Pocket Money is, in addition to being an excellent film, an example of a couple interesting things. First, it’s a 1970s character study, which is a different genre than what currently passes for a character study (if there are character studies at all anymore, since Michael Mann and Wes Anderson stopped doing them). The 1970s character study (Arthur Penn’s Night Moves is a good example of another) works in a kind of short-hand with the viewer. While the first act of Pocket Money takes maybe twenty minutes, Paul Newman’s character is fully established in the first five. Paul Newman’s a movie star, so there’s an expectation of him and Pocket Money breaks that expectation, but then sets him up again… in about those five minutes. Maybe six. There’s no established goal to these films (more modern character studies add a goal, something to give the story some drama). Pocket Money is following some cowboy, who isn’t too bright, but is amiable. The film never raises a single expectation of what’s going to come next. I can’t imagine what the trailer must have looked like.
Second (I almost forgot–not really), Terrence Malick wrote the screenplay. Pocket Money would have been his highest profile work at that point, followed by Badlands the next year. Obviously, Badlands looks and sounds different from the rest of Malick’s work, but Pocket Money sounds a lot like Badlands. This Malick is the one who still enjoys dialogue for dialogue’s sake, who likes to make people laugh. Since the film co-stars Lee Marvin, who delivers Malick’s comic lines (Newman’s got plenty of comic lines and a few of the exchanges sound a lot like Lucky Number Slevin of all films) with his gravelly, earthy voice, they are a lot of great comedic moments in the film.
Stuart Rosenberg directed Pocket Money. He directed a number of other Newman films, Cool Hand Luke being their most famous collaboration. Actually, he seems to have replaced Martin Ritt–Newman did a number of films with both directors and when Ritt stops, Rosenberg starts. Whatever. Rosenberg’s impressive. He distances the viewer from the actors at the right times and he pulls them in at the right times. Pocket Money’s got a great supporting cast–Strother Martin, Wayne Rogers and Hector Elizondo–and Rosenberg knows how to use them.
Since DVD’s advent and AMC’s full commercialization, a number of films have fallen to the dust. I was just thinking this morning about the difference between DVD enthusiasts and film enthusiasts. A DVD enthusiast is passive, he or she takes what is available. A film enthusiast has to look around, has to find things. Pocket Money is no longer particularly hard to find (it just aired on INHD, so there’s a beautiful print of it–it has great Laszlo Kovacs cinematography–for the someday DVD) and I hope people try to see it. While it’s never as outstanding as the first twenty minutes, it’s an excellent film.
Directed by Stuart Rosenberg; screenplay by John Gay and Terrence Malick, based on a novel by J.P.S. Brown; director of photography, László Kovács; edited by Bob Wyman; music by Alex North; produced by John Foreman; released by National General Pictures.
Starring Paul Newman (Jim Kane), Lee Marvin (Leonard), Strother Martin (Bill Garrett), Wayne Rogers (Stretch Russell), Hector Elizondo (Juan), Christine Belford (Adelita), Kelly Jean Peters (Sharon), Gregory Sierra (Guerro Chavarin) and Fred Graham (Uncle Herb).