Greetings All and Sundry!
Please allow me the opportunity to explode the myths that I may have been abducted by Agents of SMERSH (“Smert Spioman: “Death To Spies”). Agents of SHIELD, The Foreign and American Legions. And any other archaic Folderol. The truth of the matter is that I hit a brick wall and decent sized chunk of “Writer’s Block”.
Allowing me to sift through hours of film and old, fond memories. Searching for a cohesive something to tug at, dig around from and generate a thread worth pursuing. Something visceral, basic and worthwhile. A limb with many branches to explore, coalesce, put forth and present.
So, with that said. Let’s find a rich vein. Dig around. Excavate and see some positive results are found in:
Cinematic Rebels, Tough Guys, Rugged Individualists, Thugs And Creeps!
Five staples that help create the foundation of cinema. All character~centric and more than enough to construct a tale or ten upon. With each category or “Type” being laid out in a collective or progressive manner of torch bearers through the years. And if this first adventure of exploration goes longer than first thought. And it may. I’ll start with Rebels. And create a three post arc with Tough Guys and Rugged Individualists. Followed by Thugs and Creeps.
With that being said. Let us take on:
Whose first slot immediately goes to Marlon Brando and his supremely confident biker, Johnny Strabler. Looking for boundary pushing. Just this side of legal “kicks” in rural backwater towns which would later create the mystique of Sturgis, South Dakota. In Laslo Benedeck’s The Wild One from 1953.
When finally asked about his Black Rebel Motorcycle Club. And what Johnny’s rebelling against?
Followed a year later by Mr. Brando’s pugilist and dockworker, Terry Malloy in Elia Kazan’s ‘ On The Waterfront. Who is walking a tightrope between wanting to testify about the docks’ rampant corruption. And dock’s iron fisted boss, Johnny Friendly. And caving in to selective abuse in ships’ holds by Friendly, his lieutenants. And Terry’s brother, Charley (Rod Steiger) applying oblique pressure.
Creating the odd situation where “Doing The Right Thing” places one squarely in the sights of an army of unknown number. And the only recourse is to go against the tide. And rebel!
The next contender to briefly hold the title is Montgomery Clift. Who tempered his craft with a bit of sensitivity as aspiring cattleman, Tom Dunson’s (John Wayne) ward and protegé in Howard Hawk’s Red River from 1954. Where Dunson, Matt and a large group of hand lead the first massive cattle drive along the Chisholm Trail to Abilene, Kansas. Until well into the journey, a late night petty theft escalates. Gets loud and causes a stampede that loses a quarter of the massive herd.
Drawing Battle Lines. Leaving Dunson behind. As Matt and the hands takes what’s left of the cattle on to Kansas.
Carrying that reputation one with Mr. Clift’s Private Robert E. Lee Pruitt’s infantryman and bugler in From Here To Eternity. A former welterweight boxer with a transfer to the Army’s Schoefield Barracks. Where the chips are stacked against him in his Captain’s (Philip Ober) desire for Pruitt to fight. Drawing the ire of First Sergeant Milton Warden (Burt Lancaster).
And after accumulated gigs, demerits and friendship with Private Maggio (Frank Sinatra). Comes under the attention of Sergeant “Fatso” Judson (Ernest Borgnine).
Something’s got to give. And does.
Which is where I’ll close this thumbnail and avoid Spoiler territory.
My next candidate seemed born with is character trait. And went much farther with it than anyone in recent memory. Paul Newman starts his journey with the added weight of being an Underdog in Robert Wise’s dramatized”Rocky” Graziano bio-pic, Somebody Up There Likes Me from 1956.
Where Mr.Newman show great potential doing the only thing he knows how to do. Fight. Among some of the best cinematography of Brooklyn and New York’s lower East and Midtown locales on film.
Followed five years later as pool hustler, “Fast Eddie” Felson in Robert Rossen’s written, adapted and directed, The Hustler (Required viewing!) from 1961.
Where Eddie takes on living legend, “Minnesota Fats” (Jackie Gleason. NEVER better fpr his brief time on screen!). Loses. And is pit under the wing of manager, Bert Gordon (George C. Scott) to play just enough to get by, but Eddie wants more. Falls for another damaged soul, Sarah Packard (Piper Laurie. Exceptionally good!). Whom Bert sees as a dangerous distraction. And removes after Bert arranges to have Eddie’s hands broken straying into unapproved pool halls. Only to return for a final showdown at “Ames'”. Where it all started. For a final showdown with Bert and “Fats”.
