Roger Ebert Home

On "The Rack" with Paul Newman and Stewart Stern

"The Rack" (1956), "Until They Sail" (1957), "The Prize" (1963), "Tales of Tomorrow: Ice From Space" (1953), "The Rack," "Until They Sail" and "The Prize" are now available on made-to-order DVD from the Warner Archive Collection for $19.95 each. "Tales of Tomorrow" can be viewed on Hulu Plus and Amazon Instant Video.

You would think that every film Paul Newman ever appeared in would be readily available on home video, right? Guess again. One of the best films from Newman's early career has managed to slip through the cracks of home-video distribution for decades, and unless you're old enough to have seen it in theaters or on TV over the years, it's possible you've never even heard of it. So when I heard that "The Rack" (1956) was available on home video for the very first time, I couldn't wait to break the news to Stewart Stern.

Rack one sheet.jpg For anyone who's wondering "Stewart who?" there's a convenient shortcut you can use when discussing the impressive life and career of Stewart Stern. All you have to say is, "He wrote 'Rebel Without a Cause.'" Uh-huh, that one. With a credit like that, any screenwriter could legitimately claim a slice of movie immortality, like James Dean did as the now-iconic star of Nicholas Ray's 1955 teen-angst classic. But to say that Stern only wrote "Rebel" is a bit like saying Frank Lloyd Wright designed a house. In the course of his distinguished, decades-spanning career, Stern wrote rich, psychologically perceptive scripts that were magnets for great actors and great acting: His script for "The Ugly American" (1963) gave Brando plenty to chew on; his Oscar-nominated script for "Rachel, Rachel" (1968) gave Joanne Woodward what is arguably the best role of her career (under the direction of her husband, Paul Newman; they also earned Oscar nods); and Stern's Emmy and Peabody-winning teleplay for "Sybil" (1976) transformed cute TV actress Sally Field into an Emmy winner with a pair of Oscars in her future. A few years later, Stern left Hollywood, weary of the rat race and struggling with writer's block, the delayed effect of post-traumatic stress from service in World War II. In the mid-'80s, Stern relocated to Seattle and never looked back. And while Stern may have been a nephew of Paramount Pictures founder Adolph Zukor, with additional family ties to MGM moguls Arthur Loew Sr. and Jr., his closest Hollywood connection was more personal and more warmly indicative of the man's soul and spirit: For 55 years, Stewart Stern was one of Paul Newman's very best friends.

My own casual friendship with Stewart (whose good friend Paul was one of my all-time favorite actors) began, appropriately enough, when I interviewed Stern about Newman in 1991. I was on freelance assignment for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer (R.I.P.), and Stewart was doing local interviews to promote his just-published (now inexplicably out-of-print) book No Tricks in My Pocket: Paul Newman Directs, an intimate portrait of Newman at work on the 1987 film version of "The Glass Menagerie," Newman's sixth and final directorial credit. Now 89 and still the modest, sensitive soul he's always been, Stern has been a generous mentor to Seattle's film community for 25 years. He uses a cane now (his feet are mostly numb -- the result of frostbite while fighting in the Battle of the Bulge, Dec. 1944), but three times a year he serves on the faculty of TheFilmSchool, an intensive three-week writer's course in Seattle, and he still makes his annual pilgrimage to the Sundance Institute's Screenwriter's Lab, where he serves as a creative advisor. Always eager to learn as well as teach, he shames his mostly-Luddite contemporaries by using words like "blog" with casual familiarity.

