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

The Left Handed Gun (1958)

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Few figures in the West have the mystique in western lore as Billy the Kid, aside from a few prominent names like Wyatt Earp, Butch Cassidy, Jesse James, etc. Billy Joel even famously penned a tune chronicling the life of the outlaw.

Part of the allure, no doubt, has to do with his youth and the casting of the man as a Robin Hood type anti-hero who only robbed those with excess. Inspired by a teleplay by Gore Vidal (who for the record disliked the picture), television-turned-film-director Arthur Penn makes a conscious decision to focus his story on other facets of the character.

Although slightly older, Paul Newman came into acting about the same time as James Dean and in some respects they were cut out of the same mold. At any rate, they came from a similar school of actors training in the 1950s. Though Newman was no Dean, he does a fine facsimile here. He gives a, at times, disconcerting but overwhelmingly giddy performance as Billy the Kid and somehow his age of 33 doesn’t seem to distract from the part too much. Because he’s still holding onto a decent amount of his boyish charm and good looks.

Leslie Stevens’ script features terse often tiresome colloquial dialogue in a downright peculiarly paced western. However, this is not the main point of interest anyway. For the record, William Bonney (Paul Newman) drifts onto a ranch and is taken on by a trusting cattle rancher John Tunstall (Colin Keith-Johnston). But that same penchant for trust winds up getting him killed in an ambush.

Though he only knew the man for a short period, Billy carries a fierce loyalty and resolves to go after the four men who conspired in killing his boss pulling, his reluctant partners Charlie Bowdre and Tom Folliard into it with him. Allusions to “Through a glass darkly” from Corinthians suggests a bit of the muddled kaleidoscope that the man envisions the world through.

One morning he’s howling with his boys on a wagon heaped with flour, caked in white and the next minute he’s provoking another man to draw on him just so he can blow him away. His old friend, Pat Garrett (John Dehner), has trouble knowing what to do in the face of William’s lighting-hot personality.

The newly minted amnesty in the territory means a temporary peace, instantly obliterated by a moment of stupidity among Billy’s buddies. Though the novels back east have cast him as some fictionalized larger-than-life figure, he’s really nothing like that at all.

His buddies get it and then as the final straw, Pat vows to hunt down his estranged friend, putting on the badge of the local sheriff, after an unwanted blowup at his own wedding. Billy has alienated the one man who will make him pay. First, he brings him in to be hung and then after the kid escapes, Garrett heads out again to finish things off once.  It’s a pitiful character arc and that’s the key.

While it might be overshooting its influence to say that the Left Handed Gun singlehandedly erected a new brand of western, at the very least, it suggested a new age of the West as we knew it. Beyond this, it’s hard not to draw parallels to Penn’s later work in Bonnie and Clyde (1967) which The Left Handed Gun is an obvious precursor to in the depiction of the outsider who uses violence almost indiscriminately.

One scene that leaves an impression involves a blurred image as Billy taunts a deputy from up above, toting a shotgun and blowing him away as he squints through the sunlight. Not only is it composed as a slo-mo killing but as his body lies in the street and people run toward him, instead of screaming, a little girl looks at his solitary boot just sitting there and proceeds to point and laugh. Her mother smacks her but the damage has been done. His death is a joke. There’s no point to it. People fail to react as they have been coached to since the dawning of the cinematic western.

There’s a senselessness to the killing which explodes with an almost haphazard vengeance. In no accordance with reason or morals nor in the end by perceived good or evil. Each bullet is yet another indication of all that is idiosyncratic in the subject matter. Not a hero, not a villain, but a perplexingly near neurotic gunslinger.

Whether it’s to everyone’s taste is another question entirely. It’s more character study than drama and in this close observation, it’s the distillation of a new kind of western hero — the anti-hero, or lack thereof, that is most notable. Today it’s less interesting because we have Peckinpah, Clint Eastwood, and even Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969).

But as a picture going against the grain, an artifact from a certain moment in time, there’s still something burning within its frames. Even if it’s not a fully cohesive effort, The Left Handed Gun is not without its flashes of artfulness and intriguing volatility. It began the work of reconstructing the mythos of the West that had been forged in the movies though there was still a great deal more to come. In fact, Arthur Penn would return to western revisioning with Little Big Man (1970) over a decade later.