Add four films and characters in as many years. From 1963 to 1967 with Hud. Directed by Martin Ritt. And Mr. Newman playing the less than ruthless, amiable or amenable son of a West Texas cattleman (Ailing Melvyn Douglas) trying to keep the family empire together.
Then move to 1967 and the Ross Macdonald written, Jack Smight directed Harper. Where Mr. Newman tried to add some L.A. “cool” to his divorced, trying to make ends meet, less than hard-boiled private eye, Lew Harper. An intriguing ride. With just a few too many self-important suspects for a missing person, eventual kidnapping case.
Followed quickly by the return of Martin Ritt at the helm of an Elmore Leonard western novel, Hombre. Where Mr. Newman’s Indian raised by Indians, John Russel is “conscripted” into helping to save the “respectable”passengers of a stagecoach forced into a rocky, arid pass between too two tall, well-angled granite hills by Richard Boone and his band of outlaws holding the high ground.
A rich, lush tableau of washed out colors and faded earth tones brought to life under the mysterious touch of James Wong Howe in ways to make you sweat under a cloudless, sweltering, unforgiving sky. Placing tension, suspense and bigotry among a superior cast above action. In ways no one sees coming!
And then, still making room to take on the role of Korean War veteran and occasional drunken, laid back troublemaker, Lucas Jackson in one of the finest, most perfectly cast, written and shot “Men In Chains” films to come out of Hollywood.
With locations divided between Jacksonville, Florida, the San Joaquin River Delta and sets at the Warner Brothers Studios. Lightning was caught in a bottle with Cool Hand Luke. Mr. Newman’s Luke is the original square pen being forced into and through the prison Road Gang round hole. Led by “Captain” Strother Martin (Never better!) while supplying quips and catch phrases that have exceeded decades of use. Direction by Stuart Rosenberg and Cinematography by Conrad Hall are superb. As Luke and “Dragline”s (Recently deceased George Kennedy: RIP) stature rises higher among the convicts. And the Captain and guards’ noose slowly tightens.
The end of the 1960s brought us the pairing of “The two most handsome men in Hollywood” with Mr. Newman and Robert Redford in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. A little too sweet reminiscence of the notorious bank and train robbers. Their separation from their “Hole In The Wall Gang’. And their trek south of the border to Mexico and beyond. Directed by George Roy Hill. And still with one of the best opening scenes in cinema!
Though Peckinpah may have handled the nuts and bolts of “The Western Through Changing Times” better with ‘The Wild Bunch’ and ‘Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid’. This collaboration of Hill, Newman and Redford is still one of the best Westerns to come out of the 1960s!
Making time for Mr. Newman to direct himself, Henry Fonda, Richard Jaeckel, Lee Remick, Michael Sarrazin, Cliff Potts, Linda Lawson and others in Sometimes A Great Notion. Based on the novel by Ken Kesey. From a screenplay by John Gay. Mr. Newman’s Hank Stamper leads his family of independent (Prodigal Son Sarrazin, included) Oregon loggers enduring amid changing times, unions, big business and bigger real estate developers. As the town folk down below lean one way. The Stampers defiantly lean the other. With Hank Stamper letting his anger be known. With the live demonstration of what a 48″ “Widow Maker” Chainsaw can do to the local Union rep’s desk.
And the return of Mr. Hill and Mr. Redford for another team up. The Sting. Where rank amateur, John Hooker (Redford) teams up with long con, grifter and mentor, Henry Gondorf (Mr. Newman) in order to get some monetary and other payback for the death of a friend from Chicago Mob Boss, Doyle Lonigan (Robert Shaw. Made for the role!).
A compact mix of Chicago locations, Universal back lots and California oddities (The Merry-Go-Round) to create the magic of Warner Brothers 1930s and 40s gangster films.
Leaving time for the return of private eye, Lew Harper traveling down south to rescue an old girlfriend (Joanne Woodward) being extorted by persons unknown in The Drowning Pool. Which, despite a decent screenplay by Tracy Keenan Wynn. May have been one trip well too many for this particular character.
Only to be redeemed two years later in Slap Shot. With Mr. Newman as Reggie Dunlop. Coach of “The Charlestown Chiefs”. A hockey team that is losing its mojo. And attendance. Until “The Hudson Brothers” are signed to revel in their desire to high stick, body check and fight.
With a change into NYPD patrolman’s uniform in Fort Apache the Bronx. Where Mr. Newman’s patrolman, Murphy. Trying to maintain an even strain after the indiscriminate early morning murder of two uniformed officers in their unit. While trying not to locks horns with newly transferred Captain Connelly (Ed Asner). And his methods for handling the South Bronx African American community. After a teen-aged kid is thrown from the roof of a building by another officer, Morgan (Danny Aiello) after a long and exhaustive foot pursuit.
