It ought to have everything going for it. What a cast! And they're all good -- with Paul Newman's Lou Harper at the top of his game, and, somewhere closer to her usual norm, Pamela Tiffen. Newman's performance is among his best. He's a gum-chewing cynical PI who's determined the find the truth behind the disappearance of millionaire Sampson. He has all the necessary tics, nudges, winks, and shrugs. And he registers exquisite pain when somebody clobbers him. There is, for instance, a scene in which a big thug named Puddler sucker punches Newman in a bar, then takes him out back and begins to deliver one or two heavy, deliberately placed body blows. R. J. Wagner sneaks up on Puddler, knocks him out, then gaily begins to help Newman walk back to his car. But Newman groans and leans against the wall, puffing and holding his belly, and begs Wagner, "Wait a minute." A less imaginative actor would have had the character shake his head a few times to clear it, then stride off snapping out orders.
Shelly Winters is equally good in a comic role as an overripe over-the-hill ex-movie star and alcoholic. I can't imagine anyone doing better than Winters when she's berating a hotel orchestra for not playing La Cucaracha, shouting that they can't be REAL "Mescins" or they'd have their guitars, and then stumbling off the platform. Shelly Winters is often nailed for spoiling the pictures she's in but I'm not sure why. Her whining evokes both irritation and pathos. She's brought some pizazz to some other films she's been in too. Ham should always be considered a part of any proper buffet.
So why doesn't the picture come together? Why is the sum less than its parts. Where is the subtrahend? It has a flattish made-for-TV quality. Settings are all comfortably upscale, as in an episode of "Colombo." The L.A. locations seem to be carefully chosen but because of the photography or Mandel's below-average score, they have little impact. Compare "Chinatown" or "Farewell My Lovely." William Goldman's script tries for the telling wisecrack ("Only cream and bastards rise") but there aren't enough of them and they're mostly cracks without wit. The best repartee is between Lauren Bacall and Pamela Tiffen, two women who hate one another and delight in mutual insults. "I love your wrinkles. I revel in them." Still, Goldman's script does manage to hold together a plot that is bilaterally symmetrical. On the one hand, Newman is hired to rescue the kidnapped millionaire Samson and save the half million paid for his return. On the other hand Newman stumbles into an unrelated plot having to do with the smuggling of illegal aliens. The two stories have absolutely nothing to do with one another until more than halfway through the film when Newman alerts one gang to the operations of the other. It's all pretty easy to get lost in, especially when so many disparate characters are involved.
The plot lacks an engine too. I didn't believe for a moment that Newman was genuinely dedicated to his craft, that it was a point of pride with him to "crack this thing," as he puts it. Humphrey Bogart was a cynical, wisecracking PI in "The Maltese Falcon" but what was driving him, as we discover at the end of the film, was the murder of his partner, Miles Archer. Certainly, concern about the fate of the kidnapped rich guy isn't much of a motive. We never even meet him and everybody hates him anyway.
What drives Newman's character? Nothing that we can discover. His marriage is a disaster, he lives in his office, he drives a beat-up car, he has practically no friends. In fact, when you come right down to it, Newman is not a particularly admirable guy in this film. He has a nasty habit of using people. He gets Winters' weak character drunk and then insults her as she lies passed out. He charms some information out of a good-natured barmaid with his New York accent and, when he's finished with her, blows her off by asking directly, "Where's the boss?", and her face falls with the realization that she's been had. He deliberately lies to his emotionally vulnerable but estranged wife, from whom he gets some sympathy and a night in bed before leaving her flat the next morning. He, in turn, has no sympathy for anyone else.
And then there's the end of the film, a freeze frame that leaves us wondering whether Newman will turn his only friend Arthur Hill over to the police or whether Hill will shoot to stop him. The technique may be an integral part of the movie, as it is in "The Four Hundred Blows," in which a delinquent child is frozen while looking at the camera, as if waiting for the audience to judge him. Or it may, as in this case, be an arbitrary gesture, a way of ending a movie that nobody could think of a good ending for. You know, though, having said that, I still prefer an ending like this to the phenomenal shootouts that have since become so commonplace.
See it for the performances.
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