3/5 Stars

Review: Cool Hand Luke (1967)

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While I might not consider it one of the finest films ever produced, Cool Hand Luke features one of the most mythic characters ever conceived for the movies. He’s one of those figures who can seemingly only exist on celluloid. Luke Jackson comes out of a certain turbulent period in American history even as his story remains indelibly timeless.

Paul Newman realized some greats throughout the 1960s from Fast Eddie Felson to Hud and then Butch Cassidy. However, this monumental role is one of his most iconic regardless of all the others that came before and proceeded it. Newman stretches himself to the edge of the frame and then some. It’s difficult to even begin to consider who else might have managed the feat if not him — furnishing both a constant resiliency and the trademark gleam in his eye.

It’s that placid demeanor and vaguely smug attitude which is above all prepossessing. A near relentless self-subjection to suffering and malevolence follows and for the most ridiculously absurd offense. Luke was bored and so he went about town slicing the tops off parking meters while inebriated. For that, he’s given a two-year sentence on a chain gang. For that, he willingly takes on the ills, disdain, and wrath of a whole community of people without hardly batting an eye.

It begins when the “fresh meat” comes to town. They’re jeered by the veterans led by the hulking southern boy Dragline (George Kennedy) and filled out like all the quality prison movies with a bevy of talented character actors. Some fairly prominent names including Dennis Hopper and Richard Davalos as well character parts for Wayne Rogers, Lou Antonio, etc.

The new faces quiver in this foreign environment, among them Ralph Waite and Harry Dean Stanton. Meanwhile, Luke Jackson sports a stellar war record though he left the military with the same rank he had going in. He was just passing time.

There’s a mild disinterest, a silent bravado, and subtle anti-establishment slant to him. He doesn’t flaunt it necessarily but it does come out. The guards and the camp’s proprietor (Strother Martin) are wary of him and the inmates don’t believe he’ll ever come to learn their pecking order.

That’s what’s so appealing about the Luke character. He could care less what other people think. He never has to prove himself. He just does what he wants and as a result, makes himself an idol of the entire chain gang without ever trying to do so.

The script, penned by the story’s original author Donn Pearce as well as Frank Pierson, is adept at creating individual moments and bits of dialogue that are in themselves so distinctive, showcasing a remarkable ability to stand on their own merit. Even now over 50 years later.

“The Night in the Box” monologue might have its imitators but it has no equal, setting up the monotonous drudgery that makes camp life, backbreaking and yet somehow strangely comforting to some men. Strother Martin famously sums up his relationship with the troublesome prisoner as a “failure to communicate” while in another sequence the girl (Joy Harmon) saucily washes her car, tantalizing all the sex-crazed men on the job.

Dragline and Luke have a boxing bout that cements the new man’s reputation as well as a budding friendship with the camp’s resident top dog. He bluffs his way through poker games to earn his iconic nickname, “Sometimes nothing is a real cool hand” Luke grins almost matter-of-factly. Everyone else howls with delight at his exploits.

Next, overtaken by a surge of giddy energy he spurs on his compatriots turning their assignment of tarring a road into a game that captures the imagination of all involved. They are taken by his spirit which never seems to sour. It’s the same temperament that will lead him to eat 50 eggs in under an hour just for the heck of it. Whether he meant to or not the whole cohort feeds off of him, even as some spurn his attempts at individuality — most gravitate toward the man. From thenceforward, outstretched on a table like a Crucifix he is cast as their Christ-like figure.

A flurry of escape attempts is spawned by the news that his mother has died. The outcome was all but inevitable. Still, that doesn’t make it sting less. The conversation shared between the two of them earlier is only one minor scene of dialogue, and yet together Newman and Joan Van Fleet make something impactful out of it. Thus, when Arletty dies, off camera, it has critical implications for the man. For once, he shows some type of emotion; he cares about something.

Luke can be found strumming away at a banjo singing “Plastic Jesus.” Not being able to get away for the funeral he resolves to sing her a dirge of his own. The rest of the film is backed by Lalo Schrifrin’s score laced with a down-home country meandering melody contributed to by an arrangement of guitars, banjos, and harmonicas with more traditional string and brass sections. It’s the soundtrack of Luke’s exploits as he gets some jackrabbit in his blood and looks to jump the coop.

His Fourth of July escape runs the hounds ragged or else he’s “shaking the bush” to take a leak only to scramble off into the underbrush. He’s away long enough to even send the boys a souvenir from the outside featuring him gussied up with two bodacious gals. His smile lights up the page and the picture gives them something to keep their blood pumping; it’s really something to live for.

