During the late 1960’s, Paul Newman was one of sizable group of Hollywood celebrities with a growing concern over the rising social and political unrest across America. Fresh off a string of successes, including Cool Hand Luke, and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Newman decided to produce WUSA, based the novel A Hall of Mirrors by Robert Stone, who also wrote the screenplay. At the time, Paul Newman called WUSA, “the most significant film I’ve ever made and the best.” Unfortunately for him, it turned out to be one of his biggest flops.
Newman plays a drifter named Reinhardt who drifts into New Orleans, drops into a storefront mission and listens to a sermon. As it turns out, the fire and brimstone preacher (Laurence Harvey) owes him money. Only able to pay back part of his debt, the preacher offers Rheinhardt a lead on a job, working for the ultra-conservative radio station WUSA. They’re looking for announcer able to read ultra-conservative (read: racist) editorials with style and conviction. Station manager Noonan (Robert Quarry) hires Rheinhardt after just a few cursory questions.
Meanwhile, Rheinhardt meets Geraldine (Joanne Woodward) a sometime prostitute, who apparently lost her way after her husband’s suicide. An attack by a john has left her with a nasty looking scar on her face. Virtually homeless and hungry, she propositions a sailor (Clifton James), hoping to get a meal out of the deal. Rheinhardt comes to her rescue when things don’t go as planned. He takes her out for a meal, and soon, the two begin living together, even though he’s married to someone, somewhere. It doesn’t seem to matter.
They rent a weathered but comfortable apartment in the French Quarter. Their neighbor is a slightly odd, ex-Peace Corps volunteer Rainey (Anthony Perkins), who works taking a survey of welfare recipients. While he enjoys taking pictures in the poorer sections of town, he can’t help but sense something is a little off about his job. What he doesn’t realize is that the surveys have been ordered by WUSA’s owner, Bingamon (Pat Hingle), in an effort to stir up anger in New Orleans white population against the blacks.
WUSA is saddled with several problems, the biggest of which is that the films reactionary politics are implied rather than heard. Perhaps this was a symptom of the times or director Stuart Rosenberg thought it more effective to leave the kind of racism they would be talking to up to the viewer’s imagination. However, this was the South in 1970; to not have the “N-word” uttered even once, just isn’t believable. Nor does the radio station ever cop to be “Republican” “Democrat” or otherwise. Though we are certainly given some strong ideas, the film’s failure to take a strong, principled stand on any clearly defined political side certainly weakens the impact of the story.
Despite its problems, the performances here are mostly very good. Playing a bit of a heel, Newman is emotionally detached, even for himself; lethargically drifting through life. You almost want to root for Woodward character, as she delivers some genuinely heartbreaking moments. Wayne Rogers turns up as a sycophantic intermediary between Bingamon and Rainey and shines in a great scene which takes place in a Playboy Club. Anthony Perkins is excellent as the shy, nervous Rainey, a man who wants to do something positive for the world, but who makes some disastrous decisions in his efforts to do so.
Filmed in 2.35:1 Panavision, Olive Films has provided a solid 1080p transfer. Colors are surprisingly vivid, and aside from one or two scratches, the image is clean and clear.
The Mono audio is nothing special, but it does provide clean and clear dialogue.
There are no subtitles.
There are no special features.
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