Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Blaze of Glory

This shot marks the end of two of the most successful careers in film history:

Paul Newman would go on to other roles after Road to Perdition. He was a voice in Pixar's Cars and he played the Stage Manager in a Masterpiece Theater production of Our Town, but as far big screen, movie star performances go, this is it.

It's a great death scene. Newman has turned to face his surrogate son, a fellow mobster played Tom Hanks, and they both silently acknowledge what has to happen. If Hanks is to avenge the murder of his wife and child then Newman must be killed. Newman looks at the man he loved above his own son and says simply, "I'm glad it's you." Hanks fills him with bullets.

It's a scene that demands admiration without quite stirring much emotion. At least that's how it is for me. The whole picture is too carefully mounted by Mendes to convey any kind of real life spontaneity, so my heart remains curiously unmoved.

As a culmination of Newman's career, on the other hand, I find it close to overwhelming.

Mendes and Newman on set

The scene was shot by the legendary Conrad L Hall who would go on to die mere days before winning the Academy Award - his third - for his work here. The combined weight of both of these men delivering one last indelible screen moment would be powerful enough. When you realize that Hall was also the cinematographer who captured Newman's most famous death scene over three decades earlier in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid it feels like something approaching destiny.

And the scenes reflect each other in interesting ways. Newman plays an outlaw in both films, a comedic one in Butch Cassidy and the deadly serious one opposite Hanks. Both films are cut to avoid showing the actually death of Newman. Perdition plays the killing on Hanks's pained expression, while Butch Cassidy has its famous freeze-frame/fade into sepia. These are artistic decisions made by directors, editors and writers, but it's nice to imagine that Newman was a star that audiences simply could not bear to see killed.

And the dialogue preceding the two killings are mirrored versions of the same idea. Knowing that his number is up Butch decides to pretend it isn't, forcing some banter with Redford about a trip to Australia they both know will never happen. Newman as Perdition's John Rooney directly accepts his fate with the succinct "I'm glad it's you". Neither man has any illusions about escaping.

Hall (left) on the set of Perdition with Mendes

Like I said, it is the real life undercurrents that make this scene a powerhouse. Tom Hanks surely had the awareness to know he was witnessing the passing of a screen giant, which adds layers of meaning to the pain on his face. And when Newman says "I'm glad it's you" is it too big a stretch to think it crossed his mind that the line could also be directed to his collaborator behind the camera? That who better to capture his final blaze of glory than the man who so brilliantly did the same for his Butch Cassidy all those years ago? And it is a blaze of glory - as beautifully crafted and acted as anything they did in their long careers.

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  1. Beautiful. Just beautiful. Obviously this moment won him the Oscar nomination, too. right?

  2. I'll say a combination of that plus the basement monologue. Also, the fact that he's Paul Fucking Newman probably didn't hurt. My personal favorite Newman moment is the "You would LIKE to apologize?" chewing out of Daniel Craig.

    Yours was a great choice too.

  3. I love Daniel Craig in this movie and i remember at the time loving and everyone else being so negative about him. Little did they know how much they'd grow to love him