaraderie between Hud and his nephew Lonnie.

In the next pivotal sequence, Hud opens up candidly about his brother’s death in a car crash. Then, Hud has it out with his father and in his ensuing rage, fueled by a drunken stupor, makes aggressive advances on Alma. Clumped together like this, the turn of events either don’t sound impressive enough or don’t carry the air of lurid drama out of a drugstore novella. But watch the scenes themselves and they make sense and wield a resounding power in their cumulative effect.

Hud’s animal brutality is only matched by the slaughtering that is undertaken with the infected cattle. It’s a sickening image. Killing becomes so easy even as the long hard process of cultivation takes years and is subsequently snuffed out so quickly. It doesn’t seem right.

Each of our main characters seems destined for a slice of tragedy — every one of a different size and shape. But it never comes off as melodrama, at least not in the end, even as the misfortune strikes. More so, we are reminded that life is tough and at times merciless. Sometimes people are too. But Ritt never seems to leverage that to get a rise out the audience. He lets it play out. He lets his actors act and if that’s how we label it, then they do a commendable job, each contributing their piece to the ensemble.

Because what we are left with at the end of the road is a lot to mull over. I’m not sure what the conclusions are supposed to be and that’s not because this is an esoteric picture by any means. It’s for people and I think people can resonate with it for the very reason that it is affecting and the performances carry weight while never being overburdened by their own importance. Martin Ritt was an actor’s director and he cared deeply about their performances. It shows in just how beautifully they work together.

One of the truly resonating scenes is right near the end. Hud comes sauntering down the street in his cowboy hat and boots, sporting his starched white shirt like always. He gives someone a “hey” and comes around the corner to the bus stop.

We know who is sitting there and yet Wong Howe stays on his back momentarily as he turns to notice this person sitting out of sight. He sees the person and says a few words. It almost feels accidental but even in this, there’s a purpose. Because another film might have built this final interaction into a confrontation. Instead, Hud and Alma share an amiable conversation underlined by no hint of malice. It is what it is and they’ll move on like they always have. It does, however, accentuate a certain wistfulness. In an alternate reality, things might have been far different; they could have been better.

Granted, Hud doesn’t seem like the definitive source for wisdom and yet he might not be far off the truth when he tells Lonnie, “This world is so full of crap, a man’s gonna get into it sooner or later whether he’s careful or not.” It’s all but inevitable.

4.5/5 Stars

The Long, Hot Summer (1958)

The_Long,_Hot_SummerAs it turns out, Paul Newman’s a real barn burner. His family name is synonymous with conflagrations and it’s a great entry point for a character, in this case, a drifter named Ben Quick who’s run out of town by the local judge.

We never actually know if he was guilty of arson or not but we assume he must be. And so even with the audience, Quick carries that onus because the reputation seems to fit him. He’s a leering no-good, not to be trusted with money or women. It’s all speculation, mind you, though it cuts pretty close to the truth.

He receives some southern hospitality when a car screeches to a stop to pick him up. In the passenger’s seat is Eula (Lee Remick) with a coaxing sensuality accentuated by a sing-song twang that’s irresistible. More reserved is the driver, Clara (Joanne Woodward), who sees through Quick just like most people. She’s not about to be taken in by his animal magnetism.

This is just the beginning of a vast family drama and the names we have to thank are director Maritn Ritt, still trying to get his head above water after a blacklisting, and screenwriting stalwarts Irving Ravitch and Harriet Frank Jr.

Their tale was realized by weaving together three stories by William Faulkner that I have no prior knowledge of, matched with the atmospherics of a Tennessee Williams sweaty drama. In fact, it was released before a couple films that share more than superficial similarities, namely the well-remembered Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958) also starring Newman, this time opposite Elizabeth Taylor and Burl Ives. Then, there was God’s Little Acre (1958) which was probably the quirkiest and most erratic of the trio starring Robert Ryan as the head of the family.

Arguably, there’s no larger-than-life figure than Orson Welles to take the part of the portly patriarch of the Varner clan, Will, a man who puts his stamp on the local town. After a stint in the hospital with ailments, he comes back in fashion, sirens howling, so everyone knows that the king has returned. First, it’s a visit to his mistress (Angela Lansbury) who’s anxious to get married so she can have more stability. His responses remain evasive.

