A Movie A Day: THE RACK (1956) Why didn’t you die like your brother did? It would have been much better that way.
Published at: Aug. 24, 2008, 5:44 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.]
We keep our Paul Newman run going strong with a fascinating obscure film called THE RACK. Interestingly enough yesterday’s Paul Newman vehicle, THE YOUNG PHILADELPHIANS, turned into a courtroom drama in the final act and this film finds Newman in court again, this time the defendant, not the defense.
I call this movie fascinating because of the cast and creative force behind it. Check this out:
You have Paul Newman as a young Korean war veteran who was tortured by the Chinese and newly released after 3 years of prison camp abuse.
Walter Pidgeon (the reason I’ve always had trouble spelling “pigeon” by the way) of FORBIDDEN PLANET, HOW GREEN WAS MY VALLEY and tons of other well known flicks that I won’t bore with listing off here plays Newman’s strict Army dad who finds pride in his son for the first time upon his return only to have that turn sour when he finds out his son is brought up on collusion charges.
The absolutely gorgeous Anne Francis (also in FORBIDDEN PLANET as well as the awesome Glenn Ford flick BLACKBOARD JUNGLE, co-starring Sidney Poitier) plays Newman’s sister-in-law in the difficult position of having to support Newman while secretly wishing his brother, her husband, had been the one to come home.
AMAD favorite Edmond O’Brien (DOA) plays Wasnick, Newman’s Polish Army defense lawyer, REAR WINDOW’s Wendell Corey is the sympathetic prosecuting attorney, Lee Fucking Marvin as a fellow POW survivor and main accuser and witness for the prosecution and Cloris Leachman is the neighbor lady who comforts Francis for one scene.
If the pedigree in front of the camera wasn’t enough, guess who scripted this movie? Rod Serling! He’s credited on IMDB with teleplay, but on the movie he was given co-screenwriter credit with Stewart Stern (REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE).
Director Arnold Laven is more known for directing TV, but he did helm a noir called WITHOUT WARNING! that sounds sweet as hell… a dude has wife troubles, so he picks up girls who look like her and butchers them with garden shears! Gotta pick that one up…
Anyway, THE RACK is a dark look at the after effects of war and the breaking point of a man. What’s interesting is The Rack of the title isn’t a physical torture device, but a mental one. Newman was mentally tortured, deprived of human contact, left in a lightless room with a wet floor, not allowed to sleep for any length of time, etc.
The army can’t accept this as it’s not the torture they know, the physical horrors that the men are trained to resist.
What’s interesting is that when you begin to hear testimony against Newman as the trail starts (about halfway through the movie) you actually start to think less of him. We’ve gotten to know him, see his guilt. We like this guy, but when the trial starts and we hear the stories of him working with the Chinese we can’t help but feel a little angry with him.
What I loved about this film was how there were no absolutes. Newman did do bad things, but is he excused those things when we find out why he did them, how he reached that point? The prosecutor almost doesn’t take the case because of Newman’s substantial service record, feeling the country would be betraying one of her biggest champions because he lost his way under tremendous duress. When Corey does ultimately take the case, he doesn’t let up, but you still get a few moments of humanity, of sympathy, from him.
Francis has to find it within herself to be the support Newman needs, to make him stand up and stop feeling sorry for himself, even though he will always represent her lost love, her dead husband.
Walter Pidgeon, though, is a standout here. He has a moment with Newman after hearing some unpleasant truths about how Newman viewed him growing up, how his dead son and wife probably looked at him, and he just cracks, all the properly pent up emotion of his life exploding out of him in a torrent. It’s a goose-bump moment and really hit me hard.
Now Newman himself, surprisingly, is the weak link in the movie. If I read this right, he filmed this movie before SOMEBODY UP THERE LIKES ME, which was his big calling card as a lead, but THE RACK was released after that movie. Newman is undisciplined here. He doesn’t seem to have learned where the lines are and there are many points where he steps over those lines and overacts something fierce.
However, he’s still Paul Newman, so the character survives these moments on his charm and natural instinct alone. But it is fascinating to watch a rough performance from Newman, seeing the learning curve as it unfolds in his career.
It is also interesting to see him once again share the screen with Lee Marvin, who co-starred with Newman some 16 years later in the misfire POCKET MONEY, previously covered in this column. Despite my dislike of that movie, I loved seeing the two together and seeing them here is great, too, even though their screentime is limited to a couple of scenes.
But one of those scene is what hooked me into the movie. Early on, as Newman recovers, he’s in a wheelchair watching a movie at the hospital, projected on 16mm, and Marvin limps on crutches behind him, hobbles up and slips something over his neck and rushes out of the room.
Newman is confused and find what’s around his neck is a noose with a sign pinned to it with the word “Traitor” scrawled on the surface. He rushes out, wheeling after Marvin who is almost comically hobbling away on his crutches, too far to be caught. Newman screams out, “What else could I have done? What do you expect me to have done?!?”
It’s a great moment and Marvin’s testimony on the stand is incredible, a real showcase as to how badass that man is.
Final Thoughts: It’s ridiculous this movie isn’t out on DVD. MGM, I believe owns it, so whoever owns MGM’s library this week needs to consider doing this one up proper. A quick IMDB check shows that Laven is still kicking and Newman’s still around, even if his health is in question these days. Ann Francis and Cloris Leachman are around, too. C’mon and do it up proper. It’s a great movie that should have an audience that don’t have to wait for it to hopefully run again on TCM to finally see it.