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.”