The Louisianna heat is no fluke and Welles is perpetually perspiring. He lends an earthiness to the proceedings that undoubtedly takes some cues from Ritt. Will Varner laughs boisterously at the catcalls of young boys directed towards his daughter-in-law, just as he conspires to get his other daughter hitched up so grandchildren can start popping out. In this regard, he’s very pragmatic (if not misogynistic). He wants heirs to maintain the family name because his gutless son certainly isn’t going to be the one to do it.

While important to the stability of the picture, by all accounts, Welles was a terror to work with for everyone on set. There are multiple indications of why this might have been. It’s all too probable he felt pressured and slightly insecure with the young upstarts coming on the scene from the Actor’s Studio, including Marlon Brando and his current co-star Paul Newman. Alternatively, with Welles being the renowned directorial power that he was, there was probably some dissatisfaction on his part because he couldn’t pull all the strings and have total control like he was normally accustomed to.

However,  put him together in a room with Paul Newman and you have two men in front of you as crooked as a barrel of fish hooks. Varner’s perceptive daughter puts it aptly, “One wolf recognizes another.” Soon they strike up a mutually beneficial deal throwing other people and lives around like they were pawns in a chess match to solely serve the two of them.

Varner wants a form of southern immortality. Males to bear his name and people to sing his praises and tame the land in a sprawling estate with spoils to match what he has accumulated over his lifetime. Quick, why, he just wants money and land and whatever else he can finagle out of the old man. What unites them is they’re both out for number one.

Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward go on their first cinematic date together and it’s a picnic in the park that ends prematurely. In real life, they would get married soon after principal photography wrapped and as they say, the rest was history. They stayed married for another 50 years until Newman’s passing in 2008. For a Hollywood marriage, this has to be some kind of record.

But regardless of what was going outside the frame, what is within the confines of the space is just as enchanting for the simple reason that they make some amount of palpable magic together. There’s a tension between them but then a certain attraction and pull that leads to oscillation back and forth in a continuous orbit of gravitation and then distaste.

In real life, it’s not what leads to stable romance but in film, it’s what dreams are made of because every sequence has an intangible undercurrent of spiritedness. It’s in the eyes twinkling. The unspoken words along with the spoken ones. Maybe it’s a lot of making something out of nothing but I would like to think it isn’t. They have something electric together.

Just as the film opened with fire, it’s another barn burning that ends the picture and gets the town in a tizzy. The irony is the very event that looks to be a dramatic firecracker actually reconciles a father and son. That’s the thing about The Long Hot Summer; it has the guts — some might say the gall — to end on an optimistic note without plunging into the throes of deep dark tragedy. Sometimes the 50s dramas take it too far. It’s almost as if they forget some of the greatest dramas historically were as much comedy as they were tragedy.

With so much talent, I’m inclined to like this one and since it all but led the pack coming out of the gates, it deserves some kudos. But best of all, the partnership between Martin Ritt, Ravitch, Frank, and Newman was just beginning, not to mention a marriage for the ages. It’s part of the reason why one can come away from The Long Hot Summer with a smile as wide as Will Varner’s.

3.5/5 Stars

Murphy’s Romance (1985)

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Despite the pure 80s-ness of the synths, I cannot help but be charmed by Carol King’s vocals in the opening track to go along with an entire score she composed for this film. It introduces an understated tale of a young divorced mother (Sally Field) and her son (Corey Haim) who are setting up camp and a new life for themselves. It’s a real fixer-upper they’ve acquired, epitomized by Sally Field chucking her boot at a rat as it scurries back into the shadows. 

However, she is defined by a do-it-yourself mentality — the of kind quality we admire in her within the first few scenes. In spite of a lack of capital, they make the shell of a ranch into a real home that’s livable even as they are still trying to come to terms with the alien community they now find themselves in.

In many ways, the rural Arizona town proves to be an analogous slice of Middle America with much of what Martin Ritt captured over the course of his career from the Huds to the Norma Raes of the world. This particular one has a local druggist named Murphy (James Garner), a widower who drives an antique car with a windshield plastered with a couple of his prime causes.

In his first interaction with Mrs. Emma Moriarty, he describes his home impeccably with four words, “Small, warm, and nosy.” It becomes instantly familiar. What we have on our hands resonates with me for the simple fact I recognize this small town. Not because I lived in it — not by a long shot — but I’ve spent time in such places just passing through or visiting family. We see at least one old friend in Charles Lane, the chipper elderly man who has found love again at the ripe young age of 89.

