Archive for the ‘Paul Newman’ Tag

Absence of Malice (1981)   2 comments

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Elliot Rosen (Bob Balaban) has a problem. A year into his strike force’s investigation into the disappearance and probable murder of Joey Diaz, a popular Miami union leader, Rosen has no leads. To shake things up, he decides to pressure local liquor wholesaler Michael Colin Gallagher (Paul Newman) into telling the feds what he knows. The trouble is, Gallagher doesn’t know anything. Gallagher’s deceased bootlegger father and his uncle, Malderone (Luther Adler) have mob ties, but not Gallagher. He’s an honest businessman. That doesn’t stop Rosen from leaking a story naming Gallagher as a suspect in the Diaz case to Megan Carter (Sally Field). Carter, a reporter for the Miami Standard newspaper, writes the story and her paper publishes it on page one.

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Then, it begins. The accusation slowly begins to destroy Gallagher’s life. His workers strike. His customers cancel their accounts. The IRS dissects his finances. His business falters.

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“Why no Ziggy this week?”

Gallagher asks Carter where she got her information, but she won’t reveal her source. The newspaper staff stonewalls him and he gets no answers from the feds. Frustrated, he continues to dig into the matter and keep his business afloat until a tragedy forces him to act. When the controversy hurts his close friend Teresa (Melinda Dillon), Gallagher gets angry. He’s a smart man so he exacts a thinking man’s revenge.

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Director, Sydney Pollack and writer Kurt Luedtke get the plot humming along nicely, then it stalls. You’re sucked in from the beginning and then Sally Field shows up and puts the brakes on. In this strong ensemble, she’s miscast. I can’t buy her hard-boiled reporter any more than I can buy her romance with Paul Newman.

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“You say the nun FLEW?”

They have no chemistry and her jaded journalist has no credibility. I wonder if their romance was an afterthought added by producers to appeal to a wider audience. Anyway, the rest of the cast works a treat. Newman does a fine job as a gruff good guy who gets screwed and fights back. We like him. We’re outraged when he’s attacked and cheer him on when he reacts. Melinda Dillon is absolutely brilliant. Her voice, carriage, and even the way she holds a cigarette tell her story.

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It’s a beautiful and poignant performance. She deserves her Oscar nomination. Then there’s Bob Balaban. He does weasely like no one else. Rosen, his self-righteous, arrogant federal prosecutor, worms his way onto your bad side and his quirky elastic band wringing is inspired.

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“It’s my ball and if I can’t pitch I’m going home.”

I can’t think of this film without picturing Rosen’s odd little habit. Luther Adler as Gallagher’s mobster uncle is a lot of fun too. He clearly enjoys his role. I saved the best for last. Wilford Brimley as Assistant U.S. Attorney James A. Wells makes this movie. He has about eight minutes of screen time, but commands your attention for every second of it. His straightforward and logical approach to the case along with his homespun manner and way of speaking renew your faith in the justice system. Wells doesn’t listen to any excuses or rationalizations. In this world of half-truths and shades of gray, he’s a black and white breath of fresh air.

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“Dammit. This courthouse has no Quaker Oats.”

The idea that a federal agency can rip an honest man’s life apart on a whim is scary. Add in a little sloppy journalism and it’s a nightmare. Absence of Malice exposes the ‘ends justify the means’ mentality in our judicial system. It also shows the press’ desire to get to print first despite little proof a story even exists. Absence of Malice, by the way, refers to the public figure doctrine in law. To win a libel suit, the plaintiff must prove the defendant knows the statement is false, but prints it anyway with reckless disregard to the truth. Without that proof, the plaintiff is powerless.

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The fine acting, relevant topic, and fleshed-out characters make Absence of Malice an entertaining and thoughtful film. I recommend it.

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Harper (1966)   Leave a comment

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If gruff, anti-social private eye Philip Marlowe had come of age a few decades later, he’d have been Lew Harper. Sarcastic, flippant, and completely unconcerned with others’ opinions of him, Harper might have responded as Humphrey Bogart’s Marlowe did when Lauren Bacall complained about his manners in the 1946 film THE BIG SLEEP. “I don’t mind if you don’t like my manners. I don’t like them myself. I grieve over them on long winter evenings.” Paul Newman’s Harper could get away with that.

