Tag Archives: Paul Newman

Sometimes a Great Notion (1971, Paul Newman)

Sometimes a Great Notion is all about the joys of toxic masculinity and apathy. At some points in the near two hour runtime, it might hint at being about the virtues of rugged American individualism, family, and maybe capitalism, but it’s not. Screenwriter John Gay avoids exploring those virtues like the plague or directly contradicts them in exposition. If not in the plot events. And director Newman is more interested in having fun. He’s serious at times, but outside one scene, he’s always most interested in the fun. The fun is usually when his character (Newman, at forty-five, is playing a logger in his early thirties) is being a rugged, adventurous, caution to the wind type, whether it’s climbing to the top of a tree he’s just cut the top off, dirt biking, brawling, whatever. You can always tell when it’s one of those moments because Henry Mancini’s score does its jazzy folksy Americana thing. Its loud, obnoxious jazzy folksy Americana thing. Newman, as director, uses Mancini’s score to do heavy dramatic lifting in scenes–not the folksy stuff–to the detriment of the performances, which is bewildering, since there are so many good performances in the film. Even if they’re not entirely successful.

Newman is eldest son in a successful logging family. Henry Fonda is the dad, Lee Remick is Newman’s wife, Richard Jaeckel’s a cousin. The film starts in the middle of a loggers’ union strike. Except Fonda and family aren’t in the union; they’re scabs (but not exactly because they’re just non-union; they’re still breaking the picket line and apathetic to their former friends and still neighbors literally starving around them). The townspeople aren’t too happy with them. Newman’s quiet, Fonda’s loud and demanding (and partially immobilized due to a half body cast), Jaeckel’s goofy (and religious). Remick and Linda Lawson (as Jaeckel’s wife) cook and clean for the men, but otherwise keep quiet. Their opinions aren’t to be heard. Newman and Jaeckel’s opinions aren’t worth anything (to Fonda) but they at least get to be heard.

Then, out of nowhere, younger son Michael Sarrazin–half-brother to Newman–returns home. He’s a long-haired hippie college graduate (apparently, it’s never actually confirmed he even went to college, he just gets teased about it) with a lot of emotional baggage. After Fonda drove his mother away, she killed herself. No one sent for Sarrazin, no one came to the funeral. He went through a suicidal episode as well. Most of that backstory comes out in scenes with Remick, who it turns out has interiority, even if Newman and Fonda don’t care. Sarrazin cares. Unfortunately, Gay and Newman (as director) don’t really care. The friendship (and possibly more) between Sarrazin and Remick is the most distinct thing about Sometimes a Great Notion and it goes absolutely nowhere and does absolutely nothing. Of course, even the successful elements in the film don’t really do anything.

Sarrazin starts working with the family, leading to some lengthy expository montage sequences about logging. Sarrazin comes into the picture a little while in, but Newman and Gay wait to look at the logging until he’s arrived. Except he’s presumably already been there and seen what logging looks like. But it’s a fine device. Just a little late for the audience.

The film’s set pieces usually involve logging. Then there’s a scene at the family’s house, often with Fonda yelling at someone, maybe with Remick looking sad, then it’s something else involving logging. Including the loggermen’s picnic, where Newman doesn’t just get to be manly with dirt bikes, there’s also a brawl between striking loggers and the scab family in the coastal surf. Set to the blaring Mancini.

Tensions are slow to rise in Sometimes a Great Notion. When crisis and tragedy strike, even as beautifully executed as Newman (as a director) executes them, they’re not a result of building tension. The movie has to pretend they are such a result, however, because otherwise there’d be no way to end it. And the end of the film, where everything comes together–the results of Fonda’s overbearing approach (at home and professionally), Newman and Sarrazin’s undercooked brotherly turmoil, Remick’s unhappiness, the strike, the neighbors, all of it–it’s a missed opportunity. Newman and Gay have the chance to open up Sometimes and they reject that idea, sticking with the tight focus on Fonda’s family.