Otherwise, Murphy is quite the local celebrity. It seems like every middle-aged lady is having him over for bridge or dinner — something nice like that — so much so that most of his evenings are booked up. He’s a generally hot commodity and people like him. Emma soon sees his charm too. She struggles to get a loan at the bank to jumpstart her business to train and board horses because she’s a woman. The town still holds to those archaic traditions.

Though he won’t give her money outright, Murphy does bless her in more subtle ways. First, by introducing her into the folds of the tight-knit community and also directing business her way — starting with the fine horse he buys at a local auction. It’s in these scenes Garner and Field build a rapport that feels about as genuine as they come. While not necessarily romantic, they begin to enjoy each other’s company and the chemistry continues to grow. They care about one another.

The most obvious complication in the story occurs when Emma’s former husband Bobby Jack (Brian Kerwin) comes back to town. It’s as much to mooch money off his former spouse as it is to see their son whom he has all but neglected.  

The fact the casting seems poor might contribute to the fact that Field is simply such a mismatch for her husband. They have little in common as far as interest or vision or overall drive. He has zilch — prizing partying and good times over any type of breadwinning integrity. If anything she supports his leech-like ways.

A bit of Bret Maverick starts coming to the surface again, most memorably over a poker game where Garner coolly calls Bobby out to the porch to have a talk with him. He’s also not too interested in the gory human hamburger, monster movies at the local movie theater that coincidentally enthrall Bobby. This is coming from a man who hasn’t watched a movie since The Duke died. When he’s had enough he walks out and sits on a bench to chew the fat.  

As ludicrous as it seems, a bit of a tug of war begins. Even as Murphy feels a tad too old to be courting Emma, Bobby Jack has no right to her based on his lack of character. The older gentleman gets his new acquaintances into the Elk’s Club for Bingo night. There are ensuing feuds between Murphy and his jealous rival on the dance floor defusing themselves through comedy. Bobby’s renewed advances on Emma far from being passionate conclude with sneezing in the hay. Then, things take an even weirder turn when the loafing ex-husband gets his own visitor. 

Ultimately, it is a birthday part providing a stage to look over a life and give thanks for an existence full of relationships. We’re back to the small-town atmosphere again. The near lackadaisical pacing plays a part in it too. 

In an age of R-rated comedies, action films, and whatever else, Murphy’s Romance is in danger of being railroaded by its more ostentatious competition. But the fact there is no gratuitous sex or violence remains its ace in the hole. Instead, it relies wholly on the grace of its two stars who more than oblige.

Truthfully, in my mind, there would be little reason to watch this slight story without Sally Field and James Garner. The fact Brando was initially wanted for the part is nearly laughable. He couldn’t pull it off like his Sayonara (1957) costar and the chemistry with Sally Field would not have gelled in the same exquisite manner. 

Field lent such peppy candor to parts all the way back to her Gidget days, which saw her bloom into a quality talent with perennially accessible charm. It’s important for Garner to be just as approachable — a man who often asserted he never wanted anyone to catch him acting — he’s so natural, making it all look easy. We like him for it.

Their conversations amble along — the way real people interact — people who have made mistakes and deal with them in the normal way. People who manage kinship through an invitation for dinner there or a random act of kindness here. They harbor jealousy, don’t always say what they’re feeling, and their love language is connotated through quality time more than anything else.

Murphy’s Romance is charming for precisely this understatement. Tact is something so often lacking in this hypercharged world of ours. The romance mentioned in the title is warranted but some viewers might be taken aback by how it exerts itself. There is an underlying decency and a tenderness to it all.

3.5/5 Stars

 

Norma Rae (1979)

Norma_rae_ver2.jpgIf you had any trouble possibly liking Sally Field before — consequently, one of the sweetest actresses ever to cross the screen — then there’s little gripe to be had with her any longer. Norma Rae really does feel like a gift for her. Both as a story to be a part of and a character to portray since both speak to us intuitively as an audience. 

Marty Ritt offers a story that is as close a representation of his work as you might find — a narrative that’s not flashy but more importantly and yet still meaningful and chock full of human characters and conflicts. However, it’s not just sharing those elements for the sake of it. There is a rational impetus behind it all, setting out to shine a light on social grievances in order to enact some form of change. 

Again, he gets a script from husband and wife powerhouse Harriet Frank Jr. and Irving Ravetch who fortuitously helped define his career with stories such as The Long Hot Summer (1958),  Hud (1963), Hombre (1967), and this feature.

