By Marc S. Sanders

Sidney Lumet is a master filmmaker at shooting predominantly talkie films. In The Verdict by David Mamet, his best special effect is, at least, the just as legendary Paul Newman as washed-up alcoholic attorney Frank Galvin. Lumet opts to shoot Newman for the screen talent he is. Occasionally, his camera points up at Newman, who looks as if he will fall over. Lumet also makes Newman look great as he runs down a hallway, or with a stare of his familiar blue eyes. The chemistry of camera and performance are blended rhythmically.

Alcoholism has been depicted countless times, but Newman’s interpretation ranks at the top of the list. He can’t function without his drink whether it’s gaining a high score on pinball, flirting, reading a brief or even getting a fast protein fix by dropping an egg yolk in a beer. Paul Newman makes you wonder if Frank Galvin is going to pass out or fall asleep even while he’s barely practicing legal brilliance. He toes the line beautifully between coming undone and barely squeaking by. This is one of his best roles ever.

Frank is given a chance to salvage himself as goes up against the Boston Archdiocese and the hospital it owns in a case of medical negligence, who are represented by a conniving antagonist in the form of James Mason with his limitless resources, power, strategies and army of lawyers. If this were a silent film, I’d buy it with Mason twisting a handlebar mustache. He’s absolutely a man you love to hate.

The dialogue crackles against simply the inflection of vocals from Newman, Mason, an unexpected Charlotte Rampling as Galvin’s sudden love interest, a difficult judge played by Milo O’Shea, and Frank’s assistant played Jack Warden. The delivery of lines, the twisty double crosses, and conflicts play to the precision of great Shakespeare. So much so that when on the rare occasion these characters curse or the ominous cue of music steps in, it’s all shocking and applauded.

The settings are great for atmosphere too. Worn in leather chairs, polished cherrywood tables and courtrooms with their squeaky floors. This is a well-worn Massachusetts backdrop of legal reputation and intimidation.

Every member of the filmmaking team from Lumet to the cast, to the composer,Johnny Mandel, and David Mamet’s fantastic script have been thought out and measured to completion.

Some will say this film is dated (rotary phones, ladies’ hairstyles, wardrobe; year of release was 1982). I say its themes are still significant. Power is something that must always be overcome by a weak, flawed protagonist. Whether or not Frank Galvin can do it, matters not. It’s the struggle that’s important to follow in a film like The Verdict.


By Marc S. Sanders

The kid who played Bobby Brady of TV’s The Brady Bunch and Gregory Sierra (Julio from Sanford and Son) star alongside OJ Simpson and an Oscar nominated performance from Fred Astaire in The Towering Inferno. This is one of the best films to be churned out of the Irwin Allen disaster machine of 1970s movie making.

William Holden is the proud builder of a beautiful new skyscraper in the heart of San Francisco. Paul Newman is the sensible architect who manages to acknowledge what’s wrong the construction of the building. Namely, a jerky Richard Chamberlain, as the building’s electrician, opted for faulty, less expensive wiring that conveniently overheats on the eve of the building’s grand celebration that includes a Senator (Robert Vaughn) and the Mayor with his wife in a loud, baggy Pepto Bismol colored dress. Seriously, it’s never hard to make this woman out among a sea of formally dressed extras who are celebrating on the grand opening located on the building’s promenade floor. Floor number 135 to be more precise. Because it’s so high up, we are treated to a scenic, outside elevator that’ll eventually not make it to the ground allowing a couple of screaming extras to be held in treacherous suspense. Good stuff here, for sure.

Steve McQueen’s coolness eventually arrives as the main fire chief leading the high rise charge against the blazes. His Thomas Crown Affair co-star, Faye Dunaway, is here to cue the romantic rhythms of John Williams’ score, and to hop into bed with Newman for some afternoon delight.

The story is that Newman and McQueen were at odds for who was getting top billing. Watch the very beginning of the film for the inventive compromise for the name placement in the credits.

The real stars of this who’s who cast are the special effects. Now I truly mean this. Nearly fifty years later, and the visual effects of the massive fires, explosions, helicopter sequences, and enormous heights still hold up. There’s lots of good footage that burns up, crushes, floods and drops a handful of extras for a fast paced three-hour epic disaster flick.

Astaire might have been the sole acting nominee but I just can’t get over how the debonair, prime for a Love Boat appearance with no hair out of place Robert Wagner didn’t get any recognition. This man puts just a damp washcloth on his head, promises his half naked sweetie that he’ll “be back with the whole fire department,” and sprints straight into the flames for the grandest death scene in film history. It’s a glorious scene for sure when Wagner buys it. I cheer every time I see it. The dude just face plants into the flames. Doesn’t even bend down or kneel to pray. This guy just topples over like a Jenga tower, with the washcloth remaining on his head.

The Towering Inferno amazingly did not beat out The Godfather Part II for Best Picture. I know. I’m stunned as well, reader. Uh huh! Nevertheless, it’s still worth a watch all these years later. If anything, you get to see some pretty eye-popping visual effects and action scenes directed personally by Irwin Allen. You also get to familiarize yourself with the best talent in Hollywood that was working at the time. There are also lots of great moments amid the soapy cheesiness of the script.

Most of all, and this is where I finally get sincere, it’s a film that does not make light of our country’s firefighters who continue to risk their lives everyday so that any one of us can survive. Not enough films embrace the proud men and women who stand between us and danger. The Towering Inferno salutes that immeasurable bravery.


By Marc S. Sanders

Find me a better combination of script, cast, direction, score, art direction and costume and I guarantee it’ll take you some time and effort.