With things only going downhill from there.A gritty, raw, unpretty and ironically real and prophetic film that never got the attention it deserves.
Followed quickly by two Sidney Lumet films. Absence of Malice. Which eviscerates the massive power of the press. Correctly used or not. And its pressure to squeeze something. Anything regarding what an unchecked Miami District Attorney, Elliot Rosen (Bob Balaban. Who loves the sound of his own voice!) is certain is a mob hit on a corrupt Union official. With Coral Gables liquor distributor, Mr. Newman’s Mike Gallagher. The son of a long dead mobster as the target of that pressure.
Supplied by naive and eager Miami Herald reporter, Megan Carter (Sally Field). Who decides to run an article from a file “accidentally” left on the D.A.’s desk after an interview that goes nowhere.
Gallagher reacts as his business, friends and union contacts dry up. And a second article causes the suicide of Newman’s lover, Teresa (Melinda Dillon). A trap that damages all parties except Gallagher is brought into play during the last half of the film. That produces a most satisfying result!
The second Lumet film, The Verdict has its already enhanced A-List cast the rare chance to work from a superb screenplay from David Mamet. Where an all but settled case of Medical Malpractice. Where a young woman is given an anesthetic prior to a procedure. Reacts. Chokes on her own vomit and is left in a vegetative state due to lack of oxygen to the brain.
Delivered to once shining “Golden Boy” of Boston College and a high-end law firm, Frank Galvin. Mr. Newman’s character has fallen on hard times and alcohol after being framed for jury tampering during a trial whose investigations were getting too close to corruption in the courts. And elsewhere. Trying to retrieve his reputation and having a bad time of it.
The case is delivered by Galvin;s friend and one time mentor, Mickey Morrissey (Jack Warden. Rarely better!). Galvin latches onto it. Pulled from his funk and downward spiral. And does the due diligence required. Research. Interviews. Even a doctor willing to testify.
Until the pharmaceutical company which developed the anesthetic used hires a prestigious law firm to defend them. Lead by Lead Counsel, Ed Concannon (James Mason. All smug, pompous circumstance). And countless professional, “Expert” and “Technical” witnesses”.
Galvin’s witnesses disappear. Or are paid off to recant. Avenues close off as a huge two million dollar settle check is floated by Galvin. Who turns it down. Returns to the office. And starts again from scratch.
Another witness. Kaitlin Costello-Price (Lindsay Crouse). An admitting nurse, who is now a preschool teacher is found. Deposed. And Galvin re-enters the fray!
I’ll leave it right here for Spoilers sake.
Which brings us full circle back to an older, wiser “Fast Eddie” Felson with The Color of Money. Directed by Martin Scorsese and generating about one tenth of the mood of the smoky pool hall original.
A decent enough film. Especially when Mr. Newman’s “Fast Eddie” is teaching young Vincent (Tom Cruise. A near perfect flake!) and his girlfriend, Cameron ( Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio everything they know.
But not everything Eddie knows.
After such an extensive filmography as Mr. Newman’s. About the only actor with the persona and presence to carry on the role of “Rebel” is of the same initial timeline. Planting his flag more deeply. While nearly defining the sub-genre in fewer, more memorable films. And the recipient of a rather extensive critique of his career and quiet acting style for Ruth, over at “Flixchatter”:
With the Big Screen Trifecta of The Great Escape, The Cincinnati Kid and Bullitt solidly cementing Mr. McQueen as the King and living embodiment of 1960s and early ’70s “cool” within a five-year period of 1963 to 1968. With his earlier, oddly forgotten WWII gem, Hell Is For Heroes laying out a future foundation. And latter 1972. Sam Peckinpah films, Junior Bonner and The Getaway creating a comfortable plateau to count coup and rest on his laurels.
Rebels were definitely characters of the 20th century/ And who have been slowly becoming extinct in the 21st century. With, perhaps Mel Gibson’s early Lethal Weapon and Braveheart making any notable advancement. Along with Daniel Craig’s Layer Cake and eventual evolution into Super Stardom. With Action Hero, James Bond with Casino Royale, Quantum of Solace, Skyfall and Spectre… More’s the pity.
Brando planted the seed, with The Wild One. Montgomery Clift added his own personal touches and ran with it through two memorably classic films. Paul Newman, whom, I believe knew he was Brando’s heir apparent. Kept himself in far better health and care than Brando. Allowing Mr. Newman to run farther and faster with varying films and characters. While staying comfortable and true to himself and others.
The near inverse of Mr. McQueen’s body of work. And a handful of films which defined the sub-genre.