stewartstern.jpg In conversation, Stewart is never boastful or pretentious, and name-dropping is beneath him by a country mile. It just so happens that when you can coax him to stroll down memory lane, his recollections involve some of the most famous and talented people from the most pivotal decades of American stage, screen and television. And because I'll gladly seize any opportunity to enjoy Stewart's storytelling, I eagerly called him as soon as I heard that "The Rack" was available as a made-to-order DVD from the Warner Archive Collection. Freely adapted from a 1955 Rod Serling teleplay, "The Rack" was Stern's MGM follow-up to "Rebel Without a Cause," and it gave Newman (like Dean, an Actors Studio standout) one of his juiciest early roles as Ed Hall, an Army captain who's just returned from the Korean war, and now faces court-martial disgrace for breaking under torture and and collaborating with his Chinese enemy captors. It's still a powerful coming-home drama, earning its place among similarly-themed films like William Wyler's "The Best Years of Our Lives" (1946), Fred Zinnemann's "The Men" (Marlon Brando's 1950 film debut), Hal Ashby's "Coming Home" (1978), and Oliver Stone's "Born on the Fourth of July" (1989). I wasn't surprised to hear that Stewart was unaware of "The Rack"'s belated DVD release, since the Warner Archive (now approaching 1,100 titles since its launch in March 2009) is still something of a best-kept secret among collectors and cinephiles. Stewart was thrilled to hear the news (for years he's been using a private tape of the film for teaching purposes), and just as I'd hoped, he was willing to discuss the movie's real-life backstory. "I should tell you," Stewart warned me, "this is a long way to 'The Rack.'" "That's OK," I said, anticipating some tantalizing history. "I met Paul because I'd written a live TV play for him," Stewart said, referring to "Thunder of Silence," his teleplay for Goodyear Playhouse, originally broadcast on November 21st, 1954. "I'd seen him in 'Picnic'" (Newman's 1953 Broadway debut), "but he was in such a conventional role that I'd paid no real attention to him. Some time later I was watching TV, and there he was again, and I couldn't take my eyes off him." (Newman had a touching, emotional role in "Guilty is the Stranger," another Goodyear Playhouse production that aired live just a few weeks earlier, in late September '54. Newman played an army soldier who pays an emotionally charged visit to the parents of fellow soldier who'd been killed in the war.) "Here he was, breaking my heart in this intimate little scene," Stewart recalled, "and I knew he had to play the role in my play. I immediately walked down to my office in Radio City and started writing, and with Paul in my mind the words just flowed out of me."

thunder.jpg By that time, Stern had earned his first film credits at MGM by writing a short film "Benjy," which was produced and directed by Zinnemann, and the well-received 1951 drama "Teresa," directed by Zinnemann and produced by Arthur Loew, Sr. Work in live TV came soon after that, and as Stern began writing "Thunder of Silence" with Newman in mind for the lead role, Newman was in the final days of filming "The Silver Chalice" for Warner Bros. (This was Newman's infamous big-screen debut, in the toga-sporting role of a Greek sculptor who designs the chalice used by Christ in the Last Supper. James Dean had passed on the role, and the Biblical drama proved so embarrassing to Newman that after the film was released in December 1954, he took out a Hollywood trade ad to apologize for his performance!) "We were waiting on pins and needles," Stern continued, "and I was elated when Paul signed on to do 'Thunder of Silence.' "So the first time I met Paul was when I walked onto the soundstage during a break in rehearsals. There was Paul, playing some boogie-woogie on an upright piano. He was singing that novelty song, "Don't Ever Hit Your Mother With a Shovel, It Will Leave a Dull Impression on Her Mind.' He couldn't have been more charming, and I liked him immediately." [Newman clearly enjoyed the song; he sang it again 15 years later in "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid."] "The TV play was a big success, and we felt really good about it after the broadcast," Stern said. "And as I always did after a TV play, I started walking east from the studio, on 5th Avenue. I always had a little ritual when I walked past St. Patrick's cathedral. Like a good Jew I always looked up at the cathedral, even though it wasn't the house of my faith, and I'd thank God for letting thousands of people hear my words on television! "I hadn't walked very far when Paul walked up and started walking with me. We both agreed that we hadn't really gotten to know each other during the production, and we kept walking and talking. Eventually he stopped and said 'Well, I guess this is goodbye unless you want to walk back with me, I'm heading west.' So I walked with him and we went into the Russian Tea Room and that's when I met Joanne [Woodward]. She and Paul had met because she was an understudy on 'Picnic' and he was appearing in that small role while understudying for Ralph Meeker."

