Paul Newman: The Westerns

Today is the birthday of baby-blue eyed, Method acting, cinematic charmer Paul Newman (1925-2008). We thought we would mark the day with a look at several of his western pictures:

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The Left Handed Gun (1958) 

Arthur Penn’s directorial debut, shot with all the gloomy seriousness of late 50s black and white.  Newman plays a very “methody” (i.e. Strasbergian) Billy the Kid.  He’s sort of a moody misunderstood youth — Hamlet with more resolve.  Having been in some trouble in Texas (shot some guys for insulting his mother!) he takes up with a cow punching outfit outside Lincoln, New Mexico. His boss becomes a father figure. Doesn’t believe in guns, teaches him how to read. The surrogate father is assassinated by a quartet of crooks in the pay of a rival beef baron, one of whom is the sheriff. Billy makes it a point of hunting them down for revenge. Doing so takes him deeper and deeper into trouble. After killing a couple of them he goes into hiding for awhile, where he gets to become friends with Pat Garrett (John Dehner). At some point he violates a general amnesty by killing another of the guys, getting back into trouble. Then he alienates Garrett by killing the last one on his wedding day (and also despoiling the bride). Garrett becomes sheriff just to pursue him. Billy decides to go completely bad. In the end, he allows Garrett to shoot him just to end it all

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Hud (1962)

No, no, not the Federal Department of Housing and Urban Development! A modern western, directed by Martin Ritt, based on a Larry McMurtry novel, adapted by Irving Ravetch and Harriet Frank Jr. (who also wrote The Cowboys, Hombre and other westerns). It stars Newman as the wild son of a rancher played by Melvin Douglas. Hud’s in his thirties and he works hard at the ranch, but he also womanizes (often with married women), drinks, fights, and otherwise stirs up hornet’s nests. When the herd comes down with hoof and mouth disease, Hud tries to convince his father to sell them before it is known for sure. Other characters include the sultry but shabby maid played by Patricia O’Neil and Hud’s well-behaved nephew, played by Brandon DeWilde, the kid from Shane. The film is unique in that Hud has very few redeeming qualities — and by the end of the picture he still hasn’t acquired any!

"Outrage" is right!
“Outrage” is right! Hey, buddy — which way to Chi Omega?

The Outrage (1964)

A remake of Rashomon starring Newman, Lawrence Harvey, Claire Bloom, William Shatner, Edward G. Robinson and Howard Da Silva. An arty, self conscious, New Wave inspired attempt to replicate the success of The Magnificent Seven (also based on Kurasawa), but this one cleaves too closely to he original. Shatner as as preacher and Da Silva as a prospector bump into con man Robinson and pass along testimony related by various other characters at a trial for a Mexican bandit. Each has a different pov on the same events. Newman in serious brown face in a pretty heinous portrayal of a dark skinned person — not his last. To wit:

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Hombre (1966)

Directed by Martin Ritt; Elmore Leonard wrote the novel on which it is based. It’s a progressive western with Paul Newman as an Apache halfbreed who has chosen the Native American lifestyle despite a white father of some power and importance. When we first meet him he has long hair and is rounding up wild horses. But then he learns his father has died and he has inherited a boarding house from him. He cleans up and dresses “white”, then takes an ill-fated stagecoach ride that has certain echoes of Stagecoach: a motley collection of folks, including  Martin Balsam as the stage driver (he makes a much more convincing Mexican than Eli Wallach — or Newman, for that matter), Frederick March as a snooty Federal Indian agent, his wife, a couple of young newlyweds, the landlady from the boarding house, and Richard Boone as a very suspicious individual. Unlike Stagecoach, however, here the enemy is not the Apache, but the whites. It turns out March has embezzled thousands from the tribe and he is running off with his booty. And it also turns out that Richard Boone is the leader of a gang of thieves. It ends up with all of the characters trapped in the desert, a bunch of shooting, and a boring standoff. In the end, Newman, whom the entire cast has pretty much dissed for being a lowly Indian, dies a heroic death rescuing the Indian agent’s wife. Somehow we don’t much care. The most compelling and entertaining character in the film is Boone, at his villainous best. He takes an almost sensuous pleasure in his villainy. But the film suffers from a rambling, talky, claustrophobic feeling , which is not surprising since Ritt came out of tv dramas.

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Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969) 

Directed by George Roy Hill. This is probably the western film I have watched more times than any other — perhaps a dozen times. It appealed to me a lot when I was younger but its limitations have become apparent to me, and now it seems more a triumph of style over substance. Why are these two guys our heroes? They are bank robbers, and – ? H’m. Well, they are funny and charming and they are nice to each other. Is that enough?

