A key film in Paul Newman’s career that gave us one of cinema’s most iconic lines, Cool Hand Luke is known to both Mike and José – but previously seen by neither. The reasons that it became a cultural touchstone remain crystal clear, despite it failing, to a significant degree, to grab us as it might. We question the authenticity and purpose of Luke’s rebellion, the depiction of prison life, and the flimsy Christian allegory that tirelessly insists upon itself. The brutality perhaps seems unfairly tame today, an unavoidable consequence of coming to the film more than fifty years late, but its comedy still works beautifully and Newman’s charm has gone nowhere. It’s a fantasy, we conclude, for the privileged – an ultimately mortal fight against The Man, the point of which may very well be its lack of focus and clarity of purpose. Jesus was crucified for our sins; will we be recounting the story of Luke in two thousand years? Only time will tell.
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Whether people like this movie or not depends on how much they like Altman’s company, his sensibility, voice, attitude. His films are the work of a jovial host at a party, slightly drunk, extremely sociable, good-naturedly prankish, always snooking a crook at certainties, pomposities, not always making sense but wanting everyone to have a good time, keep them all talking, sometimes simultaneously, whilst still making sure the conversation’s at a certain level and that the music is good.
Buffalo Bill and the Indians or Sitting Bull’s History Lesson, made in the aftermath of Watergate, takes on one of the great icons of American popular culture and explores how cultural myths are designed, generated and propagated, the difference between those myths and history, the inter-relationships between money, show-business and politics, and how the whole thing is a circus anyways.
Shot near Calgary in Canada –in itself a sleight of hand worthy of the film — at the foothills of the Rockies, with the majestic mountains always in view, nature, certain and seemingly ever present, a silent witness to the vagaries of culture, the film has a very American sense of space, spectacle here is not contained in a theatre but is outdoors with dozens of horses, hundreds of people, encampments, all by a river. Looking at the film it seemed to me that certain actors are graced with presence: Geraldine Chaplin, Harvey Keitel, and Shelley Duvall need do nothing but be and, at least as seen through a camera, our eye would be drawn to and delight in them. Others, who do need to give a performance — Joel Grey, John Considine, Pat McCormick — give good ones and are a pleasure to see.
The central problem in the film is the dullness of Paul Newman as Buffalo Bill. The role requires an icon, and he certainly is one. Moreover, he is a great actor. So what’s wrong here? I think part of the problem might be that he’s not playing to the camera. For a star such as he, the camera would normally find him, he would naturally be the central focus. But Altman doesn’t work that way, His is a roving camera, one that usually stays some distance away from the players and tries to include as many of them in the frame as possible. There are a lot of long and medium long shot and Newman’s is not a commanding physical presence at a distance. The role really requires an extrovert who’s not afraid of risking being ‘too much’. Burt Lancaster, who is great as Ned Buntline, the writer and Legend Maker, would have been even better as Buffalo Bill; he would have given it the carny oomph that is simply beyond Newman.
See in the scene above what a showman Lancaster is, his removal of his glasses to get down to business, his pointing with his hands, ‘here you are in the glorious flesh’, the shake of the head, when he says ‘what a sight for sore eyes,’ the way his head tilts upwards and his arm reaches out when he says, ‘like planting a seed and watching it grow into a tree,’ the tilt of the head and the extension of the hand on ‘You make it easy Bill’. One could go on. Lancaster’s thrilling because he is always playing to the audience in the best sense; he’s aware of and in dialogue with it. In other movies, Newman can also be thrilling, because his purpose is always to inhabit character, and let the audience find the thrill in that. But he comes alive here mostly when the camera comes to him in close-up. But Bill Cody is meant to be carny, circus, showman, bigger than life, the outward outline of an advertisement that so persistent it becomes myth at the price of truth. Lancaster conveys that energy, that showmanship, that engagement with audience response, even his final exit, as his horse jumps the fence, is a flourish. And it’s that kind of flourish at the heart of the film that would made it even better than it already is.
The costumes are by Anthony Powell, the design is by Tony Masters, and Paul Lohmann is the cinematographer: the film looks smashing and is a real pleasure to see.