Its authentic inspiration stems from real life textile champion Crystal Lee Sutton, a worker in Roanoke Rapids, North Carolina. She spearheaded the unionization of her textile mill in an industry that has long held out against any regulation partially due to bullheaded leadership and ignorant lay workers who didn’t know any other life. There’s the arc in a nutshell. 

 Because Norma Rae (Field) is one of those people and she’s lived within a community of the very same folks all her life. Her father struggles to keep up with the strict regimen, her mother is losing her hearing systematically, and Webster has a couple young kids though she’s never officially married. As they might say, when she was a young woman, she knew a couple of men in the Biblical sense. 

Part of what makes her so likable is the trait of a genuine straight-shooter with the alacrity to do what she sees fit. When Reuben Warshowsky (Ron Leibman) sets up shop in town long-term, to try and get support for a union, most of the locals are wary of the outsider. Norma Rae asks him almost innocently, “Are you a Jew?” He responds in the affirmative and she responds that she’s never met one before. 

Though Reuben is a congenial fellow, he’s the definition of a fish-out-of-water, bred on New York society with a quality education, Dylan Thomas, and an attorney girlfriend waiting for him who his mother loves.

Ron Leibman does a fine job in the role because he doesn’t just play it charismatic and likable through every beat. He manages to skirt this fine line where there are genuine flashes of malice where we question Reuben as a person. Is he simply taking advantage of people or forcing others into a vision of what he thinks will be good for them? He even acts like a grade-A jerk and a bit of an instigator when he’s feeling up to it. 

Thus, Norma Rae grounds him as someone who does have a full stake in this fight, in this community, and this story. This is her job, her family, her reputation all put out in the open — all on the line and she’s willing to go for it. That takes true gumption and a fighting spirit few individuals can muster. Boy has she got it. She’s also capable of the southern cajoling that made men like LBJ such effective movers and shakers. 

However, the film constantly plays with this tension within her. Because she’s not a rich person by any means. When she’s given a promotion to a spot checker, her hourly rate goes up incrementally and she subsequently loses the respect of all her colleagues as someone who has gone to the enemy. The relationships mean more to her than the pay just as a better future has greater precedence over sacrificing her time and pouring heart and soul into Reuben’s cause.

Norma Rae also has a pulse of the ultimate good which is admirable. She goes to the local church — an all-white establishment — posing two questions to the reverend she has known all her life. First, asking if he would call her a Christian? He smiles and nods, with a lapse or two, yes.

But then, more pointedly, she asks if he would call himself a Christian? He’s still so caught up in the idiotic dogma that blacks and whites cannot mix. And yet for Norma Rae, the bottom line is there ought to be justice — and the church, if it’s really going to practice what it preaches, must be involved in this same dialogue.

It’s not always the words spoken but the images seen that leave a lasting impact. A funeral sequence in the rain. No words just a hearse being lowered into the ground inch by inch. The point is made better than any eulogy by man There’s Norma Rae transcribing an anti-union message on toilet paper to pass on to Reuben or the heart-to-heart she has with her kids to head-off any of the scurrilous slander they might pick up. There’s her furious struggle as two policemen try and drag her to a police car. 

Likewise, Field standing up with a cardboard cutout simply scribbled with the block letters “UNION.” She slowly circles around, resolutely, again and again. People notice her, stop for a moment of consideration and then all turn off their machines in a simultaneous act of solidarity and defiance. 

This particular sequence goes on for several minutes and the sequence is allowed to unwind wordlessly as we slowly hear the din grow progressively dimmer. It could have easily been cut down to its bare essentials and yet in this way the full brunt of the impact has been made apparent as we are forced to contemplate the full gravity. It’s an everyday action that takes on monumental dramatic importance. 

The same could be said when the ballots are read in consideration of the new union. It’s back and forth. The tension again is palpable but it’s the jubilation on the faces that captures me. In every one of these instances, Ritt gives the immaculate illusion he lets it happen. No tricks. No extra flourishes. Just all right there for us to be a part of. He’s at his best with human stories of fully realized people working through things of seemingly genuine importance. That is Norma Rae to a tee. 

4/5 Stars

Sounder (1972): A Family and Their Dog

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In adolescence, you are inundated with stories about dogs. The Red Fern Grows, Shiloh, Homeward Bound, Ginger Pie, Marmaduke, Lassie, Rin Tin Tin, Air Bud, Snoopy, and Old Yeller. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg, off the top of my head. Sounder belongs to the same storied tradition based on humanity’s infatuation with canines which is certainly well-founded.