The Sting, directed by George Roy Hill and written by David Ward, is the kind of movie where you uncover something new every time you watch it. It’s because the film is all in the minute details to assemble the beginning to the middle to the end. The film is wisely edited in step by step chapters; The Set Up, The Wire, The Shut Out and eventually on to the satisfying The Sting.

The audience is even set up but you’ll have to watch to see how. I dare not spoil it.

Cars, trains, drug stores, diners, a carousel, dames, gangsters, Bunko Cops, Grifters; all are elements needed for the best confidence men superbly played by Robert Redford and Paul Newman, along with a supporting cast like no other, Eileen Brennan, Harold Gould, Charles Durning, Ray Walston, Jack Kehoe and the best villain, or rather “mark,” Robert Shaw.

This is one of my favorite movies. When I first saw it, I was probably age 10 or 12. I understand next to nothing of what was going on. It was the music that drew me in first followed by the sharp suits designed by the legendary Edith Head. The movie’s script is its greatest asset but visually it is just as fun. The 1930s Chicago setting is a character in and of itself. Newman cheats beautifully at poker against a temperamental Shaw, and gets him!!! “You owe me 15 grand pal.” When I first saw it, I didn’t know what he was doing or how he did it. How did he switch hands? I was enamored with the hands that were dealt and the poker chips on the table, but I loved it when the better cheat won out.

The second iteration of the Hill/Newman/Redford trifecta (following “Butch…& Sundance…”) is just plain fun. It was the fun that earned it a Best Picture Oscar.

No other film has come close to duplicating it. Maybe the Clooney/Pitt/Damon version of “Ocean’s 11”? I don’t know. However, if you love that film, you owe it to yourself to watch “The Sting.”

The Sting is…”the quill!”


By Marc S. Sanders

Maybe more often than not, the films I see about journalism seem to convey the reporters as heroes seeking the truth despite the threats and the strict laws of the first Amendment and so on.  They meet informants in dark garages and outrun speeding cars trying to run them down before the story hits the papers.  They accept being held in contempt of court to avoid revealing a source.  They’re heroes!!!! It’s movie stuff, right?  We’ve seen it all before.  What about films where the newspaper writer gets it wrong from the start, and then sees the ramifications of the recklessness committed?  Absence of Malice, from 1981, is that kind of picture.

Sally Field is a hungry thirty something reporter named Megan Carter with connections in the Miami prosecutor’s office.  When she gets a whiff of a story that implies a man named Michael Gallagher (Paul Newman) is the prime suspect in the disappearance of union head, she runs with it and her editor is happy to make it front page news.  However, just because Mr. Gallagher is the son of a deceased and reputed bootlegger with mob connections doesn’t make him guilty of anything.  Also, has an investigation into his affairs even begun to happen yet?  Just because it walks like a duck, well….

Sydney Pollack goes pretty light on a serious subject matter here.  It’s just awful to see a film legend like Newman be a cold blooded killer.  Worse, it’s beyond reason to see Sally Field as a woman without scruples.  They’re too likable.  So, Pollack with Kurt Luedtke’s Oscar nominated screenplay, play it safe.  Forty years ago, when this film came out, I might have accepted what’s on the surface with Absence of Malice.  Today, however, I appreciate the conundrum, but the residual effects offered up by the film never seem to carry much weight.  The stress doesn’t show enough on Newman and Field.  A suicide of another pertinent character hardly seems monumental to either of them.  Heck, there’s even time for romance between the two leads despite the slander committed by one against the other.  Another film by Pollack, Three Days Of The Condor, committed this same mistake.  It’s hard to accept a romantic angle when the characters barely know each other and what they do know of one another is hardly favorable for each of them.  I can imagine the marketing campaign for this ahead of the film’s release.  If you got “Blue Eyes” and “The Flying Nun” in a film together, well then, they gotta hook up and never, ever make them ruthless.  Audiences would hate that!!!!

The film reserves the shiftiness of the situation for other actors in the film like Bob Balaban.  He certainly plays the part well as a manipulator in search of a guilty party, even if it means indicting an innocent person.  The best surprise is the appearance of Wilford Brimley in the big close out scene who sums what has occurred and then lays out who is responsible for what and who is not responsible.  It’s the best written role in the film and it reminds me what a shame it is that Brimley did not get any Oscar recognition during his career.  (I still say he was one of the greatest unsung villains in film for his turn in Pollack’s The Firm.)

Even the soundtrack music from Dave Grusin feels inappropriate here.  It’s too energetic and full of life with piano and trumpets.  When you consider the term “absence of malice” and what it means to a reporter questioning her journalistic integrity, and then furthermore what significance it has to a newspaper article’s bystander, it seems to hold a lot of weight with disastrous repercussions.  Grusin’s music says otherwise.

It’s always a pleasure to go back and watch Paul Newman, and Sally Field in her early career.  These are great actors.  They do fine here, but the material is not sharp enough for what they can do.  They’re too relaxed.  On the other hand, the subject matter is perfect for heightened movie drama.  I can only imagine what Sidney Lumet would have done with this picture, considering films like Network, Serpico and The Verdict.  The execution of Pollack’s film simply does not live up to the terrible dilemma of an innocent man being publicly smeared.  Think about it.  At the end of Absence of Malice, I don’t think the intent is to wish and hope and yearn for Paul Newman and Sally Field to sail away on his beautiful boat into the sunset.  Yet, that’s what Pollack and Luedtke seem to have left us with.