Edcomeshome.jpg So how, I wondered, did "Thunder of Silence" lead Stern and Newman to "The Rack"? "My cousin Arthur had asked [MGM president] Dore Schary to buy the rights to Serling's play so he could produce a film version," Stern continued, "so Arthur was assigned to produce and I wrote the screenplay. Right from the start we were pushing hard for Newman to play the returning soldier. MGM had never heard of him. They knew he'd been cast in 'The Silver Chalice,' but that was bubkes as far as they were concerned. Schary was determined to cast from the MGM stable, so he was very reluctant to consider Paul for 'The Rack.' "Now, Joshua Logan had directed Paul on Broadway in 'Picnic,' and he'd taken a fancy to Paul. It was Logan who taught Paul how to be sexy with body language, with his eyes...he didn't think Paul had any sex appeal! So, anyway, they had built up a strong mutual trust and Paul was using Logan as his unofficial agent. He didn't make any decisions without asking Logan first. Logan read my script for 'The Rack' and urged Paul to do it, but Schary was still reluctant to casting him. And by this time Jimmy [Dean] had been killed, and he'd been scheduled to star in 'Somebody Up There Likes Me' for MGM, so that role was now available." Indeed, it was a confluence of events that ultimately led to Newman's breakthrough role as Rocky Graziano in the 1956 boxing biopic that made Newman a bankable star. Newman had frequently been dismissed as a Brando imitator and James Dean wanna-be, and he'd been a front-runner for Cal Trask, the role Dean played in Elia Kazan's "East of Eden." Dean's tragic death in 1955 made Newman a top contender for the lead roles in "Somebody Up There Likes Me" and "The Battler," a 1955 live TV drama adapted from one of Ernest Hemingway's "Nick Adams" short stories. "Arthur and I had huge arguments with Schary," Stern continued, "and he was still determined not to cast Paul in 'The Rack.' We tested Leslie Nielsen [who would soon be chosen to star in MGM's science fiction epic "Forbidden Planet"], and Glenn Ford was offered the part but he said 'I'm a U.S. Marine! I'd never play a rat-fink role!' We must've tested five other actors from the MGM stable, and because the role was a soldier accused of being a traitor, all these people were getting so lofty about patriotism and refusing to take the role!

traitor.jpg "That was when Ernest Lehman [the screenwriter of "Somebody Up There Likes Me"] saw Paul on TV in 'The Battler,' and he said 'We've got to get this guy for 'Somebody Up There.' It was Lehman's interest that finally convinced Schary to give Paul a screen test for 'The Rack,' and when Lehman saw that, he was even more determined to cast Paul in his movie. That's what finally won Schary over. Paul was cast in 'The Rack' as 'bait' so they could gauge response before MGM cast him in 'Somebody Up There Likes Me.'" So it was that Newman filmed "The Rack" before "Somebody Up There Likes Me," with Robert Wise directing the latter from Lehman's screenplay. When MGM realized that they had a hit on their hands, the studio rushed the boxing drama into theaters in July of '56. As a result, Newman's star was rising fast when "The Rack" was released four months later. By that time, Newman was such a hot property that MGM's teaser trailer for "The Rack" promised "an even greater performance" from the popular and critically-acclaimed star of "Somebody Up There Likes Me." Undiminished by decades in home-video limbo, "The Rack" still resonates as a military courtroom drama that could easily be remade to address America's wars in the Middle East. Director Arnold Laven (whose following film was the semi-classic B movie "The Monster That Challenged the World") was unfamiliar with the Method acting that Newman had learned at the Actor's Studio, but he admired the young actor's diligence and the pair enjoyed the mutual benefit of an easy rapport. And while the film's stellar cast (including blink-and-you-miss-'em background parts for Robert Blake, Dean Jones and Rod Taylor) is fine across the board, it's the original material in Stern's screenplay that gives the film its timeless relevance. It's also one of the first films to acknowledge the kind of psychological warfare that informed the plots of later films like "The Manchurian Candidate." "I knew from my research that there was a lot more to the Korean P.O.W. story than what was being discussed in Serling's teleplay," Stern said. "His story was good, but since it had been written for live TV the script was gathered in and more narrowly focused. Serling didn't know what was happening to the prisoners. The Chinese were manning prisons where our boys were being sent, and in the course of my research I discovered a story about one American soldier who wouldn't break..."

marvin testifies.jpg " he became the character played by Lee Marvin?" I asked. "The soldier who held up under torture, and now despises Newman's character as a traitor?" "That's right," said Stern, "and in fact many of the characters in the film are original to my script. The Marvin character was partly based on that prisoner I'd read about. The Chinese had done everything they could in terms of physical torture. They tossed Army helmets full of urine in his face, they put cigarettes out on his skin...and when this didn't work they peeled the skin from his penis and tossed him into solitary confinement in a tiny shed with corrugated iron across the top. And he still wouldn't talk. There was a nail-hole in the corrugated iron, and every day at the same time, a tiny ray of sunlight would shine through the nail-hole, and he would hold his penis up into that tiny ray of sunlight so it would heal faster. The Chinese never broke him, and that was one of the reasons they turned to psychological abuse as a means of torture." I sat listening, speechless, as Stewart continued his story. "I'd been in the Pentagon as part of my research, poring over military files under tight security, and then traveling cross-country to attend court martial hearings at the Presidio in San Francisco. I discovered a condition called 'give-up-itis,' in reference to officers who'd broken under torture. They'd reached the point where they didn't care whether they lived or died, and that detail formed the foundation for Paul's character and terror he'd been subjected to." [As Victor Frankl notes in his seminal book Man's Search for Meaning, this behavior had a direct parallel among prisoners in Nazi concentration camps who'd given up and refused to cooperate, knowing it would likely lead to their execution.]

