The Universal Vault series has released the 1970 film "Sometimes a Great Notion" on DVD. Based on the novel by Ken Kesey, the film starred- and was directed by- Paul Newman. His skills as both actor and filmmaker and amply displayed in this engrossing, off-beat drama that never found its intended audience during its theatrical release, despite a heavyweight cast. The film is basically a domestic drama, though set amid the staggering beauty of the Oregon wilderness. The Stamper family runs one of the biggest logging operations around. The family's crusty patriarch, Henry (Henry Fonda), attributes the family's success to the fact that they lead a hard scrabble lifestyle and do much of the grueling work themselves rather than simply farming it out to paid employees. Henry ensures that he keeps the keys to his kingdom close to his vest: the only positions of power are held by him and his two sons, Hank (Paul Newman) and Joe Ben (Richard Jaeckel). Henry espouses his philosophy of life, which is that there isn't much purpose to existence other than hard work, eatin', drinkin' and screwin' (though perhaps not necessarily in that order). When we first meet the Stamper clan they are embroiled in a dispute with a union that represents loggers. The union has called for a strike and it appears that the workers have been dormant for quite some time. The Stampers refuse to accede to union demands that they stop their logging operations in order to show solidarity with the workers. Henry will have no part of it. He and his sons insult union representatives that come to reason with them and, in fact, physically terrorize one of them. Henry and his sons have no use for unions and adhere to the pioneer lifestyle in that every man has to fend for himself. A byproduct of this philosophy is that the Stampers are riding high as the only operating logging operation in the area. Consequently, the family gets all the business that the striking workers would ordinarily enjoy. However, the Stamper's luck is about to run out. Union members secretly begin to sabotage their operation and on one especially painful day, the family endures several tragedies of Shakespearean proportions.
Although top-billed and coming off the success of "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid", Newman doesn't hog the spotlight. As director, he's quite generous in ensuring that his co-stars get ample quality scenes. The film evokes a very believable atmosphere in terms of exploring the type of no-nonsense, working-class people who populate rural areas. At first glance the Stampers are a content clan but there are cracks in the facade. Hank's wife Viv (Lee Remick) is fed up with the misogynistic lifestyle she is trapped in. Among the Stampers, the women folk are meant to be seen but not heard. She was bored as a teenager growing up in a one-horse town until young Hank drove through on his motorcycle and literally swept her off her feet. Her dreams of an exciting life were quickly dashed and she now finds herself cooking and cleaning for a family of men who barely acknowledge her presence. Even romantic overtures to Hank go unrewarded and Viv is fed up with his inability- or unwillingness- to challenge his father's Draconian ways of managing the family and the business. Hank's younger brother Joe Ben is a happy-go-lucky, humorous fellow whose own wife Jan (Linda Lawson) shares his Born Again Christian beliefs and is quite content raising their kids and living a traditional lifestyle for women in this place and era. Dramatic tensions rise when Henry's estranged son Leeland (Michael Sarrazin) (Hank and Joe Ben's step brother) arrives out of the blue after being away for years. He's a troubled drifter with no particular goal or purpose in life. Henry welcomes him back but advises him that if he wants to stay, he'll have to learn how to work as a lumberman. There is also tension between Leeland and Hank because Hank once slept with Leeland's mother (!)
As director, Newman excels at capitalizing on Richard Moore's magnificent cinematography and making the lumber business seem quite interesting. The scenes of tumbling timber are thrilling and suspenseful and makes the viewer aware of just how dangerous this profession is, with the possibility of injury and death always only seconds away. In the film's most harrowing and best-remembered scene, Joe Ben is trapped under a log in a rapidly-rising river as Hank desperately tries to rescue him. Jaeckel is terrific here in a role that earned him a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination. The scene is difficult to watch but Jaeckel and Newman have never been better. (At the time of the film's release, critic Rex Reed complained that some of Jaeckel's best work in the film never made it into the final cut.) Screenwriter John Gay deftly sidesteps some anticipated cliches and every time you think you know where the story is going, it ends up in another direction. There is irony in Newman directing and starring in a film in which the protagonists are right wing and anti-union, as Newman himself was a career union man whose left wing activism earned him a place on President Nixon's notorious "Enemies List". (Newman claimed it was one of the great honors of his life.) There are some weaknesses: we never get any background on the merits of the case made by the striking loggers so we have no frame of reference as to whether we should sympathize with them or the Stampers. Also, some of the supporting roles are underwritten, especially Lee Remick's. Aside from one good scene in which she divulges her frustrations to Sarrazin, there's not much for her to do. The movie builds to its tragic climax although Newman does make sure there is a triumphant moment in the last scene, even if its represented in a rather gruesome fashion. It's a pity that Newman chose to direct only a few films. He was as impressive behind the camera as he was in front of it. The film also benefits from a fine score by Henry Mancini and the opening song, "All His Children" (sung by Charley Pride) was nominated for an Oscar. When the film failed to click at the boxoffice it was re-marketed under the title "Never Give an Inch"- although that strategy failed to work. Hopefully it will finally find a more receptive audience on home video.
The DVD transfer is superb but once again, Universal provides a bare bones release with nary a single bonus extra.
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