TOUGH GUYS IN WOOL

I wrote last time regarding the absence of tough guys in today’s cinema world. There is little of that style of actor – with a few exceptions. I neglected to mention one brilliant piece of modern noir film making with an unlikely ‘tough guy’ in the person of Tom Hanks and ever cool Paul Newman. I speak of Director Sam Mendes 2002 release of THE ROAD TO PERDITION, who three years previously burst upon the screen with AMERICAN BEAUTY (1999).
I am not alone in neglecting this gem as it did not receive the Oscars that were its due. There was something about it. Nothing like total darkness and the big screen even if the silence is punctuated with hands reaching into popcorn bags and the occasional beverage cup falling over.
Tom Hanks playing against type gives a wonderful mixture of cold hearted family man and an enforcer on a roller coaster ride towards a fate that happens to people when they do the kinds of things that he has done. The picture has many great scenes between Hanks and Newman; such as when they muse that sons are put on earth to torment their fathers. One other has a young Daniel Craig getting his comeuppance at a meeting table from Paul Newman who is at the far end. Newman is seated through the scene; he and Craig play it as a ‘give and take” exercise giving them both moments to shine.

Paul Newman shows an actor brilliantly in touch with his craft and himself to give so much in those moments. James Cagney in John Ford’s 1955 production of MISTER ROBERTS is similar in stance and attack during his rant concerning not taking anything from ‘college boys.’

The picture is filled with characters played by actors who are unafraid to make difficult choices. Jude Law as crusty Harlan Maguire wielding a shotgun, blowing holes in walls in hotel rooms that let sunshine in while trying to dispatch Tom Hanks. Moody Jennifer Jason Leigh as the wife of Tom Hanks that pays a price for her involvement.
The musical score by Thomas Newman is exceptional in this scope and tenderness. Unlike most films set in this time period Newman does not use re- orchestrated songs of the day or obscure pieces instead he uses flowing tones creating soundscapes that images flow over and around. The music fades out at just the right moment in the climactic scene to let the rain patter down.

The cinematography by Conrad Hall who passed away during the making of the picture did win the Oscar that year. The film is filled with rain, mist, contrasting bright sunlight, shadows, rich wood tones and an almost sepia tone look.

Sam Mendes creates for us a sad story of a family doomed to consume itself because of its past. Yet it also juxtaposes the entire end on one family unit in a poignant ending. Seldom today does a picture come together on all areas of story and look: this work still does and is a mere eleven years old. It truly is a throwback to the great Noir films of the past. Yet it stands on its own with a modern look at themes of family devotion and father and son relationships.

HBO’s excellent series BOARDWALK EMPIRE explores the same time period. This also features interesting characters if not composites of the real people coupled with outstanding detail of clothes and sets. The saga of “Nucky” Thompson is also a look at family life, connections and hard decisions.

Robert Mitchum could have been in both these productions along with his son James during the early 50’s as I see similarities to Tom Hank’s role and that of the father in THUNDER ROAD (1958). Mitchum would not even need the moustache, but would still look cool dressed in wool standing the rain, smoking a cigarette the way he could with hat couched back.

THE ROAD TO PERDITION is neglected today perhaps for the reason that it despite the merits; it can be a bleak outlook. That acid tinged look is one of the staples and drawing points of the Noir genre so it passes with flying grey colours. The last word goes to Paul Newman from the picture: “I am glad it’s you.”

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TOUGH GUYS???

A few months back I came across yet another biography of Humphrey Bogart titled TOUGH WITHOUT A GUN: THE EXTRAORDINARY LIFE OF HUMPHREY BOGART by Stefan Kanfer. It is a slim volume by Bogart biography standards clocking in at a mere 320 pages compared with others on the same subject. I had read Ann Sperber and Eric Lax’s much large book (720 pages) titled BOGART a few years ago and thought that I had found out a good deal of Mr. Bogart’s life yet for some reason I wanted another take. The author advanced the idea that there are no tough guys in today’s cinema which got me thinking that he is correct to a point that the ‘Tough guy’ role has become the ‘Action hero”

Who do today’s studios have that could portray a world weary, cynical tough guy cut from the same cloth as we see in Classic Hollywood? I tend to agree with what Mr. Kanfer says that there are nothing but “Boy men” personified by the likes Toby Maguire, James Franco, Leonardo DiCaprio, Ryan Gosling, Channing Tatum, Josh Brolin with the rare exceptions of Tommy lee Jones, Johnny Depp, Benicio Del Toro and Sean Penn. Josh Harnett did a good turn in the opening of SIN CITY (2005) reminiscent of Dana Andrews in WHERE THE SIDEWALK ENDS (1950)

Classic Noir often has the detective as the one with the qualities of a cynical acid tongue looking through the world through the bottom of a Scotch bottle and too many cigarettes. Today we give the villain the power to have ruthless odd behaviour while the pursuing Law are often painted as being an ‘Everyman’ reacting as the audience is supposed to. Great example of this is NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN (2007) with Javiar Bardem tearing up the screen the bad guy against Josh Brolin. You always remember the bad guy or girl in films as leading men are acted upon.

You try not to say that they “Don’t write them like they did” anymore but it is true. The stories should not be the same as Hollywood has changed the world has changed from the war years of the 40’s and the Cold war/atomic fear of the 50’s. The actors from Classic Hollywood often came by way of the theatre not as the reverse today. I still believe the theatre trained actor has tremendous technique with an ability depending on the group to create roles with accents done properly. It is deadly important to show ‘truth’ in the walk and speech pattern of a role yet that seems to escape many actors of today. Let’s look at Humphrey Bogart as Duke Mantee in THE PETRIFIED FOREST (1936). The role of Duke Mantee originated in the theatre with Bogart developing that facial snarl, the shuffle walk and rat like hand movements. Mantee had a face like a clenched fist ready to spring out at you or anyone in his way.

These men and in some cases women all came from a world of War and the fear of the Depression. Many emerged from poor upbringing marred by alcohol, mental illness or just plain dirt poor living in some shack. It is a different time now with stories to tell for a different market. The “tough guy’ and tough Girl” has become the action hero of today populating such CGI films as the FAST AND FURIOUS series, The X MEN, IRON MAN, GI JOE films. Actors can also pick projects shifting from genre to genre giving stronger career latitude. Today people don’t identify actor with certain style of role as they once did except in the Horror film series. Difference can be good yet I still enjoy the rumpled hat and body in the rain leaning against a wall in an ally