I don’t remember Tom Cruise being as badly miscast as he is in The Mummy. He’s meant to be cool, suave, nonchalant, catnip to the ladies and slightly unethical with it: a cross between Paul Newman and Errol Flynn. Instead, well…. he’s Tom Cruise: focussed, intense, over-committed, unwavering, humourless. He’s a very good actor and I like him. But he lacks a light touch. At least he’s better than Russell Crowe who I didn’t realise was in it and might as well not have been. He fails doubly, as Dr. Jekyll AND as Mr. Hyde, and he recites his lines in the worst English accent I’ve ever heard in a recent film playing both parts. The only actors who walk away with any honour from this disaster are Jake Johnson, best known from New Girl, who is actually funny and charming as the sidekick; and Sofia Boutella as Ahmaned, the evil Egyptian queen who starts the narrative rolling and who looks terrifically terrifying. I also hated the look of the film, a return to that dingy and dull slate greys, dark blues and metallic chromes that has so unnecessarily blighted cinema since the turn to digital. How Alex Kurtzman got the gig to direct this film is a story I’d like to hear. He won’t be getting another opportunity soon.
David Thomson in The New Biographical Dictionary of Film writes, ‘No matter how many times the profit ratio of Psycho is repeated, it does not alter the fact that Hitchcock made several flops, several films in which the entire narrative structure — over which he spent such time and care — is grotesquely miscalculated. Stage Fright, The Trouble with Harry, Lifeboat, and Torn Curtain seem to me thumpingly bad films, helpless in the face of intransigent plots, true delicacy of humour and uncooperative players (p.401).’ It’s all relative I suppose but I don’t agree; or rather, Hitchcock’s worst offers more pleasures than almost anybody else’s best. I found a lot to like in Torn Curtain.
The story is an espionage thriller about a Professor (Paul Newman) and his assistant/fiancée (Julie Andrews), three months from tying the knot, who are at a scientific conference in Scandinavia when, much to the fiancée’s astonishment, the Professor decides to defect to East Berlin. Is he a traitor or is he a spy? We soon find out. The film boasts memorable and typically Hitchcockian set-pieces: the killing in the country-side farm, Paul Newman being followed in a museum, the couple escaping the university, the way they outmanoeuvre the Stasi and manage to escape from the ballet when every entrance is blocked by police, etc. Really, even minor Hitchcock is full of pleasures. Of Hollywood filmmakers, only Lubitsch is Hitchcock’s equal in engaging with the audience, making us complicit in what’s going, trusting us to be co-creators of aspects of the story being told and teasing, tricking, playing with us in order to please and delight.
The performances of the stars of Torn Curtain have been widely criticised, Thomson calling them ‘drab’ (p.402). Others regurgitating stories of how Hitchcock had wanted Eva Maria Saint and Cary Grant; how Paul Newman and Julie Andrews, the top box-office stars of this period, were imposed on Hitchcock by the studio; how Newman was — to Hitchock’s annoyance — too method; how he found Julie Andrews not beautiful or sexy enough.
Be that as it may, there’s no question that he took great care with the presentation of these stars. We’re introduced to them in bed, with their coats over the blankets, making love and trying to keep warm. Then, we see their name tags of the characters they play in alternating close-ups, first Dr. Sarah Sherman and then Professor Michael Armstrong. We first see the backs of their heads, then extreme close-ups of the couple kissing. We know they’ve just had sex: ‘let’s call this lunch,’ says Armstrong. It’s a sexy spin on Julie Andrews’ star persona. Here is Mary Poppins and the novice from The Sound of Music in bed with Paul Newman; and they’re not even married! That must have been a thrilling star entrance to fans of both stars. Moreover, Hitchcock and his team light them beautifully. Look at the shine of the pin spot in Andrew’s eyes in fig. A. How Newman’s eyes, then widely publicised as the most beautiful blues in the world, are presented in an enormous close-up, so big as to encompass only one eye, made to shine against the light (fig. B). Note too, the prominent display of Newman’s body throughout the film (fig. C).
‘Performance’ is not everything in commercial filmmaking, particularly when it’s a question of stars. Newman and Andrews are not bad; the director makes an interesting play on audience expectations, giving them a theatrical star entrance, lighting them gorgeously, dressing them both attractively and meaningfully, and playing on and developing their star personas, particularly that of Andrews. I loved seeing them in this, and stars by their very nature should not need to play a ‘role of a lifetime’ to bring their audience pleasure; often their presence is enough for their fans. When presented as carefully and to so much advantage as here, it is much more than enough. Newman and Andrews were a draw then and are still reasons to see this film.
It is true that the stars, delightful as they are to see, do not give memorable performances. But I do think it would be fair to say that some of the performances in Torn Curtain have become legendary. Wolfgang Kieling as Hermann Gromek, Armstrong’s East German body-guard, with his East-European accent and his American slang, funny and menacing, always watchable, is an outsize cartoon. It’s a particular type of performance, very theatrical, very knowing, aimed at the audience, and clearly a type Hitchcock delights in.