But multiple times he is brought back to confinement and “the box.” The bosses, having just about enough of his impertinence, subject him to neverending ditch digging and refilling after long days of work. They’re not about to let him forget he’s a prisoner. While his inmates helplessly watch him get worked to death in the camp yard, they sing “Ain’t No Grave” in solidarity with him. Throughout Stanton can be heard belting out Gospel spirituals accompanied by his acoustic guitar.

Director Stuart Rosenberg in his first movie after a career in TV at least ably conveys the pervasively sweaty grime of the day-to-day in such a world. Nothing is clean. Dirt clings to everyone and everything. It permeates every inch of the screen.

However, some of his visual choices come off rather clunky in execution. “The Man With No Eyes” constantly has his reflective sunglasses put on display as metaphor and the choice to end the picture in a clip show gives one last upbeat note but undermines what could have been an uncompromising ending.

Contrast Milos Forman’s One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest (1976) and on an external level, you have nominally similar dramas about a group rallying around one man to stick it to the institution. But there is little comparison between Randle McMurphy and Luke beyond that point just as the endings choose their own alternative resolutions.

As it is, Luke is smiling to the end of his days and Dragline canonizes him as a saint for all posterity. He becomes the vehicle for all their hopes, dreams, and aspirations. He is their Savior but he’s a fallible Christ-figure — never perfect and he never can be perfect — but they put there hope in him nonetheless. After all, he is a natural world shaker to the very last grin.

However, In his final hour, Luke can be found talking to The Man Upstairs in an abandoned church building. It is his version of Gethsemane:

“It’s beginnin’ to look like you got things fixed so I can’t never win out. Inside, outside, all them rules and regulations and bosses. You made me like I am. Just where am I supposed to fit in? Ol’ Man, I gotta tell ya. I started out pretty strong and fast. But it’s beginnin’ to get to me. When does it end?”

Surely the implications are twofold. He maintained a failure to communicate with his fellow man as a perennial outsider turned-savior but the issue extended to his relationship with God too. He is all but alone. He’s an outsider without ever trying to be. That’s simply his God-given temperament. But that can be a wearisome existence and we cannot smile at Cool Hand Luke‘s ending without harboring a residual sense of pessimism as well.

5/5 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

Review: Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid (1969)

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Despite my general reluctance to say that the Western in its classical form was on the way out, it’s hard not to make such an assertion looking at the landscape of the late 1960s. The Wild Bunch is a common marker of the seismic shift leading to the complete obliteration of the classic western mythology, but there are some related themes strewn throughout Butch Cassidy that make it equally representative of an era or so one could argue.

The times were changing historically speaking and that plays out cinematically in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Bicycles are the future, destined to replace the old reliable horse. And the western hero as we knew him has long since gone, replaced instead by vengeful tough guys and in this case a pair of bank robbing antiheroes. Bonnie and Clyde were the new standards and out of that trend, we saw more like them.

So it’s not just the fact that the film takes place at the tail end of the Old West, slowly evolving into the modern, or New West, but simultaneously the genre would never be the same. There’s a bit of a wistfulness to it all. The legend is fun. The mythology is something to be thoroughly embellished, but it too comes to an end. It’s only a wisp of a memory made of sepia tones and silent newsreels. But Butch Cassidy and Sundance will be remembered fondly by the audience just as the West is. Maybe that is enough.

Unfortunately, Butch Cassidy as a film does have its shortcoming which became more apparent with time. It’s possible to be a dated period piece as this film is (although it’s hard not to love “Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head). Still, it can be plodding and some would argue it’s about nothing substantial, nothing meaningful at all. Still, it manages to be one of the greatest western comedies of all time only eclipsed by its own heavy dose of cynicism.

It’s funny watching Butch and Sundance go through their motions. Butch (Paul Newman) is the brains who bemoans the fact that banks are getting upgrades and shipments are being made by trains. After all, they are constantly on the move and it becomes a constant guessing game. He’s given more grief by his gang that looks to overthrow him led by the hulking thug Harvey (Ted Cassidy).

And on top of that every lawman wants him dead. In such moments, being the idea man that he is he entertains thoughts of joining the army for the Spanish-American War or even going to a far off land like Bolivia. Content with his gunplay and letting Butch do the thinking, Sundance rides by his side, certainly his own man but also part of this comic duo.

