Paul Newman Film Series – The Outrage, When Time Ran Out, The Silver Chalice, The Helen Morgan Story, Rachel, Rachel – DVD Review
By Frankie Dees Mar 10, 2009, 16:06 GMT
With the recent passing of Paul Newman, Warner Brothers saw fit to release some of the last Newman pics in their catalog. That it took WB this long to release these pics on DVD doesn't bode well of course, but Newman aficionados will probably be all too happy to have these pics in their collection nonetheless.
The cynic in me wonders if WB was obligated to wait until Newman's death to present two of his worst films, one, the Irwin Allen debacle 'When Time Ran Out...' which put the final nail in the 70s-era disaster pic coffin and Newman's debut film 'The Silver Chalice' in which Newman himself put out an Los Angeles Times ad apologizing for his performance and to avoid it's showing on NBC by all means possible.
Newman's plan backfired, of course, as everyone had to know how bad the film could be and ratings came back impressive.
The ambitious but flawed 'The Outrage', a western remake of Kurosawa classic 'Rashomon' and the average 'The Helen Morgan Story' are both middle of the road with the best of these recent pics being Newman's directorial debut 'Rachel, Rachel' where Newman directs wife Joanne Woodard in a poignant, well-acted drama with Newman being completely behind-the-scenes.
All pics feature anamorphic widescreen transfers and get the threadbare treatment, even scene selections are missing here.
I will mercifully work my way from worst to best starting with the terrible 'When Time Ran Out', the 1980 debacle about a Hawaiian volcano threatening disaster to a bunch of mostly over-privileged white people.
With 'The Swarm' and 'Beyond the Poseidon Adventure' providing evidence that Irwin Allen's disaster epic phase might have passed, 'Meteor' and 'Airport '79' certainly didn't help the genre any. Then comes 'When Time Ran Out...', a film so God-awful, it was forgivably forgotten by almost everybody involved including the three people that saw it theatrically.
Not featuring a so bad, it's good rep that 'The Swarm' or 'Meteor' has attained over the years, Allen's last feature film can only be remembered as a pic that not even Paul Newman can save (it was a pic that Newman was presumably contractually obligated to fulfill for Allen after 'The Towering Inferno') and it was deservedly Allen's last theatrical release.
What's even more funny about this release is WB's blatant indifference which got inexplicably (mercifully?) cut down from its original running time of 121 minutes. The VHS ran even featured a mind-numbing extended edition at 141 minutes. Actually, I take that back, WB only had our interests at heart here...
The plot, such as it is, shamelessly rehashes past hits and then takes it up a convoluted step. On a remote, unnamed Pacific Island (who we kidding? it's the Big Island of Hawaii) with a suspicious-looking volcano, a new luxury hotel built by multi-millionaire aging playboy Shelby Gilmore (William Holden) is getting some promotion by advertising hottie Kay Kirby (Jacqueline Bisset) whom Shelby proposes to. Not much interested in being Shelby's seventh wife, she seemed to have ulterior motives that included oil-driller Hank Anderson (Newman) who just struck black gold on the same island.
There are a lot more inexplicable characters that pop up throughout and serve most of the same purposes that the supporting cast in 'The Towering Inferno' and 'The Poseidon Adventure' provided but this time, they have to fend off liquid hot magma!
The 22-million budget, high for the time, must have gone to the admittedly star-studded cast as the effects in the film, that include tidal waves, earthquakes and of course, liquid hot magma!, are terrible.
Watching an Ed Wood film is one thing, but watching a supposed high-budget disaster flick with Paul Newman is another and shoddy effects just won't cut the 'Newman's Own' mustard. It's not just shoddy special f/x but more a failing on almost every level including the tepid script, stale direction, boring cinematography and grating music. The dialogue is continuously laughable with exchanges that make Lucas' 'romantic' mumblings in 'Episode II' sound like 'Romeo and Juliet'.
Only marginally better but a must-see for Newman fans is his 1954 film debut 'The Silver Chalice', a film trying to capitalize on the epic costume dramas of the time like 'Samson and Delilah', 'Quo Vadis' and most notably 'The Robe'.
A curious failure considering the decent budget and strong cast but script and direction killed this one too with director Victor Saville pointedly not getting a chance to direct again after this and writer Lesser Samuels only able to crap out one more script.
For my money, this 'historical epic' could have used more galloping armored rhino's a la '300' but I digress. Our 135-minute journey (that feels twice that) starts off in the Syrian city Antioch a couple decades A.D.
Basil is a young peasant boy sold by his father to a wealthy merchant whose uncle feels threatened by him due to his legal right at the wealth. As years pass, and our young Basil grows into a young, blond curly-haired Paul Newman (think Colin Farrell in 'Alexander'...or on second thought, don't), the merchant dies and the uncle double-crosses Basil and throws him back into slavery.
As a child, we learn that Basil fell in love with his older slave girl keeper Helena (a blonde Natalie Wood) and fate has it that he meets her yet again years later when she finds him as a famous sculptor, though still enslaved to a market street store.
Helena's (now Virginia Mayo) life has taken an interesting turn as she has become an assistant/courtesan to a famous magician Simon (Jack Palance, the only one who seems to know what he's doing).
All this culminates in a Christian vs. Romans showdown with Basil having to choose between the already taken Helena and a new love, the Christian Deborra all the while being recruited by the Apostle Luke and Joseph of Arimathea to create a silver chalice to house the Holy Grail.
No pressure there. With Simon being lured by the Romans to use his parlor tricks to emulate the miracles of Jesus, it leads to what should be a Basil vs. Simon showdown.