Except some will be surprised to find that this Depression-era tale brought to us by Martin Ritt is hardly about a dog at all. True, we are met with the eponymous hound dog right off the bat. What greets our ears is the bouncy staccato harmonica-twanging behind the visuals of a frantic tear through the underbrush that goes with the territory of a coon hunt. It’s an instantly recognizable image to introduce our characters.

Not just Sounder but a boy named Henry Lee and his father, the jovial but hardpressed Nathan. The year is 1933 and we’re in Lousiana in the midst of the Depression. With society sectioned off as it is, as a black family, the Lee’s have been forced to scuttle through by sharecropping for a white farmer. It’s the fate faced many African-American families of the day.

They’re perpetually in debt, have trouble keeping food on the table, and live with the most meager means possible. All in all, with two parents, Nathan and his wife Rebecca (Cicely Tyson in a fiercely unvarnished performance), there are also three kids, and of course, Sounder.  Writer Lonne Elder III takes this atmosphere, the environment, and the family living within it and builds the framework of a story with great care and concern for their everyday reality. The plights and the joy that they still manage to have.

Taj Mahal, while also providing the film’s music, does a fair number in front of the camera as well as the energetic neighbor named Ike who drifts in and out of the story as he pleases. There are baseball games where Nathan Lee comes out the hero striking out his last opponent with runners in scoring position. From the local church, you can hear Gospel spirituals like “Old Time Religion” ringing out with fervor.

But in the same community, there’s a segregated schoolhouse and Nathan gets jailed and sent away for a year of hard labor for what seems like a trivial infraction. White men, including the local sheriff and the shopkeeper, will hardly budge an inch for a black man. That’s what seems so pernicious. Sometimes it’s not even outright violence but it’s this inability to change or have any amount of grace or understanding. There is no clemency to be had based on this rigid narrowmindedness.

When you begin watching more movies sometimes you fail to acknowledge those that are unpretentious and good-natured — the kind of stories that are meant for the whole family and wholly uplifting to the soul. Sounder is one of those movies. Surely there was a social hierarchy in place of oppression and de facto segregation. And yet around the nucleus of the family, there is a decency that pervades the picture and ultimately lifts it up. While it doesn’t completely eradicate ill-will, it does push it to the fringes of the frame.

Family reunions have never been so poignant — considering the moment where Nathan finally comes home after innumerable trials and his family has toiled and sweated day after day to hold onto their land. What they have in that instant is a small slice of heaven. It’s written over every face as the space between them rapidly fades away and they meet in an embrace that brings their world back together as it was meant to be.

But Sounder also manages to be a tale of empowerment for one lad in particular, young Henry Lee. The movie places people in his life who are willing to give him a leg up. There’s old Mrs. Boatright who is one of the few whites who will take any kind of stand — even a slight one — and she blesses him with things like The Three Musketeers.

It’s these people and books and knowledge that give a glimpse to a world of greater freedom and opportunity. An avenue to a life where people cannot keep you down no matter how hard they try because with ideas comes a power to think and to be your own person, set on improving yourself and the world as you go forward.

Yet another woman, a schoolteacher, takes an interest in Henry Lees improvement since she perceives the quiet wisdom that can be cultivated into something fully-realized. Her gift to him comes through education and elucidating him about figures like Harriet Tubman, Crispus Attucks, and W.E.B. Dubois — people who were shapers of history big and small — just as he has the opportunity to be.

Granted, it does feel as if the family’s pet is pushed to the periphery for much of the film, but in a way, it feels like a realistic depiction. He doesn’t need to be front and center. By their nature, if dogs are really man’s best friend, what makes them so meaningful has to do with their loyalty — they are always there — consistently reliable.

Because the life of an impoverished family like the Lees is the epitome of hardship. They need all the stability they can get. You will come to realize it is not really about a dog at all and certainly not one of those family-friendly films marketed as such because they feature some extraordinary, nearly superhuman animal.

No, Sounder is for the family because it takes care in documenting the realities of this particular family in a way that is thoroughly candid. It might still stand as faulty advertising but for the plethora of folks who are moved by the movie, they probably won’t be complaining when the credits roll. What we get is far better than a run-of-the-mill boy and his dog narrative. What I am reminded of is one subtle parallel. Sounder is winged by a shotgun when Nathan is taken away. He doesn’t come back for a long time. But when his wounds are healed, he returns good as new. There’s a startling resilience present in both the canine and the family.

