Posts Tagged ‘Paul newman’

Once more unto the Ultimate Picture Palace (if this keeps up I shall have to consider buying yet another cinema membership card), where they are currently showing a season of classic westerns (and why not). To be honest with you, the collection of films on offer is a bit of a mixed bag – they have The Searchers, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, and The Wild Bunch, which obviously all qualify, but also Rio Bravo – I mean, it’s okay, but I prefer the John Carpenter semi-remake – and The Last Movie, which in addition to being fairly obscure also features in a book entitled The Fifty Worst Films of All Time. Also on the list is George Roy Hill’s 1969 film Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid – now, this I would say was an indisputably classic movie, one of my personal favourites, but a classic western?

On paper it looks like a fairly standard example of the genre. The film is set, we are invited to infer, in the very last years of the 19th century, with the charming and ingenious Butch (Paul Newman) and the taciturn but deadly Kid (Robert Redford) well-established as outlaw robbers of banks and trains, and happily ensconced in a not-quite-love-triangle with schoolteacher Etta Place (Katharine Ross). They are local celebrities, sort of, generally trying to avoid hurting people in the pursuit of their activities. The sun shines, the scenery is beautiful; Butch and Sundance barely seem to have a care in the world.

But the wheels of progress crush everyone, and what the duo fail to fully appreciate until too late is that their world is vanishing. They are virtually the last of their kind, and one irate businessman determines to complete the eradication of the old-west outlaw by hiring a crack posse of expert hunters and killers to chase them down and finish their careers permanently. It’s a nasty shock for the carefree duo, who only manage to escape through a desperate gamble and sheer good fortune. Butch and Sundance resolve to take the heat off by travelling down to Bolivia, where there are still opportunities for the old-fashioned banditry they love, and better days return – but only for a while…

Well, it’s always a pleasure to see a film like this back on the big screen, especially given the thick-headed TV edit currently in circulation. It’s actually a little discombobulating to realise that Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid is celebrating its fiftieth anniversary this year, for it feels as fresh and engaging as it ever did (I guess it must: the UPP is also currently showing The Old Man and the Gun, in which a rather more grizzled Redford bids his adieu to the screen playing a role not a million miles away from the Sundance Kid). I first saw this film at a very early age and have lost count of the number of times I’ve seen it since; my appreciation for it has done nothing but grow, and it is on the list of those films which seem to me to be virtually perfect.

But is it strictly speaking a classic western? It might sound like an absurd question. I suppose it boils down to how you define the western as a genre – if you consider it to be any film predominantly set on the American frontier in the nineteenth century, then naturally it qualifies. Some people would be more rigorous and suggest that a classic western must deal with themes of honour, loyalty, individualism, perhaps even rugged masculinity. These are the same people inclined to dismiss Sergio Leone’s films as superficial nihilism, for all their critical and commercial success.

Certainly you could argue that Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid often feels much more like a comedy-drama buddy movie, as the title duo banter and squabble their way through the movie; part of its charm is that it is genuinely and consistently funny throughout. The soundtrack, provided by Burt Bacharach, is also hardly the stuff of a classic cowboy movie. Real purists might also take issue with the fact that the closing stretch of the film is set in South America, and the film did apparently struggle to get financed for a while as studio bosses objected to the fact that the heroes essentially spend much of the movie running away (‘John Wayne don’t run away,’ was the comment of one executive).

I think this is to miss the point of the film, which is essentially about the classic cowboy in retreat. It is, obviously, a deeply nostalgic film – there’s probably an interesting discussion to be had about the place of nostalgia within the western genre – fully aware of a world slipping away. The appearance of modern bank vaults and bicycles in the old west are just signs that things are changing on a deeper level, and there is no place for outlaws any more. The film is about the death of this romantic world, and due to the sheer charisma of Redford and Newman, you feel its loss keenly no matter how irrational this is.

One of the most impressive things about William Goldman’s script is the way in which the tone of the film gradually but imperceptibly grows darker as it progresses – Butch and Sundance are never short of a wisecrack or put-down, even in the midst of their final encounter with the Bolivian army, but their exploits become progressively grittier and more violent as the film approaches its end. As bandits, they are presented as committing almost victimless crimes – it is their attempt at going straight that leads to them becoming killers. You could probably view the whole movie as a metaphor for the western genre’s loss of innocence – it opens with footage from a silent movie from the genre, and grows progressively darker and more ‘realistic’, as I’ve mentioned. The bodies of the Bolivian bandits killed by the duo tumble in slow motion very much like something from a Sam Peckinpah film, which the film in some ways begins to resemble. Is it stretching a point to suggest that, by killing off the lead characters at the end, this film is an example of the western anticipating its own imminent demise, in its traditional form at least?

We should also perhaps remember that this film came out in 1969, and there are surely echoes of the sunlit days of the summer of love in the film’s lighter moments. Butch and Sundance are obviously anti-establishment figures, not actively seeking to harm anyone, just to carry on the relatively carefree existence they enjoy – they are rogues rather than villains. Perhaps by the very end of the 60s it was already becoming apparent that the dreams of the counter-culture were part of a world as doomed to pass as that of the two outlaws, and this is why young audiences responded so strongly to the bittersweet mood of the film and the poignancy of its conclusion: we are spared the gory details, left with an image of our heroes frozen in a sepia-toned past, drifting off into the distance. This film is a joy, while never forgetting that all things must pass – but so far, at least, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid itself seems to be timeless.