William Goldman’s script is brimming with wry wit that’s almost inexhaustible. But Paul Newman and Robert Redford loom even larger as the titular stars in this epic buddy comedy. In the age where winning charm and star power still seemed like a genuine box office draw. You came to see actors and in 1969 there were few actors as commanding as Newman and Redford. They had looks and charm. Cool and comedy. Charisma goes a long way. For those very reasons it’s an impressive film and enduringly entertaining. If we cannot watch a film and enjoy it as pure entertainment at least on some level, it really is a shame because that’s one of the many joys of the cinema.

But there’s also something admittedly depressing in how their story evolves. It can no longer be about snide repartee and living the good life robbing banks, continuously augmenting their legendary notoriety. It’s light and funny for a time before slowly spiraling into a deadly cycle.

Perhaps my faith in Butch and Sundance wavered slightly but I will go on resolutely and maintain my immense affection for them that began as a boy. This is still a wonderful film. Outlaws do not have to be one-dimensional. They can be just as funny as they are depressing. That is their right and the legend of the Hole in the Wall Gang is exactly that type of story. We don’t have to see them die. Instead, we get the satisfaction to leave them in one last shining moment of triumph. One final triumph of the West as we once knew it.

5/5 Stars

Slap Shot (1977)

slap-shot-2

The question is, what to do with Slap Shot? It’s grungy, dirty, and foul-mouthed. Bloody and violent. Did I mention profane and boisterous? Loud and obnoxious? Yet somehow there’s still something idiosyncratically lovable about this board busting hockey film. Is it wrong to call it an adult version of The Bad News Bears? After all, the men that the film follows are actually real professional hockey players. Not some kid looking to play at their local gymnasium. Except hockey’s still not the biggest sport (not even today) and the Charleston Chiefs are a minor league club if I’ve ever seen one.

But it’s precisely that quality that keeps us around. Because we all gravitate towards the rejects and the bottom dwellers. The people we can easily feel sorry for and who simultaneously make us feel a little bit better about ourselves.

In bringing George Roy Hill back with Paul Newman and surrounding him with quite the cast of lug heads, epitomized by the gloriously violent Hanson Brothers, Slap Shot somehow became a cult classic.

Player-manager Reggie Dunlop is in the twilight of his career. It’s hardly a secret that the Chiefs aren’t doing so hot and it looks like this might be their last season. It’s a fairly abysmal existence for all involved then Dunlop has the bright idea to let go of any inhibitions. Soon he has his boys brawling with everyone imaginable. Opposing players, fans, referees, anyone who is living and breathing. The funny thing is that this new style of play actually elicits winning results and the public loves them for their brutality.

One perfect illustration of this chaotic pandemonium occurs when the opposing goalkeeper goes diving over the boards to continue his showdown with Paul Newman. They shared a few choice words beforehand. That’s putting it lightly.

But these are also the same group of guys who leave every battle bloodied and bruised. The same group of guys who wind up playing cards on the bus or get mesmerized by the latest corny soap opera on television at the local watering hole. They’re a sorry lot who also happen to be ridiculously funny at times.

It’s the rowdiest of films with at least a couple screws loose. If we were to be pretentious I guess who would chock it up to Slap Shot having “Character.” But I’m not sure if it would be too far from the truth to blame this film for leading the charge in legions of awful R-Rated comedies with no merit whatsoever.

Even with Slap Shot, there are some rather interesting tonal shifts. It’s as if Nancy Dowd’s script looks to get sincere once or twice. Or there were thoughts of getting dramatic. But then the gloves came off and the sticks were thrown aside and there was a collective “Nawww!” from all involved. Not surprisingly this was one of Paul Newman’s favorite roles because he’s not just a ne’er do well or an old crotchety wise guy, he’s a legitimate scuzzball.

Also, it doesn’t hurt that Slap Shot’s soundtrack is now synonymous with the bouncy infectious notes of Maxine Nightingale’s 1975 classic “Right Back Where We Started From.”  The added addition of Fleetwood Mac doesn’t hurt it either. So, yes, I would hardly call this one a revered classic, and I’m still digging around for some redeeming qualities. I’ll let you know. But Slap Shot never claimed to be anything of those things.

It’s unashamedly crude. Gratuitously violent but so over the top as to be comic and there’s not even the slightest attempt to cover any of this up. It could be that Slap Shot is one of the more honest portrayals of human nature. Humanity loves sports. We’re often losers and outcasts with few redeeming qualities when you really get to know us. That’s by no means a promotion of Slap Shot but more of a qualification.

