Charlton Heston fans will appreciate the fact that one of his few major films not to be released on home video has finally made it to DVD through MGM. "Number One" (released in certain countries under the title "Pro") is an off-beat vehicle for the superstar, who was then at his peak of popularity. The fact that the movie under-performed at the box-office and failed to score with critics didn't diminish Heston's status as a leading man. He would go on to star in such hits as "The Omega Man", "Skyjacked", "Soylent Green" "Earthquake", "Midway"and "Airport '75"- with cameos in the popular "The Three Musketeers" and "The Four Musketeers". The poor response to "Number One" doesn't diminish its many merits - and the fact that Heston was willing to play against type in a largely unsympathetic role. For the film, he reunited with director Tom Gries, with whom he made the acclaimed 1968 Western "Will Penny". Curiously, both movies center on the same theme: a macho man who can't come to grips with the fact that he is aging and, therefore, his chosen way of life is threatened. In "Will Penny", Heston played the title character: a middle-aged cowboy who feels the inevitable aches and pains of trying to maintain a career that is clearly suited for younger men. Similarly, in "Number One" he plays "Cat" Catlan, a star quarterback for the New Orleans Saints football team. Catlan has seen plenty of fame and glory as the team's Golden Boy and the idol of the crowds. But now he is 40 years old and, although still in Herculean physical condition compared to most men his age, he's fallen victim to the constant brutalities he suffers on the field. The film opens on a particularly disastrous game in which Catlan makes some serious misjudgments about plays and bungles some key passes. The result is an embarrassing loss for the team. The Saints' gruff coach Southerd (John Randolph) isn't ready to give up on Catlin but seemingly every other team member is. Catlan is subjected to some cruel jokes and he has to contend with the fact that a much younger player (Richard Elkins) is breathing down his neck, hoping to replace him as quarterback. Things aren't much better at home for Catlan. His long-suffering wife Julie (Jessica Walter) patiently endures his mysterious absences, unpredictable mood swings and volatile temper. She is a very successful fashion designer but Catlan is "old school" when it comes to the role of wives. He wants Julie to stay home and cater to his needs. In the midst of one of their frequent fights, he even stoops so low as to cruelly tease her about her inability to conceive a baby. Still, she sticks with him even when he confesses to having an affair with an another attractive, self-made woman, Ann (Diana Muldaur). Faced with the fact that his career is winding down, Catlan reluctantly explores his options for his post-NFL life. They aren't very enticing. His best friend Richie (Bruce Dern), is an obnoxious former Saints player who brags about having gotten out of the game at age 34. He now runs a very successful car leasing business and lives a playboy lifestyle. He wants Catlan to work for him, a prospect that doesn't sit well with the aging quarterback. He also gets an offer from a computer company to work for them but the idea of dealing of being surrounded by machines in the confines of an office is repugnant to him.Ultimately, Catlan is inspired by his wife to go out on a high note. During one of their rare moments of domestic detente, she convinces him that he still has some good games in his future if he can shake off the funk and get his confidence back. The film's climactic game is the very definition of mixed emotions. Catlan performs well and has his mojo back but the movie's ambiguous final shot is anything but uplifting.
Tom Gries was a good director for Heston. He somehow managed to tamp down Heston's larger-than-life personality and afford him the opportunity to play everyday men. In "Number One", Heston is subject to the sorts of problems that plague most middle-aged men. He's nervous about his future. He often takes his frustrations out on the people closest to him. He tries to reassert his youth by exerting his sexual prowess through having an affair. Throughout it all, Heston admirably does not try to make Catlan into a hero. There is a level of sympathy accorded to him because of the emotional and physical stress he is under but his sheer disregard for others makes him more a villain than a hero. (He even refuses to give fans his autograph). Even worse is his sheer selfishness in how he deals with his wife's needs. He feels threatened by the success she is enjoying in her own career and therefore diminishes her achievements. Heston gives one of his finest performances, ironically, in what was one of his least-seen films.He gets able support from the woefully-underrated Jessica Walter, whose performance a couple of years later in "Play Misty For Me" should have assured her of major stardom (and an Oscar nomination). Director Gries also utilizes the talents of real-life football players, some of whom exhibit impressive acting skills. Diana Muldaur also excels as the siren who lures Catlan into her bed. There is an air of authenticity to the film, primarily because Gries shot much of it in front of packed stadiums. (Cinematographer Michael Hugo's work is especially impressive). Gries also captures the feel of New Orleans back in the day, capitalizing on the local scenery, jazz clubs and even getting the great Al Hirt to perform a number and do a bit of acting. About the only dated aspects of the film concern the off-the-field activities of the NFL players. Catlan complains that they are paid like peasants, which was probably true in 1969, but is a rather laughable notion today. Also, the NFL team is required to wear jackets and ties when traveling to or leaving the stadium, another rule that would be virtually unenforceable by contemporary standards.
"Number One" never found its audience in 1969 but hopefully the crisp, impressive DVD release from MGM will find help retro movie lovers appreciate its merits. The film did have at least one critic who appreciated the movie and Heston's performance. Writing in the New York Times, critic Howard Thompson wrote: "Charlton Heston, minus a
beard, a loincloth, a toga or the Red Sea, tackles a starkly unadorned role in
one of the most interesting and admirable performances of his career…If Heston
could have been better, we don’t know how." Our sentiments exactly.
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