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THE BIG SLEEP comparisons don’t end with the protagonists. In HARPER, the private detective meets his invalid client, Mrs. Sampson under the hot lights of Sampson’s tanning room. In THE BIG SLEEP, Marlowe (Bogart) meets his wheelchair-bound client, General Sternwood, in a stiflingly hot greenhouse. Both films feature wealthy, rudderless people getting conned out of their money by pros. Both films feature glittering facades and gritty interiors. Both films show people succumbing to their baser instincts. This often ends poorly. In THE BIG SLEEP, gamblers and pornographers pull the strings. In HARPER, smugglers and religious charlatans have their hands out. Both Philip Marlowe and Lew Harper meander through labyrinthine plots to find people who may or may not want to be found. Both men use logic and horse sense to cut through the tangled web the bad guys keep weaving. Both men get roughed up a bit and both men do a little conning themselves. The most entertaining scenes in both films involve the detectives’ assuming different identities to get information. Bogart in THE BIG SLEEP pretends he’s a snotty book collector and Newman in HARPER feigns a Texas accent and an attraction to the vulgar, alcoholic Shelley Winters. Both actors manage to lighten up scripts filled with death and debauchery by using their natural charms.

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THE BIG SLEEP was based on the great Raymond Chandler’s 1939 novel and adapted for the screen by William Faulkner, Leigh Brackett, and Jules Furthman. The screenwriters managed to capture the dry wit and world weary attitude Chandler gave Marlowe in his novel. Marlowe’s a smartass with a brain. He’ll bend the rules, but he won’t break them. He’s true to his word and loyal to his friends. He knows the ropes. The good guys trust him and the bad guys can’t figure him out. Paul Newman’s Harper has the same sarcastic quality with a difference. The 1950s saw the beginning of the rebel as hero character and Newman plays the role as that kind of loner. In the 1970s, Bob Rafelson and Arthur Penn would use Jack Nicholson and Gene Hackman as their loner/rebels.

Cameron Crowe and Peter Bart will host a free-wheeling discussion with panelists including Jon Voight, Judd Apatow, Seth Rogen, Diablo Cody, Haskell Wexler and Jeff Berg as part of special Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences salute to Oscar¨-winning film editor and director Hal Ashby on Thursday, June 25, at 7:30 p.m. at the Samuel Goldwyn Theater in Beverly Hills. The conversation will be followed by a screening of AshbyÕs 1971 bittersweet romance ÒHarold and Maude.Ó The salute also will kick off a weekend retrospective screening series at the Linwood Dunn Theater, featuring five new prints of AshbyÕs films from the Academy Film Archive. Pictured:  Jack Nicholson as he appears in THE LAST DETAIL, 1973.

Jack is not appearing in this film.

HARPER, based on Ross Macdonald’s novel THE MOVING TARGET was adapted for the screen by prolific writer William Goldman. In the transition from book to film, Lew Archer became Lew Harper. One reason for the switch is the change in leading man. Originally set to star Frank Sinatra in the title role, HARPER reportedly got a new name because of new star Paul Newman’s success with H films. THE HUSTLER (1961) and HUD (1963) helped establish Newman as a star who could act and HARPER and 1967’s HOMBRE reinforced the idea. Newman requested the change and the producers obliged.

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“Today’s film is brought to you by the letter H.”

THE BIG SLEEP and HARPER have casts filled with veteran character actors who can handle the witty scripts and fast pace provided by both Howard Hawks (HIS GIRL FRIDAY, RIO BRAVO) and Jack Smight (AIRPORT, DAMNATION ALLEY) respectively. Martha Vickers, Dorothy Malone, Bob Steele, Regis Toomey, and Elisha Cook, Jr. add depth to THE BIG SLEEP. Julie Harris, Arthur Hill, Janet Leigh, Strother Martin, Robert Wagner, and Shelley Winters contribute their considerable strength to each scene in HARPER. There are even connections between the characters in each film. Martha Vickers’ boozy flirt becomes Pamela Tiffin’s spoiled tease. John Ridgely’s gambling boss becomes Robert Webber’s smuggling impresario. One can even make the comparison between Elisha Cook, Jr.’s stand-up guy and Robert Wagner’s handsome fly boy.

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One of the things I like best about HARPER is its timelessness. With a slight change in music and wardrobe, HARPER could ride a TARDIS to the 1970s or even back to the 1940s. Written in the tradition of Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett, HARPER puts a modern spin on the notions of tough dames, wise-cracking shamuses, and slimy con-men. With his role in HARPER, Paul Newman joins the ranks of Dick Powell, Robert Montgomery, and Humphrey Bogart, all of whom played Philip Marlowe, by the way. The 1970s would see a resurgence of jaded private eyes with Robert Altman’s THE LONG GOODBYE (1973) and Dick Richards’ FAREWELL, MY LOVELY (1975) and give Elliott Gould and Robert Mitchum each a turn as the iconic Marlowe.

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“We’re next!”

HARPER did well at the box office, cementing Paul Newman’s star status and allowing him to take his pick of the best films offered him. The next year Newman would eat fifty eggs. In 1969, he’d pair up with Robert Redford in BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID, launching them both into superstardom. The success of HARPER also paved the way for a second Lew Harper outing in 1975 with Stuart Rosenberg’s THE DROWNING POOL, also starring Newman’s wife Joanne Woodward. HARPER is an entertaining and well-made film that succeeds in bringing fedoras (well, mental ones) and double scotches to sunny California. Through HARPER and its subsequent incarnations, the legacy of THE BIG SLEEP lives on.