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From the Hootoo archive. Originally published March 14th 2002

I thought it would be nice for everyone if we did a ‘golden oldie’ review that wasn’t quite as heavily mired in Cult Moviedom as usual. And so with this in mind I thought we would do two for the price of one and talk about The Hustler and The Color of Money.

Both films are based on novels by Walter Tevis and have at their heart powerhouse performances by Paul Newman, in both cases playing ‘Fast’ Eddie Felson, a gambler and pool hustler (Newman deservedly won the Oscar for Best Actor for Color of Money). The first, The Hustler, was released in 1961. Directed by Robert Rossen, it was made when Newman was still very much in the substantial shadow of Marlon Brando. At the start of the film Felson is successfully scamming his way across America with his accomplice and ‘manager’, but all this changes after he takes on the legendary player Minnesota Fats (Jackie Gleason, looking remarkably like a dapper Ken Clarke). In a gruelling non-stop 40-hour match Eddie seems to have Fats beaten, before choking on his lead and being taken to the cleaners.

His confidence demolished, Eddie reassesses himself and his life, entering into a fragile relationship with alcoholic ex-actress Sarah (Piper Laurie), and trying to scrape together enough money to play the Fat Man again. Then he’s approached by professional gambler Bert Gordon (George C Scott) who offers to fund and train him… and secure the rematch he so desperately wants.

This is Newman’s movie from beginning to end. While he’s occasionally caught method-acting, this is partly due to a slightly theatrical script – for the most part he lights up the screen. When he proclaims ‘I’m the best there is,’ you believe he believes it. His initial overconfidence is exhilarating rather than obnoxious and he carries the audience’s sympathy with him into despair when he loses everything, and then on to his bitter victory at the end of the film. But the rest of the main cast are very nearly as good, Gleason in a fairly small role.

But as well as being a character study of Felson, the film is also a finely-observed portrait of a whole subculture of grifters and drifters, renting rooms a night at a time, eating in bus station cafeteria, living from one score to the next. It’s also something of a paean to the old-style pool hall, with all the rituals and habits of the pro players meticulously recreated.

The pool sequences are worth a special mention: I expected the direction to hide the fact that Newman and Gleason weren’t actually playing, but a surprising amount of the match sequences were filmed in medium shot without cuts, and the actors play the game staggeringly well. Both move and cue like they know the game backwards, and the effect is hugely impressive.

Rossen’s direction (he also co-scripted) varies between the workmanlike but effective in character scenes, and a fluid, compelling, almost montage-like style for the match sequences. It’s all filmed in pristine black and white and set to a supercool jazz soundtrack, a mature, thoughtful, smart, free-poem of a movie.

The Color of Money, directed by Martin Scorsese and released in 1986, catches up with Eddie Felson twenty-five years on. The events of the first film having finished him as a serious pool player, he’s now a successful, semi-respectable liquor salesman. That’s until he encounters hot-dog young player Vincent (a startlingly young, perky and boisterous Tom Cruise) and his girlfriend Carmen (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, who’s dropped off the movie radar this last ten years or so). Recognising something of his younger self in Vincent, Eddie offers to take him on the road and teach him the trade, ahead of a big-money tournament in Atlantic City. But as the trio travel, Eddie finds his own love for the game and will to win slowly returning…

There seemed to be a training scheme in Hollywood in the late 80s, whereby Tom Cruise would be paired with as many great actors from the 60s as possible: he made Rain Man with Dustin Hoffman and Days of Thunder with Robert Duvall, and you might think this was another example. But you’d be wrong, as this is Newman’s movie every bit as much as The Hustler, and for all his steradent grin and posturing Cruise is effortlessly blasted off the screen by his twinkly, crinkly co-star. Not to say that he and Mastrantonio aren’t good, quite the opposite, but at this point Cruise was still a megastar in training, while Newman was the real deal.

That said, the script’s distinctly slanted in Newman’s favour. This is even more a portrait of Eddie than The Hustler, though once again it has insight into certain areas of America’s urban underbelly. Scorcese is a wise enough director not to impose too much of his trademark operatic style on it, though once again the match sequences are dazzlingly filmed and edited.

It all boils down to acting in the end, though, and Paul Newman’s colossal performance. When I first watched this film I thought the linking of it to The Hustler was a cheap gimmick as Newman’s character here is initially unrecognisable as the ‘Fast’ Eddie Felson of the first film. But this is the whole point, as The Color of Money is the story of how Eddie rediscovers his love of the game and his self-respect. Slowly, painfully (Forrest Whitaker has a memorable cameo as another hustler Eddie comes off second-best to), the driven, soaringly confident man from twenty-five years ago reappears. When, as the movie’s last line, Newman snarls ‘I’m back!’, you want to rise from your seat and cheer.

