Tuesday, August 29, 2023

Paul Newman Holds His Own: “Fort Apache, The Bronx”

Paul Newman was well known to most movie fans (as well as to Hollywood casting directors) as the epitome of the tough, sexy American male, sometimes an iconoclast and a loner but always the most attractive guy in the room. Fellow macho-man Steve McQueen lumped himself with Newman when worrying that, in the wake of The Graduate, “ugly” guys like Dustin Hoffman might threaten the careers of classically handsome types. The funny thing is that my first awareness of Paul Newman made me categorize him as the wimp who doesn’t get the girl.   

Newman made his Broadway debut in 1953, in a featured role in William Inge’s explosive play, Picnic. Set in a small midwestern burg, it’s about the local beauty who defies convention when a handsome drifter comes to town on the eve of the annual picnic. Left behind in her passionate connection with the drifter is her longtime beau, a good guy but one who bears the limitations of his small-town upbringing. Newman would seem to be obvious casting as the hunk (that role went to Ralph Meeker), but instead he played the rejected boyfriend. Since I—living thousands of miles from New York City—was an inveterate reader of Broadway plays I never saw on stage, I jumped to the conclusion that Newman came off as a weakling.

 Not hardly, as fans of such landmark films as The Hustler, Hud, Cool Hand Luke, and Butch Cassidy would be quick to point out. Newman’s signature character is not always smart in his behavior, but he’s crafty, highly physical, has a disarming sense of humor, and (whatever his weaknesses) you can’t help but love him. These movies were all made in the Sixties, but in 1981 a gracefully ageing Newman (age 56) brought some of those same qualities to a nice little cop thriller called Fort Apache, the Bronx.

 Fort Apache, The Bronx appropriates the name of a 1948 John Ford western to describe a much-beleaguered police precinct house in New York City. (A former Bronx cop had used that same name in his published memoir, leading to a lawsuit that plagued the production.) Newman plays Murphy, a veteran cop with an ex-wife and a drinking problem. His partner, played by Ken Wahl, is something of a newbie, but the two are devoted to one another. They have far less affection for their fellow law officers, some of whom are bottom-of-the-barrel discards from other precincts. The new precinct captain, played by Edward Asner, wants to run things by the book, but fails to understand the challenges of a neighborhood in which drugs, guns, and prostitution rackets are everywhere. (Really, he should have stuck to journalism!) Not only does he trigger a riot but his new policies lead to a heinous crime by one of the boys in blue.

 The action of Fort Apache, The Bronx, kicks off with the apparently senseless murder of two rookie cops sitting in a squad car. The police never solve the crime, though we in the audience know from the start who’s behind it and why the culprit will never be brought to justice. This is just one of the indications that the problems spelled out in this film will not be solved anytime soon. It’s a grim message, but Newman’s character (despite the bitterness that leads him to consider an abrupt retirement) is a cop through and through. I’m grateful to director Daniel Petrie and screenwriter Heywood Gould for leaving us in the coda with a glimpse of Newman and his partner joyously doing what they do best.

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