The film seems to take a page from Bonnie and Clyde, right down to the brutal end of the heroes we’ve come to love so well throughout the picture. But Bonnie and Clyde is more complex. In the latter film, we see circumstances draw them into their spree, the characters seem caught up in a whirlwind they cannot control. Further, there is this populist undercurrent. It is the Great Depression, Bonnie and Clyde are common people, and there is a certain Robin Hood aspect, they do odd little good deeds along the way.

By contrast, Butch (Newman) and Sundance (Robert Redford) seem to do their crimes because they are bored. Our regard for them seems the result of sleight of hand. Early on, there is a David and Goliath type scene where Butch takes on his gigantic henchman (Ted Cassidy) who is leading a mutiny. Butch fights dirty and secures his leadership of the gang. We like him because he is smart and he has bested a larger opponent. But he is still the leader of a gang of robbers.

Butch and Sundance also have a Jules et Jim style ménage a trois with a schoolteacher played by Kathryn Ross, who says at one point “There’s one thing I won’t do. I won’t watch you die.”  Which is typical of the dialogue in this film. William Goldman’s screenplay is a series of catchphrases strung together. The film is highly influential in this regard. It points the way to most modern action movies. The whole thing is done with smoke and mirrors and shorthand, but no real people. So the gang robs a couple of trains and gets the company mad at them. The company sends a relentless posse after them. A lengthy chase scene in which the boys are incapable of shaking the posse no matter how hard they try, repeatedly asking “Who are those guys?” until they are trapped on a cliff and take a spectacular fall into the gorge below. Then they flee to South America with Kathryn Ross in tow. After a brief period of boredom they become payroll guards and revert to becoming bank robbers again. Until the fatal day when they are trapped in a courtyard and fight it out to the death. It is a very effective movie and very enjoyable. But when you analyze it, you realize there is nothing there but a fun ride. But…well, it is fun or I wouldn’t have watched it a dozen times.

Released in an era when the typical western star (i.e. John Wayne) was an ancient crotchety dinosaur, seeing the young Redford sporting a groovy new mustache, long hair and groovy threads that made him look like a member of the Byrds, the film was if nothing else, a stylistic pivot point for the western genre.

Original Cinema Quad Poster - Movie Film Posters

The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean (1972)

This is a very interesting artifact, very much of a piece with the other new westerns of its time, despite being directed by John Huston, a creature of the classic studio era. Like Jeremiah Johnson and Little Big Man and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, it plays with the idea of the tall tale and the opposite idea that this story just might be true.  Texas Hanging Judge Roy Bean was a real historical figure, but he was also the stuff of legend.  (Like those aforementioned movies, Roy Beans gives its legendary story a tragic dimension. There is this idea of a flaw in the American character leading to unhappiness. For the most part Bean plays like a silly comedy, but there’s more to it. Also like other movies of the time, such as The King of Marvin Gardens or The Last Detail, it feels plotless and randomly episodic — experimental. Usually such films were rooted in verite though, whereas this one is outlandish.

We also see that, in the wake of Butch Cassidy, Newman got the mistaken idea that he had a flair for comedy. That film also showcases Newman as another western legend, also wearing a derby hat. In this one, they blatantly copy the Raindrops Keep Falling on my Head sequence, with a montage scene cut to a terrible song called Honeysuckle, Molasses and Honey sung by Andy Williams. Fast forward over this! Newman plays Judge Bean, “the Only Law West of the Pecos”. A wanted bank robber, he walks out of the desert into a godforsaken frontier saloon one day, and is attacked by all the dirty people within. They cold cock him, drag him from a horse and leave him for dead. A girl gives him a gun and he returns to kill everyone in the bar. (The first tall tale of the film: he single handedly kills about 20 people). He finds a law book on the table, and sets himself up to be a judge. His main character trait is an obsession with the actress Lillie Langtry. He names the bar “The Jersey Lily”  in her honor, and calls the town that will grow there Langtry.

Bean’s idea of justice is cruel and capricious. He shoots and hangs bad guys. He makes a bunch of low-lifes his marshals, and a bunch of prostitutes their wives. This is the core of his new town. John Huston himself plays Grizzly Adams, who gives Bean a big, beer drinking grizzly bear, who becomes his best friend. Stacy Keach plays a hilarious character called Bad Bob, a flamboyant albino who comes to town to cause trouble, and whom Bean literally shoots a hole through. Roddy McDowell plays a back east lawyer who ends up taking over the whole town. With some more shaping, this could have been a better movie. When we start to get interested it’s too late in the picture. The real meat of it should be Bean’s relationship with the Mexican girl who becomes his wife (Jacquelyn Bisset). He is an eccentric, too weird and ornery to show love. But then the girl dies in his arms from childbirth just as he has gotten back from a misguided quest to see Lily Langtry perform. Obsessed with someone he doesn’t even know, he has lost the only woman he’ll ever love who’s right in front of him. The last act happens 20 years later — 1919. The town is now an oil boom town run by McDowell. His daughter (Victoria Principal) is the ward of Bean’s bartender Ned Beatty. But McDowell is forcing them out. Bean returns and blows up the whole town, returning it to desert. In the end, his bar becomes a museum, and Langtry (Ava Gardner) finally comes to visit.