The problem with focusing just on Fonda, Newman, and Jaeckel–after the introduction, Sarrazin’s got squat outside his subplot with Remick or opposite the boys–is it requires a lot of demonization to get there. If Fonda and company are jerks, but the heroes, the townspeople have to be not just godawful, but annoyingly godawful. They’re mostly personified in Lee de Broux, who’s always begging Newman to think about the town. Newman blows him off, but somehow manages to have more of an arc with de Broux than he does with Remick. Newman and Remick coexist in scenes, rarely interacting. de Broux, ostensibly, has an effect on him. But not really, because it wouldn’t be manly for Newman to develop as a character. In Sometimes a Great Notion, character development has to be regressive. Sarrazin starts the film a far better character than he finishes it.

The laundry list of problems aside, it’s well-acted. No one’s great, but everyone’s pretty damn good. Fonda’s underutilized as a thoughtless blowhard, but he’s got a couple great scenes. Jaeckel seems really thin–the movie mocks his religiosity, which is interesting and not a great sign–but turns out to have some real depth. Newman’s solid. None of his possible character arcs go anywhere, except with Jaeckel. In that one, he’s great when he needs to be great. And he’s good (and devilishly likable, of course) the rest of the time.

Sarrazin is good and constantly potentially excellent. The material’s just never there for him. Same goes for Remick. Apparently the original cut of the film had them hooking up for sure and it might have helped. Bob Wyman’s cuts are fine, but the narrative structure of the film is incredibly suspect. Nothing in the film suggests it’s going to result in its conclusion–not like foreshadowing, but doing the character development to get people places the script is going to put them. Sarrazin and Remick suffer the most. Newman prefers the dirt bikes and the brawls to the character development. It’s very strange. Like… if it did everything, the dirt bikes, the brawls, and the actual character development, Sometimes a Great Notion might be something special (and three hours long). Instead it doesn’t and isn’t.

Good photography from Richard Moore. Sometimes great. Lots of Sometimes a Great Notion is sometimes great (not Mancini, who’s at least sometimes okay). Newman’s direction is completely competent, patient, and thoughtful but it’s still a shock when he does something ambitious. If he’d applied the same energy as he does in the ambitious moments–which don’t have to be high drama scenes, but can just be when he actually gives Remick a real moment with himself (as an actor)–Sometimes would be a very different, probably better film.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by Paul Newman; screenplay by John Gay, based on the novel by Ken Kesey; director of photography, Richard Moore; edited by Bob Wyman; music by Henry Mancini; produced by John Foreman; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring Paul Newman (Hank), Henry Fonda (Henry), Michael Sarrazin (Leeland), Richard Jaeckel (Joe Ben), Lee Remick (Viv), Linda Lawson (Jan), and Lee de Broux (Willard Eggleston).


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Paris Blues (1961, Martin Ritt)

It’d be easily to blame Paris Blues’s lack of success on the screenplay. With three credited screenwriters and another with the adaptation, there’s literally not enough going on the film to keep it going for the ninety-eight minute runtime. There’s filler, whether it’s a jazz number or a scenic Paris walk, but there’s not enough story. There’s not enough character or there’s not enough story. But director Ritt needs to get some of the blame as well. He’s got enthusiasm, but he’s strangely inert when it comes to medium shots.

Here’s the story–Joanne Woodward and Diahann Carroll are friends vacationing in Paris from the United States. They meet Sidney Poitier and Paul Newman, who are jazz musician ex-patriates. They pair off, Woodward and Newman, Carroll and Poitier, and they all fall in love. Except Poitier and Newman don’t want to leave Paris. Poitier because it sucks to be a black man in the United States while it’s pretty darn cool in Paris; Newman because… he’s a troubled artist. Or he wants to be a troubled artist. He’s a great trombone player, but he’s not a troubled artist. He’s moody because he’s not.

Newman and Woodward’s romance and its problems are mostly just that moodiness. Newman has a bad day, is crappy to Woodward, who’s crazy about him and wants to dote on him. Meanwhile, Poitier and Carroll are having this great philosophical debate, with their romance taking a back burner to their arguments about Poitier’s refusal to participate in the American Civil Rights movement. Sure, the script never goes too far with their arguments and usually just ends a scene–Woodward and Carroll spend most of their time acquiescing to their men’s mood swings–but it’s something. Carroll and Poitier are playing characters. Newman’s a caricature. Woodward’s stuck pretending to be one, just because the script doesn’t give Newman anything more.

