Paul Newman, Stretched Upon The Rack


Paul Newman, newly returned from war, rolls his wheelchair quietly into a room full of laughing men in uniform. They’re watching The Affairs of Dobie Gillis (1953), chuckling as a young, grinning Debbie Reynolds pours bubbling liquids into beakers. Though he has just learned that his brother was killed in combat, for a moment, Paul Newman allows himself to smile. And then a man sneaks up behind him, slips a noose around his neck, and dashes out of the room. At the bottom of the rope dangles a handwritten sign: “TRAITOR.”

This is the beginning of The Rack, Arnold Laven’s 1956 drama about a Korean War veteran accused of collaboration with the enemy. After The Silver Chalice (1954), this was Newman’s second-ever leading role, though Somebody Up There Likes Me (1956), which he filmed next, would be released before The Rack hit theaters. The Rack was a box-office bomb, and it receives very little mention in Shawn Levy’s seminal 2009 biography of the star, Paul Newman: A Life, except to say that it’s one of Newman’s least-seen films. For decades, The Rack was unavailable on home video, so the actor’s stunning performance was not widely seen until the Warner Archive Collection introduced a made-to-order DVD in the early 2010s.

And it is a stunning performance, one that deserves a place in the Newman canon: it’s magnetic, and heartbreaking, and ahead of its time. Watching the emotion beaming out from those shining eyes, one can easily see why the fan mags called him the heir to James Dean’s throne. Dean died in a car accident the year before The Rack, and the film was in theaters at the same time as Giant (1956), Dean’s final time onscreen. In other words, Newman picked up Dean’s baton and kept running, using his all-American charm to investigate, subvert, and upend traditional models of American masculinity through the carefully controlled chaos of his acting, just like how Dean set a new standard for American teenagers on film through the sensitivity of his performances.

In the film, from a script by Stewart Stern based on a teleplay by Rod Serling, Newman plays Captain Edward W. Hall, Jr., a man who was captured in combat and spent almost three years in a P.O.W. camp before finally being rescued. Though his father and his late brother’s widow are at first happy to see him, they soon learn that he’s being brought up on charges before a court martial, made to answer for what the other prisoners say was a sustained period of “collaboration with the enemy.” These are charges that Hall does not deny, and until his lawyer suggests a method of defense, he’s prepared to accept his fate. 

Until the film becomes a courtroom drama for its second half, The Rack seems at first to be primarily about Hall’s relationship with his father, himself a military man, a colonel. This dimension of the story is mostly absent from the 1955 teleplay of the same name; aside from a similar familial setup and perfunctory resolution in the film’s last line, Serling’s script is far more concerned with headier ideas like God and country. The film version of the story gets there, too, but not before intertwining and grounding those concepts in a family drama, thereby letting Paul Newman represent a new type of cinematic soldier, one far more human than most portrayals of traitors are allowed to be.

It’s fitting, then, that Stern adapted the screenplay; the year before, he’d penned the James Dean-starring Rebel Without a Cause (1955), and many scenes of familial strife in The Rack seem to echo sequences from the earlier film. A scene between Hall and a psychiatrist gives us a peek at the main character’s psyche, and the staging depends on a closed door and a conversation with an authority figure; it’s reminiscent of the police station opening of Rebel, where Jim complains to a friendly cop that his home life is “a zoo.” A staircase becomes a pivotal location for an emotional confrontation between father and son in both films, wild emotion coursing through the son’s veins, begging a stone-faced father to listen to him, to see him, and to love him anyway.

“Do you want to kill your own father?” shrieks Jim’s mother in Rebel when Jim’s inner turmoil explodes into violence. In The Rack, the death wish flows in the other direction. “Why didn’t you die?” Colonel Hall moans when his son confesses to treason. “Why didn’t you die like your brother did? It would have been much better that way.”

Stunningly, Hall agrees. “Dad…Dad!” he howls. “I woulda liked it better, too. A nice, clean, acceptable death with dignity.”

“Your excuses must have been tremendous,” his father spits, “to make you crawl on your belly and break faith with your country and me.”

