From forty years ago -- forty-one this November -- comes a film that seems more prophetic than historic. Producer Paul Newman brings his Cool Hand Luke director Stuart Rosenberg to helm novelist Robert Stone's adaptation of his A Hall of Mirrors -- I haven't read that novel but what I have read of Stone I've liked a lot. Newman plays a drifter named Reinhardt who drifts into New Orleans, drops into a storefront mission and hears a sermon from Laurence Harvey, who owes him money. Harvey is a doubly evocative presence in the picture, inspiring subtle memories first of Walk on the Wild Side, and later of The Manchurian Candidate. After getting some but not all of what Harvey owes him, Reinhardt crosses paths with Geraldine (Joanne Woodward), an erstwhile ex-prostitute with a scar across one cheek as a stigmatic badge of independence. I'd just seen a precocious Woodward eat poor Van Heflin alive with an over-the-top tomboy performance in George Sherman's Count Three and Pray so I was worried when she started working an accent, but she was better behaved overall. The husband may have been a positive influence. Anyway, Reinhardt takes Geraldine in and finds work as an announcer at the title radio station, where he auditions for Robert (Count Yorga) Quarry. It was gratifying to see Quarry in a civilian role, small though it proved, and to see him craft a completely different personality, neurotic and eventually somewhat paranoid, from his masterful swinging vampire. WUSA is a conservative station -- it services "America's America" -- but it seems to restrict its messages to the breaks between songs and commercials. Reinhardt doesn't believe a word of what he reads over the air but it's a living. His rise is intercut with the descent of well-intentioned social worker Rainey (Anthony Perkins), who grows suspicious that the survey he's working on isn't telling the real story of black poverty, and that the local boss Clotho (Moses Gunn) who facilitates the work is keeping something from him. Rainey and Reinhardt live in the same apartment building along with some hippies in a band, and when Rainey learns that Clotho is conspiring with political candidate Minter (Wayne Rogers), a WUSA personality, to paint a fraudulent portrait of "welfare chiseling" in order to create a campaign issue, he tries to pump Reinhardt for inside dirt on the agenda of station owner Bingamon (Pat Hingle). Reinhardt couldn't care less about the political agenda, but saves his rage for Rainey, whom he calls a "cornpone Christ" and regards as a contemptible idealist and, worse, a whiner. "I hate whiners!" Reinhardt declares, setting the tone for generations of lower-class right-wingers whose only way to salvage self-esteem is to embrace the values of their masters and despise all who protest rather than simply look out for number one.
The storylines converge at a political rally with Reinhardt as MC, Harvey's huckster missionary giving the benediction, "White Power" signs in the audience, a black mob growing restless outside, and Rainey lurking on the catwalk with a gun. Everything ends in disaster: Rainey's shot goes wide and takes out a more-or-less innocent man; Reinhardt tries to calm the crowd but can't stop himself from giving an absurdly contemptuous and career-killing speech ("In the heart of every bomb is a fat old lady going to the fair" or something along those lines); Reinhardt's hippie band pals, whom he'd brainlessly brought along to perform to a hostile audience, panic and plant their stash of pot on Geraldine, who's caught with the stuff and told to expect 15 years in jail given her record, though a one-way escape route lays open for her. Reinhardt and his fellow hustler, the preacher, escape more or less unscathed, the preacher to leave town immediately, Reinhardt to learn from a crippled neighbor (Cloris Leachman) of Geraldine's fate, which inspires perhaps a moment of reflection and a reprise of Neil Diamond's original song for the picture before the drifter goes back to drifting.
WUSA boasts a strong ensemble, weakened but slightly by Perkins's stock twitchy turn, and capped by the liberal entrepreneur Newman's apparently knowing portrait of the enemy mindset. If the movie seems ahead of its time now it may be because we see more Reinhardts than ever around us -- people who are not fanatics but are incapable of solidarity because of their overwhelming contempt for their fellow humans, and perhaps for themselves. I make no pictorial judgments on direction or cinematography because the Flix channel broadcast was pan-and-scan except for the credits, but the location shoot is nevertheless a snapshot of a time and place where history took a wrong turn. It's a film worth watching for both its cinematic and historical interest, and it definitely gets me wanting to read A Hall of Mirrors. In many ways Rosenberg's film, which seems to have flopped in 1970, is an instant period piece, but it's not hard to see today in it, in a chilling way.