4/5 Stars

Paris Blues (1961)

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I’m the first to admit I’m no jazz connoisseur but I dig it. In this age that we now live in of shuffling and song roulette — where the single has surged passed a cohesive album in terms of singular importance — there has been some small amount of education going on for me.

Awareness of some of the classics is starting to set in. There’s recognition of a few of the heavy hitters like Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Bill Evans, Dave Brubeck, Count Basie, and of course Duke Ellington. When we hear even the briefest interludes of “Take The A Train” we will grab a hold of it. Ellington provided the score for Paris Blues including some of his beloved classics and they couldn’t be more fitting.

Because Martin Ritt’s film is hot when it comes to jazz — you can feel it wafting through the air and giving an added layer of sensuality to the already romantic milieu of the Parisian streets. This is a propitious factor married with the fact the picture also takes its shoot right to the streets of Paris, even filling out the cast with a few native supporting players.

Less than a decade before, we had Roman Holiday (1953) and now we have something that might just do the same for France, except with an extra flavoring of brass and a rhythm section. The cast couldn’t be better with two of Ritt’s former students from their Actor’s Studio days, power couple Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward. Equally compelling is another legendary leading man in Sidney Poitier and Diahann Carroll as beautiful and sophisticated as ever. I admire them all.

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However, in translating the source material to the silver screen, you could easily say the story lost most of its clout. Harold Flender’s original novel was about two interracial romances between two vacationing Americans and two expatriate jazz musicians working in Paris. However, this was Hollywood in 1961. Although the script teases the original storyline when Ram Bowen (Newman) comes onto Connie Lampson (Carroll) on an inbound train, it was not meant to be — quickly brushed off for more conventional demarcations.

Believing the public was still not ready for such portrayals, the studio got cold feet and smoothed things out by making sure everyone ended up with their “kind.” It’s Lillian Corning (Woodward) who gets starstruck with the trombone player and her friend eventually softens to the handsome saxophonist Eddie Cook (Poitier).

Acknowledging this grievance, the only thing that makes me mildly okay with the change is that the husband and wife duo of Newman and Woodward get paired opposite each other so we see real-life romance partially channeled into the movie. While the four leads look great together and there’s indubitable chemistry, somehow it still feels like something is missing.

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Louis Armstrong leading a parade of brass into the jazz club is a shining moment full of uninhibited synergy that fills up the underground space in the most joyous of fashions. As he always does, Wild Man Moore brings down the house. But the real issue is the lack of pizzazz outside these performances.

The story meanders without creating enough interludes ripe with meaning. They’re either cutesy momentary snapshots of lovebirds in Paris or understated pieces of human drama. Not by any means bad but what the picture might have used were some sustained sequences of action in places where it floundered. Most vividly I can recall the Vespa ride through the streets or even the party which is raided by the local police which helped make Roman Holiday a landmark.

There is nothing so memorable here. Instead, some characters leave on the train they arrived on and others stay behind. Musical aspirations and romance are continuously being weighed. Whether we care that deeply about any of it is up for debate.

Worst of all, these issues are only exasperated by the fact that the story no longer has one of Martin Ritt’s finest attributes, a theme of social importance. Because in a Pre-Civil Rights age, Paris Blues could have been a much more moving statement; instead, it’s a middling love story.

Poitier gets one conversation with Carroll where he candidly vocalizes that in Paris he’s a man or he’s a musician. To borrow someone else’s words, “he’s judged not by the color of his skin but by the content of his character” and even more so by his artistry. It spawns a minor spat but the opportunity to make a statement — a statement without the utterance of words even — was lost before it even began. Perhaps the wasted potential hurts more than anything. Like the musicians at its core, Paris Blues is ultimately a lightweight.

3/5 Stars

No Down Payment (1957)

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When a film seems to materialize in front of you coming out of nowhere and subsequently moves you, it seems worthy to try and champion it to others who might also be pleasantly surprised. But first, I believe an acknowledgment of director Martin Ritt is in order because I’m not sure how much adulation he usually gets amid the myriad of prominent Hollywood workhorses out there.

