University of Virginia Library


'Notion': Sometimes A Great Movie


You eat, you sleep, you
screw, but mostly you work.
That's what the men of the
Stamper family will tell you.
They're modern day
lumber-jacks whose motto is
"Never give an inch." When
union loggers go on strike, the
Stampers don't. They keep on
working no matter what it does
to their town, to their families,
or to themselves. They don't
need the money, just the

The Stampers are a kind of
people who try, like Voltaire's
Candide, to make it through
life by working without
reasoning. "Sometimes a Great
Notion" shows how that kind
of ambition can fail.

The Stampers are not, in
the end, so simple-minded as
they could wish, and Paul
Newman, as director and actor,
does not allow us to be.

It would have been so easy
for Newman to show either the
brave pioneer spirit of the
Stampers, or their awful
narrow mindedness. But he
gives us both. He could make
us hate the union men, but he
makes us understand them. He
makes us admire the
ruggedness and the guts of the
loggers even as he makes sure
we see the kind of wholesale
desolation they wreak on a
breathtaking landscape.

Newman finally gives us a
film which isn't about villains
or heroes, not even anti-heroes,
but people. Moreover, it's not
the words they speak but the
images Newman gives us of
them which make these people
real. And that's a hell of an

He had a difficult cast to
handle; one that could be
almost too professional. It
would have been easy for him
to let Henry Fonda, Michael
Sarrazin, and, yes, Paul
Newman do their usual Fonda,
Sarrazin, and Newman things.

At the beginning of the film
that seems to be just what's
happening as Fonda plays the
incorrigible old conservative
pioneer type; Sarrazin, the
misunderstood young
pretty-boy rebel; and Newman,
the blue-eyed super-stud. But
as the crises of the story
approach and all the crap
about "loving or fighting at a
moment's notice" along with
some banal filler about
Sarrazin's long hair, fades into
the background, Newman
begins to pull some real
surprises out of the script, the
scenery, and the actors.

The superb performances of
Lee Remick and Richard
Jaekel mold in with a tour de
force by Fonda to make
everything click, and the
second half of the film
becomes a shatteringly
powerful experience, even
though a perfectly understated

"Sometimes a Great
Notion" does spend much of
its time on the brink of cliches
and a few strands of its plot
lead to nowhere, but,
sometimes, it's a great movie.

One scene in it is as tragic
as anything I've ever seen,
precisely because Newman
allows it to be so funny. A
chain saw and a rising tide
make it terrifying. Its
consequence is desperately sad.
And after that scene we can
begin to understand just why
men wish they could work
without reasoning.

(Now at the Paramount)