Tuesday 27 February 2007

The Last Angry Man (1959)

Paul Muni only made 22 films over a 30 year period and this makes half of them for me. It's also his last movie, made eight years after the previous one, Stranger on the Prowl. He still has plenty of power as an older actor though, as evidenced early on when he shows Lando Calrissian how tough he isn't. Billy Dee Williams is 22 years old here, playing an eighteen year old street punk like he was auditioning for West Side Story, but tough 68 year old Jewish doctor Sam Abelman from Brooklyn toughs him out of his knife, beats him at arm wrestling and gets him to shut the hell up and get examined, all in about five minutes.

Unbeknownst to him, TV producer Woodrow Wilson Thrasher is watching on, and he's hooked. He's turned up at the doctor's house to persuade him to be the focus of a show he's pitching, based on a newspaper article by the doctor's nephew. Of course Abelman doesn't want anything to do with it, so it's up to Thrasher and young Myron Malkin to persuade him, with the help of Abelman's friend and fellow doctor Max Vogel, who has his friend to look out for and who is sharper even than the producer himself.

Muni is superb here. He was Oscar nominated for the first time in 22 years and it's as well deserved as last time for The Life of Emile Zola in 1937. Certainly he's far better than his abysmally overblown showing in Black Fury for which he was nominated two years before that. David Wayne is solid as Thrasher the producer, but he's trumped by Luther Adler as Vogel, partly because Adler and Muni were real life friends going back forty years. The script is excellent, especially in the ways in which everyone sets up everyone else, but it veers off into sentimentality too often. The setups are subtle and masterful though, whether they be Thrasher persuading his boss or his boss persuading his boss or even Vogel persuading Abelman to appear on the show. It's a very clever script with some very astute performances.

It's well ahead of its time, given that the focus is really a reality tv show, as portrayed in 1959. We get to see how it's devised, how it's all set up, how it's made and how it's exploited. It also gets to tell a timely story, namely a doctor of the old school who believes in the Hippocratic Oath he took and heads out on a moment's notice to treat people just because they're his patients, even if they can't pay or won't pay or don't even want his treatment. He's absolutely the good guy, and he's a great character in the process.

However all his spiel about crooks in the industry pushing drugs for diseases that don't exist yet goes completely contrary to everything the network wants, as all the executives pushing adverts are obviously the bad guys and they can't possibly say anything that might make the sponsor look bad. That's a really refreshing view to hear in an era where the advertising executive was the American Dream and the hero on every TV sitcom. As Abelman says, 'it's the age of the galoots'. He's right and he's one of Muni's finest portrayals.

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