newmanverdict.jpg Newman relied on his Actor's Studio training to play the emotionally vulnerable and traumatized P.O.W. facing a potential court martial. The young, eager-to-excel Newman drew on sense memory (a vital aspect of the Stanislavski Method) to convey Capt. Hall's shell-shocked anxiety and halting speech patterns. "I was on the set for every minute of 'The Rack,'" Stern remembered, "so I knew that Paul had used an emotional trigger from his own life to express the character's trauma. Paul had been a belly-gunner on a torpedo plane in the South Pacific during World War II, and he'd been on a base landing strip waiting for a flight carrying his best friend from the Navy. One of the planes on the airstrip had just started its engines, and after this guy had landed he took a few steps back on the tarmac without looking. Paul was watching as his friend was sliced into pieces by the plane's propeller, and he used that memory for 'The Rack.' The character was always nervous and twitchy from his torture experience, so the other trigger he used was a more benign memory from his childhood, of his mother chasing after him with a hairbrush to rap him on the head when he'd done something wrong!"

francis pigeon.jpg The "Newman dilemma" aside, casting on "The Rack" had proceeded normally, and MGM's stable provided an impressive lineup of actors whose careers were going strong. Science fiction fans will quickly notice that Walter Pidgeon (as Ed Hall's stern Army colonel father) and Anne Francis (as the widow of Ed's war-casualty brother) had been reunited after playing father and daughter in "Forbidden Planet," released earlier that year; Lee Marvin had recently completed Budd Boetticher's classic Western, "Seven Men From Now"; and Wendell Corey was reprising his role as the prosecuting attorney in Ed Hall's court-martial trial. He'd appeared in the TV production of "The Rack" in 1955, his first role after playing James Stewart's detective friend in Hitchcock's "Rear Window" the year before. In one of the film's finest scenes, Newman and Pidgeon share an awkwardly intimate moment when Col. Hall confronts his own shortcomings as a distant, unemotional father and husband. The scene required the typically stalwart Pidgeon to cry, and the veteran actor was hesitant to let his manly defenses down. "We had a hell of a time with Walter Pidgeon," Stern recalled. "He was very self-conscious about being emotional. He flat-out would not kiss Paul, nor would he cry. It's the only time he ever cried on screen and we had to trick him into it. He said he'd agree to one take only, and he thought he'd managed to get through the take without his tears being seen. But we used two cameras, and he didn't realize we'd had him covered."

pigeon crying.jpg "The Rack" was released on November 2nd, 1956, and while it was not the box office success that MGM had been hoping for, Newman's performance was praised as "a brilliantly detailed...tour de force" by the formidable New York Times critic Bosley Crowther. For Stern and Newman, opening day led to an amusing anecdote that nicely summed up the positive experience of making the film. "The funniest thing happened the day it opened," Stern recalled. "Paul and I had to do an early-morning radio interview on opening day to discuss the movie, and then we raced to the Little Carnegie on 57th St. where 'The Rack' had opened. We hid out in the back row so we could watch people react to the movie. There wasn't a soul in the theater aside from us, so we went to the automat nearby and then returned for the next show. There we were again, sitting in the back row of an empty theater, and these two women walked in and sat down several rows in front of us. After a while these women were weeping, which we took as a good sign. We were feeling like we'd passed a test because these women were crying, so we knew the movie was working.Then the lights came up as the movie ended, and the two women got up and walked up the aisle, still very emotional. That's when we noticed that one of the women was my mother, and the other was her best friend. I was mortified! We greeted them as they were leaving, but still, we figured we hadn't passed the test at all!" I asked Stewart if he'd been in contact with Rod Serling in the course of adapting Serling's teleplay. "No," he said, "MGM bought the rights and that was it, Serling wasn't involved. He did send me a lovely letter after he'd seen the film, and he told me how he liked my screenplay more than his." Stern offered one last observation that reveals the extent to which Newman held himself to a stringently higher standard. "Paul could never admit that he'd done good work in 'The Rack,'" Stern said. "He didn't think he was a good actor yet." Fortunately for us, film history has proven Newman wrong, and "The Rack" can now be seen again as proof that the young Paul Newman deserved all the success that was coming his way.

