Somebody Up Their Likes Me (1956): Starring Paul Newman and Pier Angeli

somebody up there likes me 3

Here is the first of two purported instances where Paul Newman wound up taking on roles earmarked for the recently deceased James Dean. Dean even had a fairly visible relationship with Pier Angeli who would have been his co-star. At one point, there was even talk of marriage swirling around though Angeli’s mother disapproved of Dean. Because it’s true he was “the rebel,” and she the angelic ingenue. It served them both well on screen, and the saintly image works well opposite Newman here.

While Dean had the angst and a sturdy enough frame to have at Rock Hudson in Giant, there’s no doubt his slight build doesn’t seem like the physique of a boxer. In this physical regard alone Newman might have proved to be a fine choice and in consideration of the performance itself, he showcases a glint of many of the traits that would turn him into a beloved box office attraction.

Watching his big break in the context of his illustrious career is gratifying for just those reasons. Because we know the successes waiting for him. Somebody Up There Likes Me finally gave him a shot to put himself out there so people could take note.

Due to the aura of The Sound of Music and to a lesser extent West Side Story, they are two films that effectively misrepresent the career of director Robert Wise. At the very least, they can be deceptive.

True, West Side Story gives us a glimpse into gangland New York, albeit touched up in vibrant color. But we only need look to Wise’s early noir works, a pedigree including the boxing classic The Set-Up; or even Odds Against Tomorrow, to see what he was capable of in terms of grungy atmospherics. This one occupies a seedy dive world akin to something like On The Waterfront (1954) or even Love with a Proper Stranger (1963).

Coincidentally, Steve McQueen has an early part in this one and Sal Mineo, a Dean compatriot leftover from Rebel Without a Cause, gives a crucial supporting role. Because Rocky incurs a childhood of abuse only to grow up as a hoodlum on the streets terrorizing the neighborhood with his band of cronies. Romolo (Sal Mineo) is the most important because they have the same life experience but wind up in completely different stratospheres.

It does take Rocky a long time though. He lands himself in a reformatory and gets thrown around the social reform structures implemented by society, all to no avail. He gets upgraded to a Penitentiary and still, his brutish intensity is never cowed.

Picking a fight with everyone big or small. It doesn’t matter if they’ve got stripes on their shoulders, suits, college educations, or police badges in their pockets. He’s ready and willing to wail on anyone. To say he has a blatant disregard for rules and authority is a gross understatement.  It’s part of what makes Newman’s turn entertaining in the earliest segments.

We wonder when he’s ever going to hit an upswing as he’s on the lamb, then dishonorably discharged, and awarded a stint at Leavenworth. Could that be a bit of Luke Jackson that we see?

somebody up there likes me 1

Even as he reluctantly agrees to jump in the ring for a promoter (Everett Sloane) to earn some desperately needed cash, he never has a taste for fighting. It seems like for once in his life the newly minted Rocky Graziano (like the wine) is looking to get away from fighting. And yet over time, he is convinced to train and to channel his hate into his right hand, like a charge of dynamite, so it can benefit him in the confines of the ring.

Also, about this time, he is introduced to his sister’s friend Norma, a sweet, reticent girl who is taken with romantic movies, butterfly kisses, and nice words spoken out of a place of kindness. Rocky’s entire upbringing has left him with the impression “love is for the birds.” They shouldn’t be together and yet, for some unexplainable reason, they are.

Soon, with the help of Irving (Sloane), Rocky has made a name for himself as the most popular Italian in the world, aside from Frank Sinatra and Michelangelo. Still, Norma can’t stand his fighting believing it is all, “meanness and blood and ignorance.”

On the surface, it seems true. However, Graziano is a curious force. So brutal and antagonistic and yet in his own gruff way, he’s so capable of love. He loves his mother (Eileen Heckert) dearly even as he tears her apart. He loves his wife, never laying a hand on her. He only has tenderness in his heart for them.

Still, in the ring he is ruthless and outside it, he’s plagued by fixers (Robert Loggia in a slimy debut) and a horde of journalists looking to smear his past all over the tabloids.

The climactic bout versus incumbent champion Tony Zale personifies how chaotically communal boxing is. An assortment of POV shots with punches aimed right at the camera, a flurry of edits, and a boisterous brand of intimacy makes us feel like we’re living right inside the ring. The beauty of it has to be the fact Rocky seems like he’s losing the entire time. Sometimes that doesn’t matter. Grit alone sustains. It’s a delightful finishing point, but the film is not won in the ring.

somebody up there likes me 2

I’m trying to come up with concrete justifications for why I enjoyed this experience so much. A few have been offered up but on the whole, I’m at a loss for words. Certainly Wise is no stranger to this street corner aesthetic, which he develops with such assured conviction, but the beats of the story are nothing new. They come to be expected; what takes you by pleasant surprise in such a context is a performance or a bit of dialogue from Ernest Lehman.