Oh, wait. It gives him Serge Reggiani’s cocaine problem. Newman’s trying to keep him clean because deep down he’s a good guy who cares.

There’s occasionally wonderful direction from Ritt–usually just composition, though Carroll’s performance in the third act, basically just watching Woodward and Newman, is fantastic. It’s a slight, because she should have had more to do, but she’s still developing her character. Everyone else has given up by that time. But Ritt loves trying to do the “real” Paris, cutting between sets and location, with the sets often fantastical but grounded thanks to Christian Matras’s black and white photography.

Weak editing from Roger Dwyre–thanks to Ritt’s messy medium shots and general lack of coverage–doesn’t help things. The Duke Ellington score does help things, however. And it’s awesome to see Louis Armstrong cameo as the whole package artist who Newman admires. Shame there’s not enough on their relationship. Or Newman and Poitier’s. Or Newman and Woodward’s. Or Woodward and Carroll’s. Or Carroll and Poitier’s. About the only relationship getting the appropriate attention is Newman and his French lover, played by Barbara Laage. But even she ends up just harboring slightly veiled hostility towards Woodward instead of actual scenes.

Messy, messy script.

Carroll’s great. Poitier’s great. Newman and Woodward are good, not great. Their material’s too thin to be great. Armstrong’s more cute than good. He’s having a blast acting. Reggiani’s good. Laage’s good. The problem’s not the acting. It’s the script, then Ritt, then the editing. Then, I don’t know, the rear screen projection.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by Martin Ritt; screenplay by Jack Sher, Irene Kamp, and Walter Bernstein, adaptation by Lulla Rosenfeld, based on the novel by Harold Flender; director of photography, Christian Matras; edited by Roger Dwyre; music by Duke Ellington; produced by Sam Shaw; released by United Artists.

Starring Paul Newman (Ram Bowen), Sidney Poitier (Eddie Cook), Joanne Woodward (Lillian), Diahann Carroll (Connie), Serge Reggiani (Michel Devigne), Barbara Laage (Marie), and Louis Armstrong (Wild Man Moore).


THIS POST IS PART OF THE 90 YEARS OF SIDNEY POITIER BLOGATHON HOSTED BY VIRGINIE OF THE WONDERFUL WORLD OF CINEMA.


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Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969, George Roy Hill)

Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid opens with a sepia-toned silent film newsreel. It’s exposition, but also contrast. The silent images of a daring train robbery distract from reading the film’s accompanying opening titles. When the film itself starts, it’s just as sepia-toned. Only it’s Conrad Hall and he’s able to suggest the lush, denied colors. Director Hill isn’t just making a Western, he’s making a comment on the genre itself. Not just him, of course, writer William Goldman’s asking some of the same questions about how the genre works. Butch Cassidy forces the audience to question the setting, not embrace it. It’s a hostile place, even when it can appear gentle, even when it can be funny. The first hour of the film, features Paul Newman and Robert Redford in something very close to constant sequence. Each scene comes soon after the other. And then it turns into a chase. A long chase. It’s exhausting. And great. Because Hall has got the color in. Once the characters are established, the color returns. But then it goes away again.

I don’t want to think too much about where the act breaks are in Butch Cassidy, but there’s definitely a big chance once it becomes clear no matter how much charm Newman and Redford have, it’s not going to end well. One of the supporting players even comments on it. The film has a very strange, very distinct approach to the supporting players. The supporting players should feel episodically placed but they don’t. They’re sprinkled throughout the film, but Goldman and Hill use them for very specific tasks. One reveals one thing, one comments on another. Goldman’s script is phenomenal.

