In 1956, Paul Newman planted his first step on what would become a journey to the heights of the acting profession and stardom in general. Newman's career is generally thought of as a pleasant one, he was one of those actors who acted with a capital A, no matter how trite the material might be. Known for his charisma and charm, the feature debut that set him on this path was called "Someone Up There Likes Me." What many may not realize, is that months later, Newman's second starring role in "The Rack," would equally show off the actor's natural ability to garner sympathy and suspicion, while still maintaining the persona of a natural human being. Adapted from a teleplay by Rod Serling and directed by Arnold Laven, "The Rack" is a lost classic; lost to time and a film that showed off Newman to the world just a little sooner. Now, 57 years later, Warner has released a remastered edition of this gripping film through the Warner Archives collection, allowing Newman completists and cinema lovers alike to (re)discover a forgotten Newman triumph.
"The Rack" focuses on the return of Capt. Edward Hall Jr., a Korean war vet touted as a hero, the son of a distinguished colonel. Having spent some time in a POW camp, Hall is obviously a man struggling with physical and emotional anguish. However, in classic Serling fashion, commenting on the issues of both humanity and current events, Hall is branded by a traitor, once by a fellow comrade (Lee Marvin in a very low-key, brief but intense performance) and once, officially by a military tribunal. Faced with defending his honor and actions, Hall becomes the victim of a passive aggressive witch-hunt: fellow soldiers look on him with scorn or confusion, the tribunal responsible for determining his guilt or innocence remains stoic and clinical, and his own family is intensely split down the middle. His only allies are his defense attorney (Edmond O'Brien) and widowed sister-in-law, Aggie (Anne Francis), while his biggest foe is his distant, patriotic father (Walter Pidgeon in an understated, almost equally complex role) who coldly asks, "why couldn't you have died nobly like your brother?"
Equal parts character study and courtroom drama, "The Rack" waits close to half of its running time before actually entering the hallowed halls of justice where ones perception of right vs. wrong and morality vs. duty will be questioned and possibly forever changed. Hall is simultaneously an open book and a guarded secret, willing to share his experiences, admit to what others view as treason, but offer morally sound reasons for committing these actions. Yet, there is always something lying underneath and through both blatant references by characters and Newman's tremendous, initially too amped up performance, "The Rack" refuses to reveal the whole picture to the audience, even in its finale when the moral themes are clearer, but still open to redefinition. Newman specifically shines in the second act, when he loosens up and finds his character while not betraying what was established earlier in the film.
Ultimately, "The Rack" is more thematic, despite the heavy emphasis on performance and numerous character speeches on cold facts. It's a film that works under the skin and consciousness of the viewer, leaving you to ponder the same questions posed by the characters in the film. It's not a watertight story and there are one or two somewhat noticeable gaps in logic, but the whole is a well-constructed, smart, professionally acted film. Newman reconfirms his selection for stardom earlier in the year and even those only familiar with the actor's later works will see specific physical traits shine through, even if they are in the process of being refined. It's a film that should appeal to all, those wanting a straightforward courtroom mystery, as there is enough resolution to satisfy the definition of a traditional story, but the real value comes from what lies beneath and what "The Rack" will have us thinking well after the details of the film are a distant memory.
The 1.85:1 original aspect ratio transfer is touted as being remastered, but still sports a consistent level of very mild print damage punctuated by a few brief moderate instances of damage. One can only imagine what poor shape the original was in, if this is a remaster. That aside, the transfer is above average to good in all other categories, sporting moderate detail and consistent natural contrast.
The Dolby Digital English mono soundtrack is more than adequate for a dialogue driven picture and is quite generally ear pleasing, with only the faintest of audio hiss and essentially no distortion.
The film's trailer is the lone extra.
Equally valuable to those looking for a one-and-done film that will solidly entertain as well as those looking for a film to revisit at a later date, "The Rack" is an underrated highlight of Paul Newman's career and incredibly solid indictment of morality. Highly Recommended.