By the end of the 1970s Paul Newman had been acting for over twenty-five years, and had become one of the most recognisable actors on the planet from roles such as Butch Cassidy, Cool Hand Luke, Fast Eddie Felson in The Hustler, and Henry Gondorff in The Sting – all roles in which he showed unmatchable coolness, and a desire to buck the system. His rebelliousness was appealing, and his smile was box-office gold.
He was great in all of those films, but I think his best performances lie at the beginning of the 1980s. Okay, maybe not the volcano-based disaster film he was contractually obliged to make in 1980 (When Time Ran Out…, which is a film Newman publically stated he regretted making) but the three films he made in 1981 and 1982: Fort Apache, The Bronx; Absence Of Malice; and The Verdict.
These films deal with issues of social and legal injustice, and they have a keen edge that shows a different side to Newman. He looks older, wiser, and has a sense of watchful stillness in his performances. The scripts are challenging, at times controversial, and far from predictable. There are no easy answers to the problems raised. Here’s a closer look at all three of them:
Fort Apache, The Bronx (1981)
In the first few minutes, when the camera pans across the city and the music kicks in, it’s impossible not to think of Dirty Harry. But this isn’t just is a New York version of that film. It has less structure and offers less in the way of answers.
Newman plays Murphy, a cop with his own idiosyncratic way of keeping the peace in an environment that is pretty much hell on earth. Drugs, prostitution, theft, assault and murder are all commonplace, and Fort Apache came under a lot of criticism at the time of release for portraying the Bronx as a lost cause. A statement was added to the start of the film in which it’s pointed out that the action does not “dramatize the efforts of the individuals and groups who are struggling to turn the Bronx around”, so you know you’re going to get an overwhelming negative, and stereotypical at times, look at that community. Every single character suffers, most of them also cause a lot of suffering.
What the film does well is to present two different forms of police ideology. Murphy, unlike Eastwood’s Harry Callaghan, believes in trying to get along, build links, and establish the police as a positive force. The new police chief, played by Ed Asner, thinks a tough stance is the only way to go, and tensions build as every crime is stamped upon. There’s not really a single plotline, but trying to track down a cop-killing prostitute played ferociously by Pam Grier leads the action for much of the film. There’s also a great turn by Danny Aiello as a policeman who takes the law into his own hands. All of these events are a grey area for Murphy until a tragedy in his own life makes him see things in a new way.
It’s a very bleak piece of work, and although the structure has been criticised as lacking drive, I think the fact that there’s very little in the way of resolution really works. Even Dirty Harry gives Callaghan a moment in which he defeats the bad guy. Fort Apache has no such reassurances.
Absence Of Malice (1981)
There are a lot of brilliant films about the newspaper business. Desks stacked with paper, printing machines and rollers churning out headlines, people with pencils stuck behind their ears and their eyes fixed on the truth – journalists are usually fast-talking, no-nonsense upholders of truth according to Hollywood.
Not in Absence Of Malice. Sally Field plays a reporter who doesn’t have the sense to see that she’s being used, and that she’s damaging the reputations of people who don’t have a way to protect themselves. The film, directed by Sydney Pollack, makes the point that what is accurate is not always true, and what is true is not always anybody else’s business.
Newman is Michael Gallagher, a relative of a crime boss in Miami who gets set up by the DA in an attempt to make him an informant. Megan Carter (Field) is fed a story about his possible involvement in a crime, and she writes it. Is she to blame for the events that follow? Is there any way to redress a wrong caused by the misdirection of public scrutiny? Although it was made over thirty years ago, the questions raised in Absence Of Malice feel very pertinent to today.
Everything leads, quite slowly at times, to a final scene with Wilford Brimley that is just brilliant. But I do have to wonder if having Brimley turn up as a US Attorney General doesn’t reinforce some idea of eventual justice being available. Out of the entire film, that’s the area that feels most dated to me. Still, who can begrudge a star turn from Brimley? He’s such a wonderful actor.
This isn’t a romantic comedy set in a newsroom; nor is it about solving the crime. If you go in without preconceptions, it’s all the better for it.
The Verdict (1982)
The Verdict is such a good film that I see something more in it every time I watch it. I know what happens in the end, and still I’m glued. Director Sidney Lumet keeps everything so quiet, so gradual, that by the time you get to the court scenes you can hardly bear the pressure, and you’re not quite sure how you got into that state.
It might be Newman’s finest moment as an actor, the final minutes of The Verdict. As washed-up alcoholic lawyer Frank Galvin he ends up standing in front of a jury, and delivers a speech about the meaning of justice that sums up all his years of self-hatred, of despair, of suffering belief in the system that he works within. The script was written by David Mamet (Glengarry Glen Ross, The Untouchables) so yes, Newman gets good material to work with. But he really makes the most of it. There are strong performances all round, though. Lindsay Crouse is only on screen for a few minutes and she’s amazing, and James Mason turns up as a wonderfully slimy lawyer for the defence.
It’s an uncomfortable film because it’s about watching mistakes happen. Everybody makes mistakes, the film tells us. The question is – what are we going to do about it? Newman manages to suggest a journey of personal retribution that is dragged out of him. He doesn’t just see the light. He hides behind other people, and behind beer and sex and friends who want to help him. Becoming a better person is a really painful business.
Incidentally, in that amazing speech to the jury at the end of the film you can see a couple of extras who might catch your eye: both Bruce Willis and Tobin Bell are sitting behind Paul Newman. Don’t let that get in the way of watching the performance, though.
Newman was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actor for both Absence Of Malice and The Verdict, but didn’t win until 1986, when he reprised the role of Fast Eddie in The Color of Money. But when do the Oscars ever get things right? It doesn’t really matter, anyway, as long as we get the chance to see for ourselves how brilliant he could be. His focus and his commitment to the three roles he played at the beginning of the 1980s represents, for me, the high point of his long career.
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