Then the film changes. And the color goes away. Newman, Redford and Ross go to New York. It’s like 1906 or 1907 and it’s all silent, all in still picture montage. Most of Butch Cassidy doesn’t have music. Burt Bacharach’s score alternates between effervescent and melancholy. Most of the film is sound effects. The sound design is gorgeous, just as gorgeous as Hall’s photography, just as gorgeous as John C. Howard and Richard C. Meyer’s editing. Hill’s got a great crew and he gets great work from them. The montage sequence furthers the story, furthers the relationships of the characters. It’s a great device and completely out of place with everything before it in the film. Then the sepia reminds of the opening titles and it’s Hill pulling the audience back a little bit, redirecting their attention. The rest of the film, once Newman, Redford and Ross get to Bolivia, has to be watched differently; it’s certainly written differently, paced differently, even acted differently.

Redford and Newman. Goldman very carefully introduces their friendship, getting the audience invested in it. The performances are great too–ambitious but playful; Redford and Newman’s banter never gets overpowering. It never overwhelms the film or the actors. Hill’s real careful about how he directs them and how they’re edited. Newman and Redford are very close, in frame and physicality, until Ross is around all the time. Only then does Hill open up and show the characters from one another’s perspective. Until that point–over halfway through the film–they’re a unit.

Those singularly placed supporting players–Jeff Corey, George Furth, Kenneth Mars, Strother Martin among a couple others–are all fantastic. Especially Corey and Martin. And Furth and Mars. Oh, and Timothy Scott.

There’s so much to Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. It’s so well-made, anything could become a tangent. Hill starts out directing this fantastic Western only to change it up with this montage and then the Bolivia scenes. It’s awesome work from Hill. You just want to talk about it. You just want to show it to people so you can talk about it more, think about it more, appreciate it more. It’s that special kind of awesome.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by George Roy Hill; written by William Goldman; director of photography, Conrad L. Hall; edited by John C. Howard and Richard C. Meyer; music by Burt Bacharach; produced by John Foreman; released by 20th Century Fox.

Starring Paul Newman (Butch Cassidy), Robert Redford (The Sundance Kid), Katharine Ross (Etta Place), Jeff Corey (Sheriff Bledsoe), Strother Martin (Percy Garris), Kenneth Mars (Marshal) and George Furth (Woodcock).


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Hud (1963, Martin Ritt)

Every once in a while in Hud, it seems like Paul Newman's eponymous lead character might do something selfless. Not redemptive or nice, but selfless. It's not the point of the film and not one of its promises–it's just visible how significant it would be for Brandon De Wilde, playing Newman's orphaned nephew.

Hud fires on all cylinders. Director Ritt and cinematographer James Wong Howe compose a breathtakingly gorgeous film. It's hard to imagine the skies as having color; in Howe's black and white photography they are an infinite gray. It's a very small cast–Newman, De Wilde, Melvyn Douglas as the patriarch, Patricia Neal as the housekeeper who both Newman and De Wilde desire–and the black nights keep the cast claustrophobically close. Newman and Douglas's dysfunctional relationship can't be escaped, with De Wilde growing up in it and Neal the outside observer.

The screenplay, from Irving Ravetch and Harriet Frank Jr., gives Douglas these wonderful monologues, full of sincerity and wisdom, while it gives Newman monologues of selfishness and cynicism. They're dueling ideologies and it becomes clearer and clearer as the film progresses they're in direct reaction to one another. It's a brilliant script.

As for the cast, the last cylinder–except perhaps the sound design and Elmer Bernstein's score–all of actors are phenomenal. The film has a relatively short present action but De Wilde goes through a visible transition as things move along, whereas Newman and Douglas more reveal themselves as the film progresses.

Hud is a singular motion picture.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Martin Ritt; screenplay by Irving Ravetch and Harriet Frank Jr., based on the novel by Larry McMurtry; director of photography, James Wong Howe; edited by Frank Bracht; music by Elmer Bernstein; produced by Ravetch and Ritt; released by Paramount Pictures.

Starring Paul Newman (Hud Bannon), Melvyn Douglas (Homer Bannon), Patricia Neal (Alma Brown), Whit Bissell (Mr. Burris) and Brandon De Wilde (Lonnie Bannon).


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