Though he first started out in the theater and then television during The Red Scare years, Ritt ultimately transitioned to movies with a body of work full of variety that has all but stood the test of time on numerous accounts. Highlights include a six-film collaboration with Paul Newman including the likes of The Long, Hot Summer (1958), Paris Blues (1961), Hud (1963, and Hombre (1967). Other noteworthy successes many will know are The Spy Who Came in From The Cold (1965), Sounder (1972), and Norma Rae (1979).

He is most definitely an adherent to progressive, socially conscious filmmaking that, while never flashy in formalistic aspects, is nevertheless, chock full of depth for its commitment to humanist storytelling. It’s meant to ring true and touch on subjects that pertain to real people and the world-at-large captured through a lens of stark realism. To his credit, Ritt would never claim the title “Auteur” because he himself spent time as an actor and understood how collaborative such an art form is.

That brings us to the picture at hand, No Down Payment, which while being one of his earlier directorial efforts for film, already has his sensibilities in place. There’s nothing flashy about the picture per se but it readily digs into issues that feel uncommon and cutting edge for the very fact that we rarely see them portrayed in the 1950s. This film provides a very special opportunity and I was more than happy to oblige.

To put it succinctly, our story takes place in the residential neighborhood of Sunrise Hills. What we get is a disillusioning portrait of 1950s suburbia specifically in Los Angeles, that beacon of post-war middle-class living, observing the overlapping existence of four couples.

I enjoy how everything seems to be underlined by party chatter, Cowboys and Indians on the television, and groovy rockability — all integral parts of the ubiquitous soundtrack of the suburbs. But there’s also a veneer with two layers. The outward-facing street view with white picket fences and barbeques with the neighbors and then what’s actually going on, either when the doors are closed or when you can’t contain it anymore and rancor slowly asserts itself. Underneath we also soon realize that everybody is afraid of something.

A young couple just moving in is brought into the fold of the community. The husband (Jefferey Hunter) works as an up-and-coming electrical engineer while his pretty wife (Patricia Owens) urges him to get in a more lucrative field like sales so they can grow their social status.

If your image of Tony Randall is a nice guy or a hypochondriac, try on a philandering day drunk car salesman for size. Jerry Flagg constantly has his wife Isabelle (Sheree North) exasperated because he’s always strapped for cash and never dependable, with aspirations that keep him constantly flocking to the next big idea. Of course, he’s never able to see any of them to fruition.

Arguably, the least done up of any of the husbands is Troy (Cameron Mitchell), a war hero and Tennessee native who currently works as a car mechanic but soon hopes to be brought on as the local police chief. In fact, he’s banking on it. His wife, Leola Boone (Joanne Woodward) is intent on it as well since he’s promised they can have a child once he has greater job stability. She’s tried to bury painful memories of the baby she was once forced to give away. They too are plagued by marital bickering and late night alcohol consumption.

Last of all is Herman Kreitzer (prolific TV actor Pat Hingle) and his wife Betty (Barbara Rush). While she takes the children to church on Sunday, he stays at home and washes his car out on the street. Otherwise, there’s little discord in the house as he’s a loving husband and father who runs an appliance store and is a member of the local homeowner’s board.

Ritt’s picture, with yet another script fronted by Philip Yordan and actually written by Ben Maddow, has innumerable topics of interest. However, two that were the most intriguing to me had to do with the Kreitzers. Because it just so happens that Herman’s best employee, a man named Iko (Japanese-American though played by Aki Aleong), requested help in getting his family a home in a predominantly white neighborhood. As is, he currently has a taxing commute to work every day.

And though Herman is a good man, he’s hesitant to get involved knowing full well that housing developments have long been run by de facto laws of segregation. L.A. was like any other area where African-Americans were in places like Watts and Japanese-Americans were concentrated in Little Tokyo and even Boyle Heights for a time. That’s just the way it was. You stayed with your kind.

People wouldn’t like it one bit. Off the top of his head, he knows Troy, who fought in the Pacific, wouldn’t be too keen on a “Japanese” living in the neighborhood. So Herman ultimately brings the conversation to his church-going wife who voices similar apprehension (“Do you think you’re ready to have a Japanese as a neighbor?”). It’s this conversation over the kitchen table that causes him to reconsider. Because you see we already know he’s not a churchgoer and part of the reason we can guess has to do with the hypocrisy that is often so easy to find fault with.