Until They Sail.jpg"Until They Sail": A Man Among Women 

Also from the MGM library, the second title in the Warner Archive's trio of previously hard-to-find Newman films is 1957's "Until They Sail," released long ago as a wretched pan-and-scan VHS and now fully restored on DVD (or, to be specific, DVD-R) with its Cinemascope splendor intact. Based on a story by globetrotting novelist James Michener, it was Newman's second film with his "Somebody Up There Likes Me" director Robert Wise, who followed up with the 1958 submarine classic, "Run Silent, Run Deep." Call it a "women's picture" if you must (and with a title song performed by Eydie Gormé, it hews closer to Douglas Sirk than to Wise's subsequent output), but it's a solid soaper with an impeccable cast. Jean Simmons, Joan Fontaine, Piper Laurie and Sandra Dee co-star as four sisters in New Zealand, lonely and eager to marry after most of the country's men have shipped off to battle in World War II. Newman plays the jaded American military protocol officer assigned to investigate romantic entanglements between New Zealand women and U.S. soldiers enjoying shore leave while fighting in the Pacific theater. Newman tempts fate when he falls for Simmons, and finds himself enmeshed in a murder trial involving Laurie's recklessly promiscuous character. Pretty standard stuff as far as mid-'50s "weepies" go, but the chemistry between Newman and Simmons is tenderly affecting, and Wise (taking full advantage of widescreen composition) gives the whole thing a respectable MGM gloss.

prize.jpg"The Prize": Mr. Newman, Meet Mr. Nobel 

Of the three Newman films being liberated by the Warner Archive Collection, 1963's "The Prize" is the most puzzling obscurity, if only because it's the most overtly entertaining. Loosely based on Irving Wallace's 1962 novel about espionage surrounding the Nobel Prize ceremony in Stockholm, Sweden, it glides along with a cleverly sarcastic script by Ernest Lehman (his third project with Newman after "Somebody Up There Likes Me" and 1960's "From the Terrace"), and veteran director Mark Robson (also reuniting with Newman after "From the Terrace") delivers a fitting companion piece to Lehman's script for "North By Northwest." (Lehman clearly reworks several scenes from his "NxNW" script, and Hitchcock might've had fun with this material, but was busy making "The Birds.") By now a major star ("Hud" had been released earlier that year), Newman plays a cynical, martini-loving novelist-on-the-rocks and controversial Nobel winner, breezily paired with Elke Sommer as the chaperone assigned to keep him out of trouble. There's a fun dual role for Edward G. Robinson, and the film's slinky assassin (played by Sacha Pitoeff, a gaunt-faced precursor to Billy Drago in "The Untouchables") is certainly one of the first movie villains to suffer that now-common fate (spoiler alert!): the spectacular impalement. Through it all, Lehman peppers the plot with his trademark wit ("I thought Sweden was neutral" says Newman, welcoming Sommer's advances), and audiences in 1963 must have been happily teased by the scene in which Newman flees from pursuing kidnappers by interrupting a very Scandinavian nudists' convention. It's all in good fun, providing further proof that Newman could excel in any genre.

Tales of Tomorrow.jpg"Tales of Tomorrow": Rookie Newman, Eager to Please 

Last but not least, both Hulu Plus and Amazon Instant Video offer access to "Tales of Tomorrow," the vintage science fiction anthology series (1951-53) that gave 27-year-old Paul Newman his very first screen credit. (James Dean, among other up-and-coming New York actors, also appeared in the series.) Newman plays a young Army sergeant in the episode "Ice From Space," originally broadcast on August 8th, 1952. It's a standard threat-from-outer-space scenario, with Newman reporting urgent news to his stodgy superiors, but the young, eager-to-please Newman delivers the episode's most dramatic line with all the seriousness of a promising young actor with a very bright future ahead of him.

_ _ _ _ _

Thumbnail image for jeffsh.jpg

A Seattle-based freelancer, Jeff Shannon has been writing about film and filmmakers since 1985, for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer (1985-92) and The Seattle Times (1992-present). He was the assistant editor of Microsoft's "Cinemania" CD-ROM and website (1992-98), where he worked with editor Jim Emerson, and was an original member of the DVD & Video editorial staff at (1998-2001). Disabled by a spinal cord injury since 1979 (C-5/6 quadriplegia), he occasionally contributes disability-related articles to New Mobility magazine, and is presently serving his second term on the Washington State Governor's Committee on Disability Issues and Employment.

Latest blog posts

Latest reviews

Inside Out 2
Ultraman: Rising
Just the Two of Us


comments powered by Disqus