A Movie A Day: Quint sees THE YOUNG PHILADELPHIANS (1959) Do what any sensible Irishman would do: Go get drunk!
Published at: Aug. 23, 2008, 1:36 p.m. CST by quint
Ahoy, squirts! Quint here with today’s installment of A Movie A Day.
[For those now joining us, A Movie A Day is my attempt at filling in gaps in my film knowledge. My DVD collection is thousands strong, many of them films I haven’t seen yet, but picked up as I scoured used DVD stores. Each day I’ll pull a previously unseen film from my collection and discuss it here. Each movie will have some sort of connection to the one before it, be it cast or crew member.]
Today’s movie is THE YOUNG PHILADELPHIANS, an epic story of a man’s many moral dilemmas as he rises to prominence. Yesterday’s bitchy landlady from THE LITTLE GIRL WHO LIVES DOWN THE LANE, Ms. Alexis Smith, bridges us to this film, made some 17 years prior.
I’m really falling in love with rich black and white photography. I began my love affair with this photography with CASABLANCA as a teenager, which is still one of my favorite movies, and since then I haven’t ever been turned off by black and white films at all, but in doing this column I’ve really been hit with Cupid’s arrow. Hitting all the noirs and movies like THE YOUNG PHILADELPHIANS just feels almost otherworldly, just as eye-popping Technicolor feels not of this Earth. While I’ve loved black and white movies I’m just now getting to the point where when one comes up on this list that I feel a warm, comfortable feeling, like I’m sinking into my favorite soft corner of the couch.
Harry Stradling Sr.’s cinematography is wonderful, but so is everything else about this movie, every bit as epic as The Godfather, if not as iconic.
Instead of following a family of Gangsters you’re wallowing in the social elite of Philadelphia. The film opens on a sad man watching a newlywed couple exit a church, showered in rice and wellwishers. This is Mike Flanagan (played by Brian Keith) who is the first victim we meet. His love, Kate (played by Diane Brewster) is marrying a rich and powerful young man in her desire to climb the social ladder.
The second victim is William Lawrence III, Kate’s new husband who was forced into the marriage by his manipulating mother. Adam West is awesome here, playing this tortured man who tries so hard on his honeymoon to love his new wife, but just can’t. Can’t tell you how weird it is to hear Adam West’s voice coming out of such a young visage. His voice hasn’t changed in 50 years!
He runs off and Kate, in a moment of human weakness, rushes to the arms of her true love.
Returning home, Kate is informed that William Lawrence was killed in a car wreck as he raced away from the situation. She has a kid, the son of the poor Irishman, but cuts the father out of their life and turns down a huge sum of money from the rich mother-in-law to relinquish the last name. Kate wants her son to have the opportunity that comes with the name, worth more than the money offered.
The boy will be Anthony Judson Lawrence and he will be the first of the family to be wealthy and respected, a prominent figure in the social elite of Philadelphia.
In many ways Kate is a villain of this story. She manipulates the boy as much as her horrible mother-in-law manipulated her son. But Kate’s also selfless. She forgoes her own happiness, cutting her real love out because it could tarnish her son’s name that she’s already sacrificed a lot to give him.
And this is really a shining role for Newman, still very early in his career, before his huge hits like HUD and THE HUSTLER, but after his critical acclaim in SOMEBODY UP THERE LIKES ME (coming soon in the column) and THE LONG, HOT SUMMER.
I talk about how hungry Paul Newman was in the very first AMAD column, Harper, but I’m quickly learning that I mistook confidence for hunger. He’s a ball of energy in Harper, but here he’s quiet, planning, a completely fleshed out person and he still brings that confidence, just in a completely different way.
When we first meet Tony, he’s working in construction for Mike Flanagan. His father has been watching out for the kid who has no idea that he’s his father. Tony’s likable, charming and most of all optimistic… innocent, you could say.
He dabbles in the social scene, but he hates it. Politics, elbow-rubbing and game-playing isn’t his scene, but his mother insists. Making the most of things, Tony surrounds himself with like-minds, other upper crust kids who can’t stand the scene, most notably Chet (played by Robert Vaughn). Vaughn is outstanding in the movie, really delivering a jaw-dropping performance, but we’ll get to him in a minute.
In the first act, Tony has his humanity. He falls in love with the brunette beauty Joan, played by Barbara Rush, and she with him, despite her folks pressuring her to be with a guy she likes, but doesn’t love, because he’s worth $20 million.
Now I know, this is almost sounding like a Merchant Ivory costume drama… nothing more exciting than rich people in arranged relationships, right?
Trust me, this is only the set-up of the movie, a way to strip our likable lead character of his humanity one piece at a time as the machine eats him up. Piece by piece he loses his shine and becomes cold, plotting.
The movie’s about this corruption. What would you do to get what you want? What is that moment, that one decision that starts you down that path?
In this case, it’s a carrot dangled in front of Newman by Rush’s father, a prominent lawyer who offers to sponsor him through lawschool if he would just wait on eloping with his daughter and get married next year.
It’s such a non-threatening promise, all upside, to Newman, but what he doesn’t take into account is emotion and how this decision hurts his bride to be, shattering her image of the man she fell in love with, which starts a series of events that ends up stripping them both of passion, love and decency.
The whole second act is Newman’s maneuvering and seeing that it ultimately got him a shitty little office in a legal firm that has no intention of advancing him. The third act is his redemption in the form of a trial.
His buddy Chet was wounded in Korea (we take a 4 minute detour to the Korean war, by the way), losing an arm, and he dishonors his family, ultimately getting mixed up in a murder. The only one he trusts is Tony, but Tony is a tax lawyer, not a trial lawyer, however he ends up taking the case and resting his own soul on its outcome, going against what is proper and finally regaining his humanity.
I really loved this movie. Newman is incredible in it and Vaughn gives a career great performance. I was introduced to Vaughn in his expliotation work like BATTLE BEYOND THE STARS, CHUD II and THE TOWERING INFERNO… I didn’t really grow up with THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E., but I’ve always liked him as a screen presence. I had no idea he was capable of a performance as tortured and intricate as Chet.
It’s no surprise to me that he was nominated for Best Supporting Actor at the 1960 Academy Awards for his performance here. That was a deserved nomination and he would have deserved the statue if Hugh Griffith hadn’t won for BEN-HUR.
The movie is filled with good performances, everybody bringing it. Vincent Sherman directed the picture about as well as could be expected, bringing out fantastic performances from everyone and keeping the movie involving, which allows it to get away with its 2 ½ hour runtime without wearing out its welcome.
James Gunn (not the SLITHER James Gunn, but the guy who wrote the novel that previous AMAD noir BORN TO KILL) scripted a very complex character tale from a novel by Richard Powell, feeling at once straightforward and multi-layered.
Final Thoughts: This is an outstanding drama that I can’t believe isn’t more well known. Maybe it is and I just managed to avoid hearing about it in my 27 years, but the first time I knew it existed was when I picked up the Paul Newman Box Set. If you’re a fan of Paul Newman’s at all, this is a must see. If you’re a fan of cinema this is a must see. If you're a fan of great opening credits design, Saul Bass provides some amazing work here. Seek this one out.