Because the boxing ring is only ever an arena for the life outside the ropes to play out and thankfully a rapport is built with the characters that comes to more than a few fights to prove oneself. In fact, until the final showdown in the ring, most of what we know about Rocky occurs outside of the ring with the gloves off.

Newman invests himself in the part readily showing a young punk evolve into a broken man with hatred in his blood, delinquency, and rage at the core of his being. Yet by some miracle, he’s able to gain a life and a beautiful girl to bless him with an existence worth living. Yes, he wins a big fight in the end, but we get the sense we leave him on a firm foundation. When the inevitable comes and he’s taken down, there’s still something and someone to return home to. Until that day he can relish what he was bred to do. But it’s not his all.

Then, of course, there’s Pier Angeli who is a minor revelation not because of any amount of flamboyance but the exact opposite. She is gifted with a grace and a poise that is positively enthralling. Her voice, quiet even hushed, flows with a peacefulness — an unassuming dignity even — so very unlike the ravishing vivacity of our Italian movie star archetypes. She is a discovery to be sure though her life was unfortunately cut tragically short. This role might be the finest testament to her presence as a performer.

It’s admittedly almost hokey witnessing Rocky riding down a cheering street, staring into the heavens noting exuberantly, “Somebody up there likes me.” Certainly, that’s true, but his wife reminds him, “Someone down here does too.” That’s how he knows The Big Man Upstairs was looking after him, putting such a calming force into the turbulence of his own life.  The scene is so easy to forgive because we’ve witnessed how very true it is.

This boxing biopic would be something of lesser note without Paul Newman’s star-making turn and what is an anti-hero without a companion to salvage their brokenness and turn them into the best person that they can be? Accordingly, comparable praise must be heaped on Angeli too.

4/5 Stars

Review: Rebel Without a Cause (1955)

_Rebel_Without_a_Cause_trailer.jpg

 

 

 

 

 

 

You can wake up now, the universe has ended.” – Jim Stark to Plato in Griffith Observatory

James Dean’s “The Rebel Without a Cause.” It’s his image as much as it is a film for many people. But if we actually take the time to examine him,  Dean subverts expectations. There’s this aura built around him as that iconic rebel–cigarette in hand–a glint in his eyes. However, the beauty of his performance as Jim Stark is how broken and even gentle it is. Certainly, we remember the moments where he screams at parents, bashes in desks and kicks paintings, but really most of his screen time is made of quiet nuances. He has no friends. He’s lonely and reserved. He just wants respect.

He wants someone to listen to him–someone to stand up for what’s right. And he feels like a pendulum swinging madly between his bickering parents, constantly making him go this way and that, moving from town to town, time and time again. It sickens him and he reacts in the only way he knows.

Rebel is just as much a subversive film, being so daring as to suggest that juvenile delinquency is a sort of created social construct. Kids do bad things, sure, teens are no good, but if you dig around a bit and look in the closets, the skeletons reveal themselves in due time. We now conveniently call them “family of origin issues,” but that puts everything in a nice box when the reality is actually very messy.

That’s why the crucial scene in Rebel is when our three solitary teens go to Plato’s (Sal Mineo) abandoned mansion getaway in the dead of night.  Alone it would be a house of horrors, but in community, they make it a pleasant affair–even playing a game of “house” complete with stuffy honeymooners, who don’t want kids unless they never have to see or talk to them again and a realtor who is is willing to give them the place for $3 million a month (Thankfully the newlyweds have a budget!). In essence, amidst their jests, they’ve become one happy family, finding a bit of solace from the asphyxiation of the world around them. The world accentuated by not only their parents but their peers too. However, it cannot last.

It’s these moments that feel so light and carefree and that’s the key. Blink and you’ll miss them. Look away and the bubble is popped. Focus on the drama and you’ll get it all wrong. Because the moments of drama are exactly the moments that you expect to get some deeper understanding of their psyches. You look at Jim in the now iconic scene on the staircase, quarreling with his parents or Plato running off like a frightened rabbit packing a gun. We can shake our heads and ask “why?” but if we only sit back and listen, it becomes all too obvious.

If Mr. and Mrs. Stark just listened, if Judy’s parent’s paid heed to her, if Plato actually had parents present in his life, maybe they could see what was “tearing them apart.” The suffocating hopelessness of the world that seems magnified tenfold in your adolescent years, as things are changing so rapidly. You’re getting pressured beyond belief and to top it off, it seems like no one understands you–not in the least.