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Buffalo Bill and the Indians, or Sitting Bulls History Lesson (1976)

Not really a western but examines the myth of the west. Though Robert Altman is one of my favorite directors, I’ve always disliked this movie. It is unworthy of the Arthur Kopit play on which is it is based, it is unworthy of the life and legend of Buffalo Bill, and it is unworthy of Altman’s own best efforts. Everything is wrong about it, except the art direction, which is top notch. Hard to know where to begin, there’s so much wrong with it. It starts out promising, with a certain presentationalism: credits that look like a 19th century handbill and a re-creation of a frontier massacre that is revealed to be just show biz. But then that trope is abandoned, it becomes a rambling, discursive, boring “fly on the wall” look at the plotless proceedings. As Kopit did, Altman might have made a nice statement by keeping it within that frame. Here, when we have scenes of the show within the show they are actually quite boring, apparently purposefully shot so as not to impress. Similarly, another potential framing devise, the storytelling of Ned Buntline (Burt Lancaster) is just a part of the tapestry, whereas it could have been the main presentational touchstone.

But of course hatred of show biz is Altman’s apparent point, and I guess that left him with him an insoluble conundrum. His real target of course is show business in general, and mythologizing, and the whitewashing of our historical brutalities. But in doing so, Altman makes a sort of unjust scapegoat out of Buffalo Bill, commiting a historical revisionism as egregious as the worst Hollywood westerns but for different reasons. The real Buffalo Bill was actually a person of real accomplishments. He wasn’t all vanity and myth. Not only was he an actual Indian scout, soldier, etc etc etc, but I hold that the building of his Wild West show  was a genuine accomplishment. He wasn’t just some stupid clown, and his show wasn’t just some dumb piece of jingoism. But Altman has to make them so in order to make his satire work. And so, the greatest spectacle of its age is belittled.

GRANTED, now, the treatment of the Indians by Buffalo Bill’s wild west was racist (using the modern standard), but the phenomenon was more complex than that, as Kopit showed in his play. Buffalo Bill had great respect for the Indians and was saddened by what they were reduced to. Altman’s take on the whole issue is simplistic, small-minded, self-congratulatory, obvious, smug, irritating, and not very funny. Even so, even granted you wanted to make a big target of Buffalo Bill, Newman’s performance here leaves much to be desired. It’s not the slightest bit comical. Think of Richard Mulligan as Custer in Little Big Man. This kind of vanity can be really funny. Newman isn’t. Nor is anyone else in the film. Joel Grey’s far-fetched malapropisms. A gaggle of annoying opera singers.

But if Newman is not funny, neither is his character sympathetic. He is heinous, and he is our main character and we are forced to spend two hours with him. It’s hell. Furthermore, the whole thing is so claustrophobic, it adds to the boredom and irritation. Altman seems to be doing his “microcosm” thing, as he had done with the army hospital in M*A*S*H, and the small town in McCabe and Mrs Miller. But even in those films he opened it up some, In MASH they go to Tokyo; in McCabe, McCabe visits other towns. Here we never leave this small penned in camp, making it feel sort of like those filmed versions of plays he directed in the 80s. Which is ironic because this movie is about the impact Buffalo Bill’s show had on the public. Yet we never see touring, we never see Buffalo Bill’s Wild West have any influence.

The whole movie is really about Bill’s troubles with Sitting Bull, a genuine Sioux chief who is here treated like crap because he doesn’t conform to the needed stereotype of a war chief for the benefit of a show. He gives Bill all kinds of flack, or rather his much more impressive interpreter (who never interprets) Halsey (Will Sampson) does. There is the injustice of President Cleveland (Pat McCormack) not even listening to Sitting Bull’s request (even though Sitting Bull is under the impression that he has summoned the president there with a dream).

The only interesting scene in the movie occurs one hour and fifty minutes into it, when Sitting Bull’s ghost appears to Bill, who has an effective monologue. And there is an eloquent scene at the end where we witness the rather fascist spectacle of a fake fight between Bill and Halsey (who now plays Sitting Bull in the show). But it’s too little, too late. The movie is one of Altman’s worst in my view, ranking with Quintet (which also stars Newman!)

Happy birthday, Paul Newman!  Come to think of it, this post was rather a dubious present! But I loved you in Towering Inferno!

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