That brings us back to Iko and his family. As Herman sees it, what good is a church if it doesn’t lend a helping hand to someone who needs it. How can you say you’re a “Good Christian” and not do anything to help these people? The issue is hardly resolved then and there but it’s a start. At least, in this case, we get the hint of closure in the end. Other threads aren’t nearly as sanguine.

It’s fitting that we return to an establishing shot of that perfect piece of the suburbs and all our main players are at church the following Sunday. Except for one, it means a long drive in a taxi cab to who knows where. While the others will make a go of trying to preserve their dreams, this lonely individual’s exodus is a reminder of how quickly our aspirations can crumble.

4/5 Stars

The Spy Who Came in From the Cold (1965)

thespywhocame1Adapted from the John le Carré novel, this is a black & white spy thriller that personifies cold war paranoia in ways that Bond never could. Richard Burton is an operative working in Berlin before being demoted to a librarian job. It looks like our narrative is heading in a direction hardly fit for a spy film. Its intentions are not so obvious at first, and it keeps its audience working for the rest of the film.

Alec becomes fond of his colleague Nan Perry (Claire Bloom) who is a young member of the British communist party, but he’s also prone to drink and outbursts of anger. He’s become the perfect target for defecting, and the enemy reaches out to him just as would be expected. They send him to the Netherlands promising payment for the disclosure of British secrets. In these moments there is a great deal of dialogue that feels somewhat trying. It ends up being a slow burn for Burton and the viewer as new layers and wrinkles are added to this whole espionage affair. Only does it get interesting when the girl winds up back in the equation. All of the sudden, the stakes are a lot different, a lot more hangs in the balance, and a lot of new twists present themselves.

As an audience, we are thrown into the tension of the moment, and we become utterly befuddled by all that is going on around us. It’s as if when we finally prick up our ears in anticipation we no longer know all the ins and outs of what’s going on. Where do the allegiances lie?  Who is “good?” Who is “bad?” Or is everyone just a muddied shade of gray?

Perhaps the most disconcerting revelation is only alluded to and remains more prominent in the original novel. Here we have a storyline where the sadistic German ultimately survives and the Jewish agent is destroyed. It’s a cruel bit of irony that hardly needs to be explained, but the implications are decidedly troubling. With such an observation we cannot help but recall the pogrom-filled past of European history — most devastatingly the Holocaust a mere 15 or 20 years before.

The Spy Who Came in from the Cold is a dour, misanthropic picture of the Cold War era. A narrative perfectly matched for Burton’s pair of somber eyes, cynicism, and brooding. He’s a man who speaks of Peter Pan and God in the same breath — they are both fairy tales. His role as a spy is never glorious, instead besmirched by conspiracy and lies. When you put it that way it’s not very appealing at all, and it shouldn’t be. Director Martin Ritt, unfortunately, is a greatly under-appreciated director and his films are often tinged with moral and political undertones that follow troubled characters.

Notably, this film felt like a precursor to The Three Days of the Condor, except this time it’s about the British organization Control that pulls the wool over the eyes of the enemy. The conspiracy runs so deep it’s almost difficult to even comprehend it.  Maintaining its tone, the story ends much like it began, very bleak indeed. This is a film that deserves your time and demands your full attention.

4/5 Stars

“What the hell do you think spies are? Moral philosophers measuring everything they do against the word of God or Karl Marx? They’re not! They’re just a bunch of seedy, squalid bastards like me: little men, drunkards, queers, hen-pecked husbands, civil servants playing cowboys and Indians to brighten their rotten little lives. Do you think they sit like monks in a cell, balancing right against wrong?” ~ Richard Burton as Alec Leamus

Hud (1963)

Starring Paul Newman, Melvyn Douglas, Patricia Neal, and Brandon de Wilde, the film revolves around a principled, old Texas rancher (Douglas) who has the help of his orphaned nephew Lonnie (de Wilde) and his troublesome son Hud (Newman). Most of the film reveals the conflict between the father and his impatient and often immoral son. On the other hand Lonnie looks at his uncle with admiration. Then the cattle ranch is jeopardized by the possibility of hoof and mouth disease. When not working Hud goes wild in town and after one such night in a drunken stupor he is berated by his father and then makes advances toward the house keeper (Neal). Ultimately, the news about the cattle finally comes and the aftermath leaves Mr. Bannon dead, the housekeeper gone, and Lonnie on the road, with Hud all alone on his ranch. The primary actors were all very good and the black and white cinematography was especially striking.

4.5/5 Stars