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A slightly different version of this piece appears in the Brattle Film Notes blog.  The Brattle Theatre is a wonderful independent theatre in Cambridge, Massachusetts.  Here’s a link to the piece.  Brattle Film Notes

The Verdict (1982)   Leave a comment

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“There are no other cases.  This is the case.”

Frank Galvin (Paul Newman), a drunken, bottom-feeding lawyer, chases hearses instead of ambulances. When he’s not trolling funerals for clients, he’s drinking his breakfast at a local Boston pub. Even his best friend, Mickey Morrissey (Jack Warden) has had enough.

Morrissey arranges for Frank to take a simple malpractice case, settle it, and get back on his feet, but eighteen months after taking the case and within days of the trial, Frank has done nothing to prepare.

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Frank even cons the family of the victim. During a meeting with the victim’s sister and her husband, he sits on a desk, clucking and feigning empathy while doodling dollar amounts on a legal pad. After the meeting, Frank visits the victim, Deborah Ann Kaye, who lies in a hospital in a permanent vegetative state. She lapsed into a coma during childbirth 4 years earlier. Her family believes she received the wrong anesthetic. The hospital, a powerful establishment run by the Catholic Archdiocese of Boston, claims complications and inaccurate statements by the now comatose woman led to her coma and the loss of her child.

While taking Polaroids to legally blackmail the hospital into settling, Frank does something unexpected. He sees Deborah Ann Kaye. After that, he can’t bring himself to settle. During a meeting with the Bishop (Ed Binns), Frank says, “If I take the money, I’m lost.” Frank decides to take the case to trial because it’s the right thing to do. The scene in which he tells Morrissey of his decision smacks of Mamet. Newman says, “They killed her.  They’re trying to buy me.” Morrissey says, “That’s the fuckin’ point.” Morrissey reminds him who the defense attorney is and Newman admits he’s good. Morrissey says, “Good!  He’s the prince of fucking darkness! He’ll have people testify she was waterskiing in Marblehead last summer.”

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James Mason as Concannon is the horned one and proves it in his bloodthirsty preparations for the trial. Concannon’s team of attorneys builds a case from every angle. They use connections at newspapers and the local PBS affiliate to plant stories about the goodness and competence of the doctors. They pay off Frank’s star witness. Concannon has an even nastier trick up his sleeve that almost derails the case, but Frank soldiers on.

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Once at trial, we see just how outgunned Frank is. His star witness AWOL, Frank finds another to take his place only to see him discredited on the stand. Even the judge, (Milo O’Shea), clearly favors Concannon. The deck stacked against him, Frank puts his head down and continues with the case.

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The Verdict does the David and Goliath thing without hitting you over the head with it and we watch Frank lift himself up from the gutter and fight to stay up. His mantra, “There is no other case. This is the case.” serves as a pep talk he gives himself to keep from giving up or giving in.

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Sidney Lumet and Paul Newman made a beautiful film about a tortured soul seeking redemption. A bunch of A-listers wanted the Frank Galvin part and Richard Zanuck and David Brown went through several screenwriters and directors before choosing the Paul Newman, Sidney Lumet, David Mamet combo platter. It works. Lumet, no stranger to courtroom dramas or dialogue-heavy films, knows how to make a conversation between people sitting in chairs dynamic. Fail-Safe and 12 Angry Men proved that.  The Verdict, a smaller, less world-shattering film still has me on the edge of my seat every time I see it and I already know how it ends.

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Part of that excitement stems from the talented character actors who flesh out the film.  Along with Mason, O’Shea, and Binns, Roxanne Hart, James Handy, Julie Bovasso, and Charlotte Rampling in a wonderfully restrained performance, make The Verdict ring true. Only Lindsay Crouse disappointed me. I liked her before she got on the stand, but her trial demeanor seemed a bit overdone. Jack Warden, on the other hand, had me believing he lived in the world of back room card games and Bushmill’s for breakfast. He didn’t get enough screen time.

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All that talent aside, the film belongs to Newman. He goes from sleazy to earnest to desperate to inspiring and a lot of places in between. His moods turn on a dime. One second he’s buying the boys a round and the next he’s sobbing in a hotel bathroom. You can’t take your eyes off him. Dominating every scene, Paul Newman has you wondering what will happen and how he’ll react to it. He also makes you care. Even as the shyster lawyer at the beginning of the film, Newman has you wondering what made him this way. His summation to the jury at the end of the trial shows both his world-weary sadness and his earnest faith. Though he would win the best actor Oscar four years later for The Color of Money, Newman deserved it more for this lower profile tale of loss and redemption.

Run out and see this film.

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