3/5 Stars

Torn Curtain (1966)

torncurtain1Torn Curtain was Alfred Hitchcock’s fiftieth feature in an illustrious career. Though he was arguably on a slow decline, the film still channels the Cold War sentiment and the age of the spy thriller, while taking hold of the director’s fascination in the everyman.  The storyline unwinds as Professor Michael Armstrong (Paul Newman) and his assistant and wife-to-be Sarah Sherman (Julie Andrews) are rubbing noses with the best and the brightest physicists in Denmark.  However, unbeknownst to lovely sweetheart, the young professor is looking to defect and live behind the iron curtain. For Armstrong, it’s something that has to be done to gain some vital information from the communists, but for her part, Ms. Sherman does not understand what is going on and so she decides to follow her love who all too quickly began to give her the cold shoulder. But of course, things in a Hitchcock film are never cut and dry.

Armstrong tries to gain the confidence of a high-level Communist scientist who can crack the Cold War wide open with a secret formula. This is crucial, acting as the MacGuffin, a storytelling device Hitchcock used in many of his films, its only purpose being to move the plot forward. Thus, Susan finds out eventually that her fiancée is no traitor, but out of that comes the perilous prospect of getting out of the country. In the end, Newman and Andrews get away and live happily ever after. Like his previous work in North by Northwest, Hitchcock’s focus once more is on your average individual. The difference here is that instead of getting the spy life thrust upon him in middle America, the protagonist willingly dives headfirst into the world of espionage by readily going behind the lines of the Iron Curtain.

The reasons Torn Curtain slightly pales in comparison with his past works has numerous sources. In truth, he came from an earlier age of filmmakers perfectly at home in Classical Hollywood, except it appeared like the days of his rule might be coming to an end.  It was his impetus to make a Cold War thriller, but it was the studio who supplied the stars and ultimately led him to cut ties with one of his greatest collaborators Bernard Hermann. To make matter worse, Hitchcock was completely disgruntled by Paul Newman’s abrasive style. The director was bred during an earlier age, while Newman was a brash young product of Method Acting. Whereas Hitch had wanted to bring back his longtime cohort Cary Grant with a role for Eva Marie Sainte, he was handed two younger stars in high demand. As such, they did not seem to fit with his usual sensibilities, and it truly did seem to suggest that he could not quite change with the times. Although his leads were certainly not his perfect match, being the creative force that he was, Hitchcock interestingly enough counterbalances his stars with a wide array of foreign supporting players. To the American eye, they were nobodies, but when given interesting roles to inhabit they help to give added texture to this Cold War world created on the Universal backlot. It truly is a lusciously constructed façade, although all the pieces do not fit quite so well this time around.

torncurtain2However, when you watch any Hitchcock film you do wait to be dazzled with some twist or trick because he was always one to bring humor and fascinating aesthetic qualities into his films. Torn Curtain has a few such moments that quickly come to mind. The most prominent has to do with the editing of the sequence in the farmhouse. It is here where Gromek is murdered by Armstrong and the housewife, but it is cut in such a fascinating way.  It contrasts with Psycho’s shower sequence quite easily as they try and murder him first by strangling and then anything they can get a hold of whether it’s guns, knives, shovels. There is no score to speak of. Soon it becomes a methodical rhythm of cutting between contorted faces as they slowly but surely move towards the stove. The brutality and length of the ordeal suggest how ugly and laborious it is to kill a man. Hitchcock certainly does not glorify it in any sense.

3/5 Stars

Harper (1966)

harper1We are brought into the world of Lew Harper with a cold open full of character. There he is. Paul Newman. Soaking his head in a sink full of ice. Making his morning cup of Joe. Popping that first piece of chewing gum before heading off to his first appointment.

What follows is a narrative courtesy of Ross Macdonald’s The Moving Target and an up-and-coming screenwriter William Goldman. Really, the film pays tribute to all of Bogart’s great P.I. roles (even going so far as casting Lauren Bacall), becoming a ’60s revamp of The Big Sleep.

But although the plot is not quite as incomprehensible as its predecessor, the greatest joy of this storyline is the witty repartee of Goldman’s pen paired with wall-to-wall star power. We have Newman and Bacall headlining as a gumshoe and his client who is looking rather half-heartedly for her missing husband. We have young blood with Robert Wagner and Pamela Tiffin. Then some old reliable talent in the likes of Janet Leigh, Julie Harris, Shelley Winters, and Strother Martin. The characters might not be the most insightful, but who needs that when they’re fun.