I think both are classics of American cinema. Personally I consider The Color of Money to be the better of the two – but it owes such a debt to Newman’s performance of 1961 that this sort of comparison is futile. Maybe in another ten years or so, Newman will play Eddie Felson as an old man and round off the story – but any such third movie will have some big, big shoes to fill.

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From the Hootoo archive. Originally published  10th October 2002:

Film producers make films because, well, that’s their job, isn’t it. And while they may talk about making films for art’s sake or to raise awareness of some issue that exercises them, in the end they wouldn’t be able to do the job unless they were earning a living at it. In the end the movies are just a business like any other, ruled by the bottom line and the pursuit of profit. (Not a terribly profound insight, I know.) Every studio would choose a mega-grossing summer blockbuster over a worthy but completely un-commercial arthouse picture.

And yet we have the odd phenomenon of the Autumn Movie. Autumn is when the studios wheel out the movies they hope will do well at the following Spring’s academy awards. If you think about it, most of the pictures that have done well with the Academy have come out in the autumn or winter of the preceding year: Titanic, Shakespeare in Love, A Beautiful Mind, and so on. So clearly the big studios haven’t given up on quality just yet… or perhaps they just really, really like those little golden statues.

I saw Road to Perdition this week and came out with the distinct impression that the producer, Richard Zanuck, had a real hankering in this direction. The director and stars all have Academy Award form, and this is a high-class, big-budget movie in a ‘classic’ genre (albeit one based on a graphic novel by Max Allan Collins and Richard Piers Rayner). It almost seems designed to win Oscars in the same way that Spider-Man was designed to sell lunchboxes.

Set in the winter of 1931, it’s the story of Michael Sullivan (Tom Hanks) and his relationship with his son, also named Michael (Tyler Hoechlin). Little do Michael and his brother Peter realise it, but their father is actually an enforcer for feared mob boss John Rooney (Paul Newman). Tragedy strikes when Michael Jr. sees Rooney’s unhinged son Connor (Daniel Craig) murder another gangster. Fearing Michael Jr will spill the beans, Connor attempts to kill him along with the rest of the family – but he and his father survive and go on the run, the Rooney’s despatching the psychopathic assassin Maguire (Jude Law) in pursuit…

On paper this looks like another gang-related revenge melodrama, but several things raise it to another level. Firstly, Road to Perdition isn’t afraid to let on that it has Themes. The title itself refers to Catholic doctrine (though there’s another meaning in the context of the movie) and the first time we see Hanks he’s packing a set of rosary beads as well as a handgun. More explicitly, it’s about father-son relationships – between Hanks and his son, and Newman and both Craig and Hanks (whom he virtually adopted, we’re told). There’s a problem, however, in that although it’s always apparent that these concepts are central to the movie, exactly what it’s trying to say about them is slightly less clear.

The director is Mr Tubs himself, Sam Mendes, fresh from acclaim and an Oscar for American Beauty. They say that the mark of a great director is that he achieves his effects without the audience noticing – well, you can’t say that about Mendes, as many of the key sequences of this film are shot in an intrusively stylised way: there’s a slow-motion murder, a gun-battle in almost total silence (bar the soundtrack) and various other obvious camera tricks. Not that this is a complaint, of course, as the direction is generally excellent: this is the best-looking drama of the year, and Mendes also displays an unexpected talent for suspense and action sequences. But it’s a very flashy kind of excellent. Thomas Newman’s score is rather good too, with the exception of some penny-whistle tootlings to denote the Irish American nature of proceedings (surely the musical equivalent of characters wandering on with red hair and pigs under their arms, shouting ‘Top of t’morning to ye!’).

Where I think the film falls down just a little bit is in some of the characterisation. As you would expect from a cast of this calibre, most of the acting is absolutely flawless: Jude Law, Stanley Tucci, and Daniel Craig are all utterly convincing, while Paul Newman manages to outshine everyone else with a magnetic display of star quality. If there’s a problem, then it’s with Hanks himself. The key character of the movie, the elder Mike Sullivan is a collection of disparate and at times contradictory traits: a devout Catholic, a ruthless killer, a loving if somewhat reserved family man, a gangster with a fearsome reputation, a man with a strict code of honour… Hanks does his very best in the role but still seems a little reticent, almost muted, never managing to weld all the elements together into a coherent characterisation (he’s not helped by a moustache that makes him look more like a dentist than a gangland figure). The actor of Hanks’ generation who might have been able to pull this off is Bruce Willis, who has the versatility for the part – plus audiences would be more likely to accept him as a killer, as this is the kind of role he’s occasionally played in the past. But, of course, Willis’ presence on a project doesn’t give quite the same imprimatur of class that Hanks’ name supplies, neither does it guarantee the attention of the Academy.

But despite this, Road to Perdition remains an extremely classy piece of work. Oscar nominations are virtually guaranteed, but no doubt nothing less was expected. Does it deserve to win any? Well, maybe; it’s a little too soon to say. It’s a film which aspires to be a classic, which is surely always something best left to posterity. For now, let’s just say that it’s rarely less than engrossing, and occasionally spine-tinglingly good.

(Damn thing only won the Oscar for cinematography – shows how much I know… – A)

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