Wednesday, June 30, 2010

The Unseen #31: Somebody Up There Likes Me

Why’d I Buy It?: Came In Paul Newman Boxset

Why Haven’t I Watched It?: No real reason.

How Was It?: Pretty damn good. Somebody Up There Likes Me is one of those films you get pissed about not seeing sooner, and a prime example of the kind of film I love doing this column for. One second it’s a film I only knew about in sketchy historical terms, the next it’s an essential. A film I would easily rank among my favorite Biopics, Sports movies, and New York Films. A fast paced, well written and acted, stylish, and vastly entertaining bit of old school studio craftsmanship.

Robert Wise never gets as much credit as he deserves, but he’s always been one of my favorite of the old studio directors, out of the unabashed hired hands. Sure he made some fairly dreadful films like The Hindenberg, and Star Trek The Motionless Picture. But When given the right material Wise knew how to make a picture work. And he made some truly great ones.

If nothing else he was a fantastic adapter. Capitalizing and improvising with the freedom’s that other filmmakers pioneered. And here, especially in the first third of the film he apes Jules Dassin to fantastic effect, using the then new style of location based shoots for shots that have a depth and life to them that are just startling. Wise was of course one of Welles’ first disciples, and he shoots the city sequences with a startling depth of field. It’s a film with the kind of detail that only life can provide, and so many of the frames are so rich with it that its difficult not to use your freeze frame with every long shot. (DOP Joseph Ruttenberg won an Oscar)

The film tells the true story of “Rocky Graciano” a small time hoodlum, who after stints in prison and the brig, builds himself up to a respectable fighter. Only to have his past come back to haunt him, when he really makes it big.

Wise directs the boxing sequences with a startling realism (though not quite the brutality he used in The Set Up). He strings the film together with sequences that are just perfect. Such as the ending title fight, (a bruiser in itself) which Wise intercuts between the fight, the crowds listening to it in the neighborhood, and the sounds of the radios echoing in the empty tenement street, in a perfectly crafted montage. There are other little touches that make the film feel different. The film is gritty beyond the usual studio style "realism" actually feeling like the inner city. Then there's the fact that watching it you actually know that there are black people in New York, and two of the main characters (Including Graciano’s wife) are Jewish. It might not be much now, but in the era of Gentleman’s Agreement, it still was a big deal.

Newman famously ended up subbing for James Dean in this his first starring role, and as a result that Newman cool isn’t a hundred percent there yet. Its not just the fact that he’s about as Italian as Charlton Heston is Mexican. He’s as much playing James Dean as he is Rocky Garcianno (as he would again, to a much lesser extent in The Left Handed Gun). There are times where he fidgets and mumbles in a way that you can actually SEE Dean coming out in the role. Its frankly pretty eerie. (Especially the scenes where Newman plays against Dean foil Mineo)

And yet, his performance is not Dean, and Dean would have probably been horribly miscast in the role. Oh sure, he could have done the tortured, brooding scenes. Fighting with fathers was Dean's raison d tere. Dean could play persecuted better then just about anyone who ever lived. But Newman has a capacity for pleasure that Dean never seemed to have. Try imagining a scene like the one where Newman strolls around his old neighborhood with his new family, surrounded by adoring fans, sporting a fur coat, cigar the size of a baby’s arm, and a shit eating grin the size of Tulsa with Dean in it. Its impossible.

And while the classic Newman character would be a lot more humble then Graciano, and a lot smarter for that matter, he would always walk with that same swagger. This movie could be subtitled, “Birth Of The Cool.”

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