But like most threads in the narrative, plots are built up only to go absolutely no where. Basil's conviction of finding a third witness to his adoption goes nowhere, the love triangle between Basil, Helena and Deborra goes nowhere and ultimately and most crucially, the what should be inevitable meeting of Basil and Simon doesn't even happen. Strange considering it had plenty of time to follow through on everything it started.
Despite the full-page ad in the New York Times, Newman's performance isn't all that bad although it comparably comes up short when compared to his looser later roles (take your pic of any) but most other actors seemed to have stumbled in from their offspring's elementary school play saying each word as if God himself was on the receiving end. This might have worked had anything interesting been said.
With sparse, cheap sets, and a distinct lack of almost any action, only the most hardcore followers of sword-and-sandal epics will be able to find anything of substance here. But as a Newman fan, and who isn't? I still have to recommend this for the completist factor of being able to see Newman in his first film role.
Next is the strictly average 'The Helen Morgan Story' where Newman is more on the sidelines to the titular entertainer. Biopics were all the rage in the fifties and with the exception of a few, none really stand out more than being a couple hours of strained truth and the typical tortured artist type of stuff.
With direction from Michael Curtiz ('Casablanca'), who had a number of so-so biopics already under his belt including 'Young Man with a Horn', 'Jim Thorpe' and 'The Best Things in Life Are Free', 'The Helen Morgan Story' takes a look at the Depression-era songstress who stormed her way through Broadway while battling alcohol and men.
Ann Blyth stars as Morgan, a small-town gal whose voice drew her to New York where she made her way through a lot of crappy gigs to finally finding success. Two men dominated her love life, the first a married man (Richard Carlson) who wouldn't leave his family for her and a bootlegger (Paul Newman) who wouldn't give up his criminal lifestyle.
The real Helen Morgan died in an early, alcoholic daze but the film opts to not end with this downer and instead stop her life story just. What's most notable here are the songs that singer Gogi Grant sings, dubbing for Ann Blyth, but the majority of the film feels like an over-labored bore.
Newman fans will find little of interest here as his perf is okay but like the rest of the film, underwritten and simply average.
Next up is ‘The Outrage’, an ambitious but slightly lacking western retelling of Akira Kurosawa’s ‘Rashomon’. Released in 1964, the same year that saw Kurosawa’s ‘Yojimbo’ get a western take in a ‘A Fistful of Dollars’, it’s pretty clear which film’s reputation has gone on to take the Kurosawa remake crown.
Teaming up with Martin Ritt a year after their much more successful ‘Hud’, ‘The Outrage’ tells the story of a newly married couple, Col. Wakefield (Laurence Harvey) and Nina (Claire Bloom) who get kidnapped by a notorious bandit Juan Carrasco (Newman…and yep, Newman’s pulling a Heston and playing a Mexican) with various viewpoints being retold later only to arrive at the same fate for the couple, rape and death.
The film opens at a run-down train station, the rain pouring down, and three very different individuals gathering: a preacher (William Shatner!), a con man (Edward G. Robinson), and a miner (Howard Da Silva) who all scrutinize the trial of the bandit held for murder.
Recounting the story of the three involved as well as an outsider, every version is considerably different; who’s lying or merely relaying information filtered through their own skewed perspective?
The black and white photography by legendary cinematography James Wong How is quite striking and from a purely tech standpoint, Martin Ritt has fashioned a fairly flawless pic. The sequences taking place at the rain-drenched run-down train station, clearly set-bound, establishes a fascinating mood right off.
A commercial failure, the film was probably too intangible for 1964 audiences who expected their westerns full of action - not a legal drama dressed up as a western - and their stars to be recognizable.
The script does flounder a bit and by the time the third telling of the story rolls around, the whole proceedings get a bit tedious but that's not for a lack of trying from the cast. From an early role with William Shatner to Newman's great, nuanced role as a Mexican bandit, thesping skills are firmly on display but it just may not be enough outside of a curio watch for Newman and Ritt fans.
Paul Newman's film directing debut is next and it's easily the best film of this five-title strong 'Newman Series'. Giving his wife one of her stronger roles in a startlingly anti-commercial film for the time, 'Rachel, Rachel', Newman showed his true artistic colors early on by tackling this small-scale, depressing drama about a small-town teacher fed up with life.
Coming off enormous hit 'Cool Hand Luke', he probably felt like stretching a different creative muscle and chose to adapt Margaret Laurence's book 'A Jest of God' (maybe Joanne Woodard had more than a little do with that?).
Woodard stars as Rachel, an elementary school teacher still living with her dependent mom over the funeral home that her dad used to own. Constantly in her own head to keep her from going crazy, we see and hear these inner monologues as they play out, usually as her being a little girl who hasn't yet realized how unhappy her life will turn out.
A few notable things change in her life that will snap her out of the walking dead lifestyle she's been living. First are fellow teacher and one of her few friends (Estelle Parsons) who drags her to a church healing revival ceremony and then shares a secret that Rachel doesn't quite know how to deal with.
Second is the introduction of Nick (James Olson), a child-hood friend brought back to town for the funeral of his brother, who becomes Rachel's first love and lover; something that should have happened almost twenty years earlier...
Woodward is outstanding and fearless in the title role, easily carrying the weight of the entire film on her frail shoulders (she's on-screen almost every minute of the film), and playing every possible reaction and emotion with an impeccable nuance.
Garnering nods for Best Picture, Actress and Supporting Actress for Parsons who also delivers a spot-on perf, the themes get quite weighty that include abortion, lesbianism and a morbid look at death not to mention a constant feeling of disturbing introspection.
Overall, the Paul Newman film series offer up one legitimately good film, a decent one, two so-so and an absolutely terrible one. Luckily, all these are sold separately so you can purchase and rent depending on the mood.
The complete lack of special features is disappointing but the transfers are all quite good and if you're a Newman completist, I imagine one can be happy that these got a release at all.