The Last Angry Man
Most movie stars have only one real part they can play, which is themselves. This is not a bad thing, since what they’re selling is their charisma. But now and then someone shows up in Hollywood who can reinvent himself for every role. Laurence Olivier, Meryl Streep, Dustin Hoffman … I think they are more common now than they were years ago. Paul Muni was one of the first. He could play gangsters or writers or scientists. He prepared extensively, sort of anticipating the Method. He was good at make-up and accents. This was his last film. It’s a rare Hollywood film that deals with poverty and tries to get it right. As a result, there are a lot of black faces in the small parts, and they aren’t servants or Pullman porters. This was the first film for both Billy Dee Williams and Godfrey Cambridge, and one of the first for Cicely Tyson, who I didn’t even recognize as she appears in the very first scene as a woman who has been beaten and is dropped off on a doorstep. We hardly see her face.
In this one Muni plays a crotchety old general practitioner who has been treating poor people for little or no money for 40 years or so. An ad man looking for people for a new show discovers him, and wants to build a show around him and his patients, “reality TV” in the Early Years. Younger folks may not know this, but in those days almost all TV shows had only one sponsor: Texaco, GE, Chrysler, etc. So you really had to be careful not to offend the sponsor, in this case a drug company. Naturally, the old doc has some nasty things to say about the useless remedies peddled by these companies. He has plenty other things to say, too.
The movie never quite goes where I expected it to, which is good. But the doctor is a little too crotchety, a little too saintly for my tastes. I liked it that the advertising man turns out to be a good person, consistently standing up for the old man in the face of crass commercialism. For its time, I think this movie was probably fairly groundbreaking, but I don’t think it holds up real well. Worth seeing, marginally, mostly for the acting.