Thanks be to Nicholas Ray for bringing such an intimate study of youth to light, because it’s certainly melodrama, elevated by the unpredictable magic that is James Dean. That’s often the spotlight of this film and quite understandably so, given the lore around his legendary career and tragic death.

But cull its depths and there’s even more if we look at how everything is initially foreshadowed at the Observatory, where the man in a droll tone nonchalantly summarizes the insignificant end of earth–only an infinitesimal speck in the patchwork of the universe (“In all the immensity of our universe and the galaxies beyond, the earth will not be missed. Through the infinite reaches of space, the problems of man seem trivial and naive indeed, and man existing alone seems himself an episode of little consequence”).

Buzz tells Jim before their “Chickie Run” that he actually kind of likes the guy now, but still, “You gotta do something. Don’t you?” It’s the despondency of their existence. Buzz soon dies and people hardly bat an eye.

Never before had I considered how this entire story unfolds in the course of one tragic day. It’s not realism by any means, but instead, it’s bursting with the passion and pain as reflected by Ray’s camera and impeccable use of color.  It’s as if the teenage experience is being wholly magnified and consolidated into a single moment. That’s what Rebel Without a Cause embodies.

5/5 Stars

Rebel Without a Cause (1955)

A film starring James Dean, Natalie Wood, and Sal Mineo,  with direction by Nicholas Ray, Rebel Without a Cause follows three teenagers, who are confused and conflicted about their lives. 

The initial sequence rolling behind the opening credits has the inebriated Jim Stark lying in the street fiddling with a toy monkey. Then, he is brought into juvenile hall, and simultaneously the story gives us a glimpse of not only the rowdy Jim, but discontented Judy, and the distant boy Plato. Each one has their own personal pain, and thus this film from the beginning really focuses on three rebels, who embody the adolescent generation. James Dean is Jim Stark: the new kid on the block, who is constantly moving with his parents. In the station when his parents retrieve him, there is obvious tension on all fronts, which include heated arguments, and outbursts on the part of Jim.

The morning after being brought in he meets Judy only to get mixed up with her friends. Stark however also befriends the isolated loner Plato, who was in the station the night before. The trouble with the other teens starts with a switchblade contest during a school excursion to Griffith Observatory, but the stakes get bigger when they compete in a “Chickie Run” over a cliff. Stark lives but the other boy, Buzz, dies in the accident. Everyone flees the scene before the police arrive.

Stuck between a rock and a hard place, Dean and Wood’s characters gravitate towards each other. Their parents seemingly do not understand them, and so they find comfort in each other instead. Their new found friend Plato tags along as they hold up in an abandoned mansion for the night. They spend the evening lounging around, making light of their parents and just talking. 

However, all does not bode well when some of the high school thugs come looking for Stark. Plato flees the scene with a gun, and soon he has policemen on his tail. Plato is in a paranoid and unstable state. Jim tries to console him and bring him out peacefully. But despite his best efforts, tragedy strikes one final blow.  All is not wasted, however, because Jim’s father (Jim Bachus) vows to be a better and stronger parent than he was before. 

Following his breakthrough in East of Eden, Rebel would be the movie that defined Dean’s short but iconic career. His line “you’re tearing me apart!” would further define the angst felt by many teens at the time. There is a certain aura around this film for some reason, maybe because of Dean’s portrayal that is at times so moody, and at other times so subtle, but powerful nonetheless.

I think part of the credit must go to director Nicholas Ray, who gave Dean free reign to improvise and develop his character in the way he saw fit. The film is tragic in another sense because all the primary stars died at an early age. Dean’s is the most remembered, but Mineo and Wood, both died extremely young as well. In Rebel Without a Cause, they all gave memorable performances and there are other notable players in this film including the usually comedic Jim Bachus and a very young Dennis Hopper.

I think Rebel ultimately survives today because it tells a universal tale of a generational divide and a divide between young people fighting peer pressure. In the heads of teenagers the world can become jumbled and between school, fitting in, and home life it can be a struggle. This film dramatically illustrates that fact. So maybe the kids look different, the cars are older and such, but the struggles of Jim Stark, Judy, and Plato are still relatively the same.  I must say this film really makes me want to visit the Griffith Observatory too, because it became such an integral part of this film’s story, and it is still around to this day.

James Dean only had three major film performances and you could make a case for which was the best. I think it is safe to say that this role was his most iconic. It’s hard not to identify him with his red jacket, blue jeans, and the ubiquitous cigarette. He was the Rebel Without a Cause.

 
5/5 Stars