They say the road to hell is paved with good intentions; if this be true, W.U.S.A. is sure to send asphalt stock soaring. This 1970 socio-political thriller, based on the novel A Hall of Mirrors by Robert Stone (who likewise penned the screenplay), has all the right buttons…It’s just that nobody bothered to press them.
Set in the south, this cynical look at American hypocrisy is loaded with great ideas – the primary one being the right wing extremist radio station of the title, whose goal is to ignite racial violence and the eventual take-over of the country by the scant super rich. How they do this, among other things, is to invent news. Now you might be saying, “How prophetic!” Or “Gee, doesn’t this remind me of some real-life TV station?” Well, sure – but the delivery of this concept is so muddy and the surrounding characters so clichéd and unpleasant that the only thing that comes across is “Get me the !@#$% out of this theater!” This is exactly what happened in 1970, when the movie was briefly released. W.U.S.A. had the opposite effect of star Paul Newman’s previous undertaking, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid: NOBODY went to see it.
Now it isn’t for a lack of trying; W.U.S.A. gets an “A” for effort. The plot points are controversial enough, and ostensibly the characters should be interesting: the self-loathing hero, his disfigured prostitute girlfriend, a crazed social worker, drug-taking free-loving hippies, charlatan preachers, racist bigwigs and a plethora of exploited African-Americans, whores, paraplegics and paraplegic whores. The cast and production values are first-rate. So – what gives?
There are too many reasons to discuss in this DVD review of this Olive Films/Paramount release – and maybe that’s the rub: too much junk in the cinematic trunk. Nevertheless if blame has to be pointed in any one direction – I’d opt for…well, the direction. Simply put, Stuart Rosenberg has elevated “pedestrian” to an art form. This narrative screams for the hard-hitting banging over the head fists of Sam Fuller or Robert Aldrich…or John Frankenheimer or even Otto Preminger; what one gets is a visual interpretation of the old Bing Crosby tune, “Ho-Hum,” even with all the hoes (and the implication of humming).
Earlier, Newman’s patented I’m-so-cool-and-you’re-not personae proved to be a winning one (except, perhaps in the case of Winning); here – he’s so borderline revolting by being so hep (drinking special labeled chic beer, pulling his sunglasses over his celebrated blue eyes in lieu of acting) that every time he sneers, smirks and smug-mugs at the fools (which apparently comprise the entire population of the planet minus himself), you pray that someone on-camera will have access to a polo mallet. Of course, at some juncture this was the obvious plan: the old “If you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem” scenario. Like most of the sweaty cast, this just doesn’t wash. LST: “What we have here is a failure to communicate.” Joanne Woodward, perilously essays the oft-trod Claire Trevor golden-hearted hooker territory, and doesn’t fare much better. Brandishing a post-trauma surgical scar worthy of Peter Cushing, Woodward’s only hopeful salvation seems to be that one of them other Eves’ll kick in – and she’ll head home to the suburbs in time to prepare dinner. Cloris Leachman, as her crippled skank roomie, embodies the movie’s the Greek chorus – or, more accurately, the geek chorus, as she wears more mobile armor than Robocop.
Laurence Harvey, channeling his classic southern/western accent which served him so well in Summer and Smoke and Walk on the Wild Side (not to mention The Alamo), comes off fairly untarnished as a sleazy corrupt minister who turns Newman on to the monetary benefits of W.U.S.A. He delivers perhaps the finest performance in the pic.
Then there’s Tony Perkins – cast against type as a psycho. Worse – a liberal psycho. Too bad he and Harvey share no scenes together, as he could have revealed how enamored he was of the Brit star in The Manchurian Candidate – as it obviously inspired his plan to take out the evil bastards sniper-style from the rafters of during the final act rally fundraiser. By this point of the proceedings, Perkins is so alarmingly twitchy and out-of-control that it’s a wonder he doesn’t show up for the event in his career-making Tweety Pie/Granny garb.
The out-and-out scumbags come off the best; as the Roger Ailes-like head of W.U.S.A., Pat Hingle – all teeth and vitriol – excels…dare we say – in spades, as does Robert Quarry as the bigoted producer/celeb whose only missing prop is a blackboard. Skip Young is a near double for Limbaugh replete with oversized cigar and undersized mentality. The only one missing from this freak show is Tod Browning, who also would have done a better directing job than Rosenberg. Oh, yeah – and maybe Schlitze (who likewise would have been both preferable to Rosenberg and ideal as Newman’s love interest; a pinhead can’t wear too many hats).
When all is said and done, however, one still must applaud Olive Films for making available this demented obscurity…more importantly, in its original 2.35:1 Panavision aspect ratio. The anamorphic transfer is about as good as you’ll get; the movie always seemed to have a gritty, grainy rust-colored enamel sheen about it. And so it does here. The audio is a bit more problematic, as Lalo Schifrin’s score seems to often drown out the dialogue (which isn’t necessarily a bad thing).
W.U.S.A.’s fascinating eerie connection to certain risible contemporary media, makes it more than an ancient cultural curio (a remake hybrid might well be christened W.F.U.X.). Ultimately because of rather in spite of its shortcomings, the movie is a must-see cuckoo-for-Cocoa-Puffs highway pileup. Reportedly, it was one of Newman’s favorite projects – and one he sadly lamented about never finding its audience. Thanks to Olive Films, perhaps now it can.
W.U.S.A. Color. Letterboxed [2.35:1; 16 x 9 anamorphic]; Mono. Dual layer.Olive Films/Paramount Pictures Home Video. OF265. SRP: $24.95.