best film:   Paul Newman has only actually been in two masterpieces – 1967 and 1969 with Cool Hand Luke and Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid. So this is not an overly imposing category for Newman – at least against that very top tier of actors. These two films (practically tied in terms of artistic merit)  are not auteur-driven masterpieces – but perhaps in some ways that even boosts Newman’s credit/contribution percentage. He is certainly not just along for the ride here.  Butch Cassidy (Newman playing Butch) is a collaborative masterpiece. George Roy Hill is a solid director (The Sting) but here he is aided by an Oscar winning (and sharp as hell) screenplay by William Goldman, Oscar winning photography by Conrad Hall (one of the best of all-time – and a bit of trivia here – but Hall shot perhaps Newman’s best three films – all with different directors), costumes by Edith Head ( eight Oscar wins thirty-five total nominations), and of course arguably the best work from both Paul Newman and co-lead Robert Redford.


As said in the movie Newman is affable as someone can be – gregarious – Redford is the strong silent figure – they are both so damn impressive. The film is also a significant film in the lineage of two handers and even buddy cop movies (Butch and Sundance are not cops of course) – from 48 Hours to Lethal Weapon and the like. Butch Cassidy was also a box office smash and the two (already) stars went into the stratosphere. They have such great rapport – these two characters clearly love each other. The low motion bodies falling (here the Mexican gang) is the same year as Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch with similar sequences. 
The final freeze frame (above) is a stylistically transcendent moment – the audio carries over, the photography washes out – it is a defining stylistic moment— The 400 Blows, GoodfellasJules and Jim and Butch Cassidy when it comes to freeze frame.


best performance:  Cool Hand Luke. Newman’s Christ allegory figure of a convict and anti-hero has it all. He is incredibly charming, a likable rascal, anti-authoritarian, yet has his own set of principles and internal compass. Newman had done the southern accent before with mixed results (Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Long Hot Summer) but improved on it since those two films in 1958 and he is clearly in control here. His scenes with George Kennedy show clear chemistry together – but he also battles so well with Strother Martin and shows his tender side with the mother character Jo Van Fleet in their one absolutely devastating scene together. As strong as Newman is in Butch Cassidy, The Verdict and the Hustler –  this is the answer – a justifiably iconic performance and character.


In 1967 Newman was 42-years old, at the height of his powers, and no longer getting mistaken for Marlon Brando. He was looking to challenge himself in a way he had not previously. Veteran television director Stuart Rosenberg is at the helm here and most of his decisions here are perfect, if not artistically inspired. It is fair to question though if at least some of these ideas came from director of cinematography Conrad Hall (who also famously shot In Cold Blood in 1967) as the varying resumes (Hall’s is great, Rosenberg’s is not) before and after would lead one to believe Hall is the genius. Either way, one such inspiration is the freeze frame near the opening on a grinning Newman (playing the lead – Lucas Jackson of course). Newman’s Jackson is laid out like Christ on the cross at the 65-minute mark, a scene later he yells to the heavens questioning whether God is listening (he has a mother – played by Jo Van Fleet – but an absent father he never met). He plays the song “Plastic Jesus” after his mother passes and Newman sheds a tear. Luke is prisoner number 37 – “For with God nothing shall be impossible” from Luke in the Bible.



stylistic innovations/traits:  Paul Newman is the more easygoing and approachable spiritual brother version of Marlon Brando, James Dean and Montgomery Clift (one cannot imagine those three playing the easygoing Butch Cassidy). He could be funny and those other three monsters of method largely could not – this is part of Newman’s gift. Newman has twenty-two (22) films in the archives. Newman’s style looks so effortless and unrehearsed – especially from The Hustler (1961) on. He won the Oscar for reprising his role of Eddie Felson from The Hustler in The Color of Money with Martin Scorsese (and young Tom Cruise in support) in 1986 but had eight (8) other nominations to choose as well. He could show a dark side (Hud, the Hustler) but was probably at his best in Cool Hand Luke or Butch Cassidy where there is just nobody you would rather spend two hours of your time with. He made a slew of movies with “H” in the title for some reason (mostly marketing), was incredibly good looking (especially in color with those eyes) but after he came to power in the 1960s – he avoided the beefcake roles and movies in lieu of more challenging material (a trend for many great actors). At his peak he had such control of his material – one could argue he edged out (or scared away) the very best auteurs. His one downfall may be in the following category here below. Sadly, Newman rarely connected with the best directors out there. They were either in Europe at the time (Newman’s peak was the 1960s and the best directors were in Europe during this stretch), they never connected (Stanley Kubrick), or when they did, it did not come off to Newman’s liking (Alfred Hitchcock – this is the famous “your motivation is your salary” line from Hitchcock to Newman). Torn Curtain, by artistic standards, is one of Newman’s better films, but Newman and Hitchcock clashed during filming and maybe that turned Newman off to working with the genius type.


Newman is admirable in Somebody Up There Likes Me (1956) – a role he landed because of the sudden and tragic death of James Dean – same with The Left Handed Gun (1958) and a few others in the late 1950s and early 1960s. But, 1961’s The Hustler is a turning point Newman, clearly one of the cornerstones of his long, storied career.


directors worked with: Martin Ritt (3), George Roy Hill (2), Robert Wise (1), Arthur Penn (1), Otto Preminger (1), Robert Rossen (1), Alfred Hitchcock (1), Robert Altman (1), Sydney Pollack (1), Sidney Lumet (1), Martin Scorsese (1), James Ivory (1), The Coen Brothers (1), Sam Mendes (1). The top class here is Hitchcock, Altman, Scorsese and The Coen Brothers – and though these four films are solid – they are not at or near the top of the respective filmography for any of the four filmmakers – just a bit of back luck here for Newman.


top five performances:

  1. Cool Hand Luke
  2.  Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid
  3. The Hustler
  4. The Verdict
  5. The Sting


Paul Newman as Frank Galvin in Sidney Lumet’s The Verdict (1982). Newman had a remarkable 1981 and 1982 with Absence of Malice (1981) and The Verdict in back to back years (acting nominations for Newman in both) working with Sydney (Pollack) and Sidney (Lumet). These are films of superior writing and powerhouse performances.


archiveable films

1956- Somebody Up There Likes Me
1958- Cat on a Hot Tin Roof
1958- Long Hot Summer
1958- The Left Handed Gun
1960- Exodus
1961- The Hustler
1963- Hud
1966- Harper
1966- Torn Curtain
1967- Cool Hand Luke
1967- Hombre
1969- Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid
1973- The Sting
1974- The Towering Inferno
1976- Buffalo Bill and the Indians
1981- Absence of Malice
1982- The Verdict
1986- The Color of Money
1990- Mr. and Mrs. Bridge
1994- Nobody’s Fool
1994- The Hudsucker Proxy
2002- The Road to Perdition