My chum Tim and I watch a film every week, taking it in turns to pick. The only catch? Each film has to be linked to the previous one by a shared actor. We’re on the hunt for classics we’ve missed, hidden gems and films to reappraise now we’re, uh, getting older.
We watched three Strother Martin films in a row and regretted (some of) our life choices.
It’s a quartet of films this week: The Prize, Harper, Torn Curtain and The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean. It’s another season dedicated to one actor (hmmm, who could it be?). I know, following the underwhelming and downright maddening previous season why do another? Two reasons:
Firstly, and most boringly, Tim and I are both are lot busier at work these days, so the merry hours of scrolling through filmographies are slightly harder to come by. Narrowing the focus for a bit makes life easier.
Secondly, it’s a really plucky actor…
It’s only Paul bloody Newman! One of the most handsome men to ever walk the planet, and with a tasty line of salad dressings and sauces to boot. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid is a stone cold doozy, as is The Sting. His snarling turn in The Hudsucker Proxy is a joy (as is everything about that film). I’ve seen him eat dozens of eggs and lounge around like… someone looking at a cat on a hot tin roof, I guess. He’s also in loads of stuff I’ve never heard of, so will this tarnish his brilliance or make his lustre ever brighter? Here goes…
The Prize, Harper, Torn Curtain, The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean and me
The Prize and Torn Curtain were my choices, so I’ll start with them. I’d never heard of The Prize before – it was a complete unknown with a mediocre IMDb score. But it co-starred Edward G Robinson and sounded fun, and that’s been sorely lacking. Torn Curtain is a Hitchcock film, and I’m really never quite sure how I feel about Hitchcock. There are usually some very captivating moments, but the sum of the parts never quite comes together, for me. Though Shadow of a Doubt and Rear Window are both immense.
Tim picked Harper and The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean. One’s a private dick film – how wrong can you go? – and the other a Western biopic. We’ve not had much enjoyment from Western biopics in CRFC before, but there’s always a first time. And despite McLintock’s shadow, Tim does love a Western…
The Prize (1963): As the Nobel Prize winners come to Stockholm to receive their awards, their lives are overturned and perturbed in various ways. 6.8 stars.
Harper (1966): Lew Harper, a cool private investigator, is hired by a wealthy California matron to locate her kidnapped husband. 7 stars.
Torn Curtain (1966): An American scientist publicly defects to East Germany as part of a cloak and dagger mission to find the solution for a formula resin before planning an escape back to the West. 6.7 stars.
The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean (1972): In Vinegaroon, Texas, former outlaw Roy Bean appoints himself the judge for the region and dispenses his brand of justice as he sees fit. 7 stars.
Well it’s not a repeat of the Strother Martin debacle, so that’s good.
The Prize was the real surprise of the bunch. Paul Newman plays a booze-soaked writer, the recipient of the Nobel Prize for literature. In the hotel where the winners are all staying a cold war plot starts to play out, but no-one believes Newman’s unreliable witness.
Having been down on Pocket Money last time for being pretty dull, strangely enough this time round I was almost disappointed when the plot kicked into gear in The Prize. Newman’s writer is being guided chaperoned by Elke Sommer, gets into an escapade with the wife of one of the other nominees and has a couple of lovely conversations with the hotel staff and Edward G Robinson’s scientist character. It’s all light and nicely played and I could have watched a whole frothy film about that with a big smile on my face. I don’t mean to be downbeat about the plot – it was absolutely fine cold war thrillery stuff – it’s just I was having such a good time without it in the first place! It’s not a life-changing watch, but is a hearty recommendation. It’s a shame it’s not better known.
Harper (or Moving Target as it’s also known) was… fine.
It’s a private eye movie and it does all the things that private eye movies do and not a lot besides. Funnily enough Strother Martin turns up again (he was in quite a few Paul Newman films).
My favourite things in Harper were a couple of montages of 60s dancing. Worth it for those alone, I’d say. It’s written by the late William Goldman (adapted from a novel), but does not rank with his best.
Torn Curtain is probably the most frustrating of the bunch, as it featured some really good stuff, and some really terrible stuff (classic Hitchcock!).
There’s a protracted silent fight sequence that really doesn’t gloss over the heroes killing a villain. It’s a pretty hard watch, but intentionally so. And it doesn’t have to pull the smug Funny Games trick to make you think a little about violence.
Where the film fell down somewhat was in the decision making of the characters, making them stunningly stupid to ensure the plot moved on. And there’s a whole chunk that should and could have been excised without necessitating any other changes. While Paul Newman’s scientist is on the run from the Stasi with his wife (Julie Andrews), he is told a name and address. He doesn’t quite catch it and asks again. And is told again. Then in the next scene he can’t remember the address and we’re treated to a truly terrible ten minutes that only detracts from the film, and any tension, as a passerby offers help and a long sob story about needing to get out of East Germany. The actress was a friend of Hitch and the scene was not trimmed at all. It should have been. In its entirety.
The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean proves that we really should just avoid Western biopics.
I don’t mind films based on real stuff twisting the truth a bit to make a better film (unless it’s presented as the unvarnished truth), but this one took the cake. From the real Roy’s Wikipedia page:
In one case an Irishman named Paddy O’Rourke shot a Chinese laborer and during the trial a mob of 200 angry Irishmen surrounded the courtroom and saloon. They threatened to lynch Bean if O’Rourke was not freed and after looking through his law book Bean ruled that “homicide was the killing of a human being; however, he could find no law against killing a Chinaman” dismissing the case.
In the film this is reversed. The killer turns up saying that there’s no law against killing Chinese people, and good ol’ Roy decides that the law treats all men equal so it is in fact a crime. I guess my frustration is why on earth make it about a real person and then so fundamentally reverse that kind of decision? Just make it about a fictional person instead… The bear from Gentle Ben turns up at some point so… there’s that.
The Prize takes the prize!
It’s my choice next. Having decreed we should avoid Western biopics, I’m going to pick a Western biopic. But this is different. This is one I know is good. It’s better than good. It’s Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.