Lew Harper’s marriage is going down the tubes as he begins digging around for leads on the whereabouts of millionaire Ralph Sampson. He begins his inquiries which ultimately lead him to a washed-up starlet (Winters) who he pumps for information. He meets her charming husband and pays a visit to a nightclub singer (Harris) with a drug habit.

The dive musical halls, a rogue truck, and an encounter with a new age religious cult point Harper toward’s Sampson’s kidnapping, but he must piece together all the broken shards. There are twists, turns, and big reveals that are only fitting for a mystery of this inclination.

It’s certainly a nifty charade of mystery accented by a bouncy score courtesy of Johnny Mandel. But this sublimely Paul Newman role is more fun.  In his own words, “He’s a regular beaver,” a jaded cynic prone to smirks and sarcasm. He’s a sly dog even before Jim Rockford. He gives off an air of not being particularly happy in his work, but who would be thrilled to be a private investigator? On top of the lousy lifestyle and unglamorous dirty work, his wife is calling for divorce proceedings.

And yet he reveals moments of humanity and charm, whether he’s stacking up on tea sandwiches, chatting it up with his pal Albert, or pulling one over on his wife over the phone with paper towels stuffed down his throat.

Harper serves up exactly what we want with Newman grabbing hold of a cynical streak like he does best and riding the waves of Goldman’s engaging script. It’s not rocket science, but everything translates into a thoroughly enjoyable experience all around.

3.5/5 Stars

(After being beaten up again)

“Hey Lew, you alright?” ~ Albert

“I’m awful tired of answering that question” ~Lew

Hombre (1967)

hombre1“You don’t get tired, you don’t get hungry, you don’t get thirsty. Are you real?” – Jessie

“More or less” – John Russell 

How to function within Western culture. That’s what John Russell must figure out as a man who was raised by Apache and then is forced to enter the “white man’s world” to collect his deceased father’s possessions (a watch and a boarding house). He starts out complete with long locks and a bandanna but soon switches over to more traditional western wear in a way blending into society — while simultaneously beginning to look more like the Paul Newman we know.

But he’s far from the affable ne’er do well. In fact, he hardly even utters a word. He’s not agreeable and about as terse as they come. He’s not looking for any favors and he’s not looking to hand out any charity. He’s also not going to take the white man’s flack. But his decision to sell his boarding house for horses is not too popular with the home’s residents, including the fiery Jessie (Diane Cilento).

hombre2Ultimately, Russell boards the local stage with a few other individuals. The destination doesn’t seem to matter much, but the people do. Leading the coach is affable Mexican Henry Mendez (Martin Balsam) and along with the two aforementioned, the other two misplaced tenants, young Billy Joe and his wife join the contingent. The coach is rounded out by Indian Agent Alexander Favor (Frederic March), his well to do wife, and finally, the vulgar tough-guy Cicero Grimes (Richard Boone).

When Dr. Favor learns of Russell’s background he requests that the Indian sit up top and such a reaction embitters Russell. But there’s not much time to worry about the prejudice because Cicero’s cronies hold up the stage in an effort to swipe some ill-gotten gain from the esteemed doctor. The survivors are left to die and Russell heads off on his own with a few stragglers trying to catch up with him. He has no sympathy to offer, but they follow him because he is the most knowledgeable among them.

Of course, the film must reach a crescendo and it occurs with Russell dealing with Dr. Favor and then Boone. Both men are crooked in their own ways. Grimes is sadistic in nature, but Favor is also a despicable and sorry excuse for a human being. And yet Russell himself has his own streak of heartlessness. What it means is that each man must face justice and in some way, shape, or form pay for their deeds. Just as the men come in different incarnations, they are complemented by varying degrees of women from all across the gamut.

Director Martin Ritt’s Hombre really feels like a riff off of Stagecoach and feels somewhat reminiscent of Boetticher’s western The Tall T (also featuring a no good Richard Boone). But it’s no doubt a western for the 1960s, coloring the West with more liberal and revisionist tones. However, the film deals not only with prejudice but morality. For although John Russell has a gripe with the world and its hypocrisy since his people are getting pushed out by men who call themselves “Christian,” he’s not without fault. Jessie so rightly points out, that if the whole world didn’t lift a finger then the whole world would go to hell in a hand-basket. And in many ways this world does.

3.5/5 Stars