I’ve made a gif of his famous death scene so as to exaggerate his hand gestures (see above). This is an actor who knows how to make the most of a scene even in the absence of his face or even most of his body, who steals the scene from his co-stars by showing us his expiration only with a wave of his fingers, but they wave and wave, each movement expressing something slightly different but within an overall arc, like those hams who can turn being shot into a five minute dance with death. I find it delightful, so much better than merely ‘realistic’ and Hitchcock must have also, or he would have shot it differently, shortened it or cut it altogether.
Much as I love Kieling’s performance, one never gets a sense that he’s playing a real person. This is not true of Lila Kedrova’s marvellous turn as the Countess Kuchinska, the Polish Countess, not ‘communistical’, sneering at the quality of the tobacco and the coffee and desperate for American sponsorship of her visa application. As you can see below, each of her ‘faces’ is beautifully expressive, and she does run the gamut of expression.
I tried to do some image capture to illustrate and the enormous range of vivid expressions she brought even within one shot quickly became evident. No single still would do, so I created a compilation from her scenes in the cafe with Julie Andrews and Paul Newman. Kedrova’s performance is theatrical, almost Delsartean in her gestures, and she looks like a wounded French bulldog, but one gets a sense of a person who’s elegant, pained, powerful but helpless, bewildered. There’s a person that’s constructed out of those arresting expression and those wounded eyes. How did the countess arrive from Poland to East Berlin? What did she have to live through? It’s clear that she was once beautiful and that maybe she could no longer use that to the advantage she once did. What did her class, her gender, her beauty and her foreignness play in her survival? What sort of desperation drives an already old person to go to such lengths to get out?
I love the last shot in the clip above. The countess has finally gotten the American couple the information they needed. But just as they succeed the police arrives. She trips the policeman to allow the couple to escape, knowing that doing so seals her own doom. Hitchcock shows us a close-up of the rifle falling down the stairs, and then the camera cranes right up the stairs into a close-up of Lila Kedrova’s face as the Countess says, ‘My sponsor, my sponsor for United States of America’. It’s simultaneously camp and touching. Kedrova is giving a charismatic, theatrical performance (her elegant posture on the stairs, her voicing of the dialogue) that moves us through the recognisable humanity she expresses. For her all is lost. And Hitchcock wants us to see this enough to arrange a complex shot that is in itself arresting, spectacular. The American couple has a chance; for the Polish Countess in East Berlin, there’s no more hope. And Hitchcock and Kedrova, together, know how to convey the drama and truth of that moment, a moment where spectacle and feeling are rendered one. It’s lovely.
Dress, Décor, Angle and Framing as Part of Mise-en-scéne:
I understand that Hitchcock was disappointed with Torn Curtain but was pleased with what he’d been able to accomplish as an exercise on light and composition. These are some aspects of the film that aroused my interest and delighted my sight.
The reason why I started off writing this piece, but which I’ve left to the end, is that even in the worst of Hitchcock one finds moments of real poetry. In the scene below there are many things to admire. I decided to start the clip in the previous scene, so that you can see the close-up on Julie Andrews’ face as she says ‘East Berlin, but that’s behind the Iron Curtain’. That will rhyme with the very last shot of the scene, which is a masterpiece of expression. In between note how the cut is on Michael’s face seen slightly from behind now on the plane. From her to him, each facing in the opposite direction, and now in a new context, note how the camera tracks slowly back to allow us to take the new context in, and in full, before the camera pans right to a close-up of the befuddled Sarah. Note how the cutting speeds up when he sees her, the repetition of the tracking shot, but much faster as Michael heads to Sarah, then the change in direction but at the same speed as he approaches her. They’re superb choices.
But the pièce-de-resistance is the last shot on Sarah. That last close-up, after Michael has told her to stop following him and go home, which rhymes with the close-up of her finding out he’s going to East Berlin, but now filmed from a slightly higher angle to indicate Michael’s point-of-view on Sarah, and then the beautiful way the image begins to dissolve, goes out of focus, undulates, distorts. Note Hitchcock’s confidence in the length of its duration. And then the quick cut onto the opening doors of the plane with its view of East Berlin’s airport. It’s like all Sarah’s hopes, dreams, are extinguished and expire in that moment where everything goes out of focus and distorts only to be confronted by the harshness of a new reality with all her past knowledge put into doubt. It’s beautiful. A great moment of cinema. And one of many reasons to see the film.
I saw this on a gorgeous blu-ray transfer from Universal Studios: Alfred Hitchcock: The Masterpiece Collection.