Deserved Second Act for Paul Newman’s Sometimes a Great Notion


One great thing about Paris: New prints of old movies from the ’70s, ’60s, and even the ’50s get extended runs in large theaters, apropos of nothing. A nice thing about New York: It sometimes happens here, too, as with this week’s revivals of François Truffaut’s 1968 The Bride Wore Black and Paul Newman’s 1971 Sometimes a Great Notion.

The latter revival in particular demonstrates that occasionally movies, and even notions, can have second acts. The surprise star of BAM’s 2008 Newman retro, this generally forgotten, self-directed vehicle returns for a week in a near-pristine studio archival print some 40 years after its original, far from successful release.

Adapted from a magnum opus, Sometimes a Great Notion vastly simplifies Ken Kesey’s second novel, a mad, LSD-infused synthesis of Faulkner, Kerouac, and Ayn Rand, published in 1964 to severely mixed notices. (One New York Times reviewer declared that the book “captures the tenor of post-Korea America as nothing I can remember reading,” and another scored it as “the most insufferably pretentious and the most totally tiresome novel I have had to read in many years.”) Newman, who replaced the movie’s original director a few weeks into production, shot his version at the counterculture’s high noon, but there’s nothing trippy about it. His Sometimes a Great Notion is a New Hollywood movie suffused in Old Hollywood values.

Set in the pre-grunge Pacific Northwest, Sometimes a Great Notion is a gloriously scenic, blatantly brawny rollicker—a movie of majestic crane shots and outsized star turns. The principals are a pathologically independent, ultra-macho logging clan, aptly named Stamper, headed by tyrannical old Henry Stamper (Henry Fonda), his cocky eldest son and namesake, Hank (Newman), and stolidly oppressed daughter-in-law Viv (Lee Remick). Conflict is provided by a never-entirely-explained strike against a local paper mill that the Stampers are pleased to break, much to the consternation of their unionized neighbors, and the return of the hippified, very angry, younger son Lee (Michael Sarrazin). “He looks like some kind of New York fairy,” Henry snarls, the first of many locals to ask Lee, “Where’d you get that hair?”

Lee’s luxuriant locks are the movie’s main nod to the zeitgeist—although Henry Mancini’s lively score does offer a bit of contempo wah-wah. Actually, Sometimes a Great Notion has aged well precisely because it has so few period affectations—New York Times critic Vincent Canby compared it to the work-celebrating action films of the 1930s, but it’s also a throwback to the Actors Studio family dramas of the 1950s. There are echoes of East of Eden (for which Newman tested, losing the role to James Dean), and the story of how Hank and Viv met actually recapitulates the plot of The Wild One.

Fabulous vistas notwithstanding, it’s an actors’ movie. Worse than irascible, Fonda’s domineering Henry is transcendently mean, wielding his cast-bound broken arm like a weapon. (His presence alone brings a whiff of Steinbeck to the proceedings.) Newman, too, has no trouble scorning audience sympathy, though his scenes with Fonda are remarkably empathetic as he emotionally shadows the older star. Even the overly sensitive, extremely limited Sarrazin, at the time a fashionable male ingenue, has a bit of the family feel through his marked resemblance to Peter Fonda.

Blustering along to its emotional climax, if not quite its end, the movie features two-and-a-half powerhouse scenes. The most jaw-dropping has Stamper cousin Joe Ben (Richard Jaeckel) pinned beneath a log with the tide coming in and Hank desperately improvising a rescue; it’s followed by Fonda’s magnificent solo, directed at Newman and delivered on his back in a hospital bed. Sadly Remick’s big speech feels truncated and also hampered by being played with the terminally diffident Sarrazin. Taken together, though, these three consecutive show-stoppers represent a day of reckoning so awful that one might almost conclude God hates strikebreakers.

If so, the filmmakers don’t. The Stampers aren’t scabbing for money but principle. (Their family motto is the movie’s re-release title: “Never give an inch.”) In their rugged individualism, Kesey’s heroes are like atheistic kissing cousins to The Fountainhead’s Howard Roark. It’s hard not to bust out laughing when a union organizer asks the Stampers what they think they owe their friends and neighbors and downright hilarious that the movie’s closing theme has country singer Charley Pride explaining that, “you’re part of the family of man.” Was the filmmaker being ironic, or were the words meant to be “a family of men”?

Speaking of beleaguered masculinity, The Bride Wore Black, François Truffaut’s attempted commercial comeback following the flop that was Fahrenheit 451, is based on a novel by the prolific noiriste Cornell Woolrich with a premise that couldn’t have been made here, even in the freaked-out Hollywood of 1969. The movie’s eponymous protagonist (Jeanne Moreau) is a lady serial killer (as opposed to the normative serial lady-killer), who functions like a hard-boiled detective in tracking down and dispatching the five supremely annoying fellows who, wittingly or not, made her a widow on her wedding day.

Running for a week in a new print at Film Forum, The Bride Wore Black appeared shortly after the publication of Truffaut’s book-length interview with Alfred Hitchcock and was understandably taken as a new wave director’s homage to an old master—a then-novel thought. In some senses it is that—a dryly comic thriller with a rapturously foreboding Bernard Herrmann score that seems designed to implicate the spectator in on-screen murder. But for all of Truffaut’s digressive asides, deadpan gags, and lyrical cinephiliac touches, his slow-starting movie is overly schematic, emotionally shallow, and not so much fun.

Rather than laboriously walk us through five killings, Hitchcock might have briskly dispatched the first few victims, the better to lavish more attention on the bride’s most smitten target: Charles Denner’s obnoxiously self-regarding artist, who insists on painting the bride as Diana the Huntress, thus allowing Truffaut to suggest that she is a virgin. Their perverse love scenes are Moreau’s best. For the rest of the movie, she basically functions as po-faced straight-woman to a bunch of clowns, adding a touch of gravitas to Truffaut’s sluggishly contrived satire on male vanity.