Stars at Cannes: Natalie Wood, 1962; Dustin Hoffman and Anne Byrne, 1975; Robert Redford and Sydney Pollack, 1972; Jack Nicholson and Cicely Tyson, 1974; Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward, 1973
1994, Joel and Ethan Coen
The last film that I needed to see in order to have completed the Coen brothers entire works, The Hudsucker Proxy didn’t fail to live up to the lofty expectations their successes have built up for me going into any new project of theirs. As my favorite American filmmakers, it was quite surreal watching this and knowing that it was the last possible new film of theirs that I could see until they release their next one, but thankfully Proxy was a delightfully charming satire that kept a smile on my face even as the characters were falling apart.
After the head of the massively successful Hudsucker Industries commits suicide by jumping out of the top floor of their monolithic headquarters, the board of directors concoct a scheme in order to take control of the company themselves. Led by the smarmy, cunning Sidney Mussberger (played with against-type sleaze by the great Paul Newman), the men realize that if they appoint a dimwit to run the company it’ll tank their stock value and make it affordable for them to buy up a controlling interest and take over. Falling right into their laps is Norville Barnes (Tim Robbins), a new employee working in the mailroom who is just the right kind of idiot they can exploit in order to pull it off without a hitch.
Of course in the world of the Coens nothing ever goes according to plan and soon they not only discover that Norville isn’t quite the moron they believed him to be, but they’ve also got the sleuthing hands of Pulitzer-winning reporter Amy Archer (Jennifer Jason Leigh) working undercover as his assistant to try and break a story on just what’s happening behind the scenes at Hudsucker Industries. The Hudsucker Proxy could have gotten itself bogged down in the semantics of its constantly turning plot or played too far into the romance angle with the relationship that develops between Norville and Amy, but the Coens are always playing things just on the right side of the intricate web they construct.
The deadpan humor comes hard and quick at all times, never resting too long on one joke or letting attempts at comedy seem forced and irrelevant to the plot. Proxy is first and foremost a comedy, but it’s also a quite scathing indictment of the corporate world as the suited upper crust work towards their own gains and even the naive, innocent Norville becomes corrupted by the glamour of his own success. Robbins isn’t an actor I often care for, but the Coens cast him well in the key role, though it’s Jennifer Jason Leigh who runs away with the entire picture.
A constantly underrated talent, this may be her finest performance I’ve seen yet, as Leigh is clearly channeling Rosalind Russell’s portrayal of Hildy Johnson in His Girl Friday when it comes to her delivery of ace reporter Archer. She nails the period dialect, the rapid-fire abrasiveness of the Coens’ dialogue for her specifically and hits just the right dramatic beats to make her conflicting emotions believable without straining too far in one direction. With very enjoyable supporting parts and cameos from actors like Charles Durning, Jim True-Frost and Bruce Campbell, Hudsucker Proxy keeps the laughs coming all the way to its ominous climax that we see at the start of the picture where Norville stands suicidal on the ledge outside of his top-floor office.
The deus ex machina in the final act rubbed me a little wrong at first, but once I let it settle I became more appreciative of the way that it capitalizes on the underlying religious themes that play out over the course of the entire picture. Hudsucker Proxy isn’t often mentioned when it comes to the Coens’ works, but it deserves to be appreciated much more as it stands strong among some of the finest that they have to offer. Certainly not on the masterpiece level that their very best achieve, it is nevertheless a consistently entertaining and surprisingly thoughtful piece that presents plenty of laughs and several standout performances. Leigh’s in particular deserves mention as one of the finest in any of their films. A great way for me to close out their filmography, and now I can sit back and wait with heavy anticipation for each of their new releases to come into my world.
Robert Redford, with a cardboard cut-out of Paul Newman, Utah, 1969.
Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward photographed by Lawrence Schiller, 1967.
1981, Daniel Petrie
Based on the true experiences of police officers within the Bronx, Fort Apache, The Bronx stars Paul Newman in one of the best of his late career performances (a category of which there are many entries). As Officer Murphy, it’s primarily through him that we are given a look into these mean streets of New York, with its murdering prostitutes and cops who take bribes and look the other way. At first Murphy is painted as a man who sees this indecency and accepts it as part of the world, but when a new captain (Ed Asner) comes in to shake up the established order, Murphy’s eyes get opened to just how bad his precinct has become.
Named after the nickname the officers have given their station, Fort Apache is labeled such for how the men see it as a fort in enemy territory. The violence and decay is right outside their door and when the going gets rough, they settle in to their fort as an outpost in a time of war. The new captain’s demand to bring more justice to these streets disrupts the way the South Bronx work here and as a result the whole area is thrown into disarray. Riots abound, the violence gets more severe and the tensions between cops and comes to a boiling point that had been slowly building for some time now.
The film opens with a shocking scene where a young prostitute, played by Pam Grier who filters in and out of the picture, murders two police officers in their squad car and this new tough approach on crime is a direct result of that action. We see it all through Murphy, as his tough exterior is hit harder and harder until his morality is tested and he has to decide whether he wants to fight back against the crime outside and inside the precinct or if he wants to continue to sit back and let the place rot.
A conventional romance with a local nurse played by Rachel Ticotin is a little shaky in its development and a certain reveal about her character seems farfetched (although she’s based on a real person so I suppose it just felt underdeveloped), but Murphy’s morality struggle is played with great anguish by Newman. In his later years he really hit his stride with these world-worn characters who played off of his incomparable charm that masked a reservoir of pain, and this is one of the prime examples of that area of expertise he possessed.
The film overall leaves a little something to be desired. It tends to meander in its ideas and there’s a stretch in the middle where it doesn’t seem to know what it’s doing, but when it focuses on Murphy’s struggle it definitely hits its peak and the staging of the Bronx as a kind of modern Wild West was soundly done by director Daniel Petrie.
Film #224 of The 365 Film Challenge.
1969, George Roy Hill
Films really don’t come much more gleefully entertaining than Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, and screen pairings don’t come much more perfect than Paul Newman and Robert Redford. The two inhumanly good-looking men who would later re-team again under the direction of George Roy Hill for the Best Picture winning The Sting got their start together as the titular pair of thieves and hooligans here and rarely has a connection between two actors worked on screen as well as these two. As Cassidy, Newman has a slightly worn and intellect-based outlook on the world, which is wonderfully opposed by Redford’s youthful spirit and shoot first attitude as Sundance.
Delivering the great dialogue of William Goldman’s script, the two are a dream pairing and they light up the screen from beginning to end of this wild and adventurous ride. In fact, the two are so perfect together that when mutual love interest Katharine Ross comes on screen, things tend to drag a tiny bit. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid isn’t a film you need to put a lot of thought into and that’s why it succeeds so well at what it wants to be; pure fun. With these two constantly going at each other but sticking together until the infamous final shot, it would be hard for a director to mess up their kind of instant chemistry and George Roy Hill gave them exactly the platform they needed (multiple times).
The structure doesn’t follow much of a narrative, but instead poses these outlaws almost as drifters as they run and gun their way from one job to the next. There’s an extended sequence of them fleeing a group of men assigned to bring them to justice and this long act of the pair running, pausing to observe their followers and trade some banter, then continuing on is the most delightful moment of the entire picture. Newman and Redford are easily one of the best pairs ever put on film and they turn Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid into two of my favorite characters. This is pure movie entertainment at its finest.
Film #223 of The 365 Film Challenge.