In this way, fealty to family is fealty to country, and vice versa. The elder Hall’s love for his son is dependent on his service to his country, and now that his son has betrayed the fatherland, so too has he betrayed his father. It’s reminiscent of Cal Trask’s battle with the family patriarch in East of Eden (1955), another Dean role that Newman was up for, except with patriotism standing in for religion.

Because in The Rack, patriotism is a religion, and it’s one that Captain Hall must dare to question if he’s to upend the entire system. In a conversation with his sister-in-law (Anne Francis), Hall reveals that he considers himself half-human and half-army. His mother is dead, but he offers up an apology to the heavens: “Mom, I’m sorry. I turned out human like you wanted me. But I picked the wrong time.” The project of The Rack, then, is in joining those two halves back together to make a whole, scandalously suggesting that the individual men who make up the military are, in fact, human. This is reflected in the film’s structure, which introduces us to the human side of Captain Hall’s life in its first half before subjecting him to the scrutiny of the military in its second.

The military—war itself—is not built to recognize or reward humanity, especially that of prisoners in the face of torture. It’s expected that, when questioned, members of the Armed Forces will only give up their “name, rank, and serial number,” and it seems that all of the other men in Hall’s P.O.W. camp did just that. He, however, broke. He just broke. He’s a human being, and after endless months wallowing in his own filth, in darkness, not allowed to sleep, barely able to eat…he broke. He signed a surrender leaflet, spoke to the other prisoners about cooperating, and helped monitor their compliance with the inhumane orders of their captors, all because he broke. The military, and patriotism itself, and his father, can make no allowances for breaking, or else the whole system falls apart.

His lawyer, Lt. Col. Frank Wasnick (Edmond O’Brien), has a radical suggestion: Hall will take the stand not to make excuses for what he did, but to explain it. “We find ourselves having to judge a man who committed certain acts under the duress of this new moral perversion, where the mind can be placed upon the rack and made to suffer agony for which there is no measure,” he cautions the court. “Our military law books do not describe this duress and so no allowance is made for it.”

The crucial difference between this film version of The Rack and the earlier, shorter teleplay is that the earlier production of the story doesn’t have Newman as its secret weapon. Marshall Thompson played Capt. Edward Hall Jr. first, and he does a fine job, but he doesn’t have Newman’s eyes, or the pout of his lips, or the particular set of his jaw. During the teleplay’s courtroom scenes, all that’s asked of Thompson is that he sit there, implacable; in the film, Newman positively simmers with anguish. He’s a man being torn apart from the inside, unable to justify to his father or his country why he behaved the way he did, even if he’s just starting to believe that he can justify it to himself. He seems alive.

In this performance, we can see all of the things that made him a superstar, building on and refining the raw material of shifting onscreen sexuality pioneered by Brando, Clift, and Dean. He’s funny and romantic, though Anne Francis isn’t really a love interest despite posters for the film announcing that this was “A Crime That Only A Woman’s Love Could Forgive!” Nonetheless, his eyes glimmer, even in black and white, in that slyly mischievous way that would soon turn heads in more overtly erotic performances like The Long, Hot Summer (1958) and The Sweet Bird of Youth (1962). He also plays a convincing alcoholic, a theme that he’d revisit many times throughout his career, and when Captain Hall finally takes the stand—finally recounting his side of what his fellow soldiers, his father, and his country see as a betrayal—he’s desperately sympathetic.

It all culminates in a stunning courtroom sequence where the camera pushes in closer and closer on Newman’s face as he describes the mental torture he underwent. He keeps his voice even, but his eyes downcast, not making eye contact with either his inquisitor or the camera. He admits that, above all else, he was broken by loneliness, a gaping maw in his soul that he’s felt since childhood, ever since his father refused to show him affection. It’s perhaps a bit pat, a bit Freudian, but Newman sells it. “They said if I didn’t sign the leaflet right then,” he says and then pauses, his mouth moving though no sound comes out. He seems on the verge of vomiting, of crying, evidently recalling some unknowable horror that he’s struggling to put into words. And then, he finishes the phrase: “…I’d be alone for the rest of my life.” The words finally spill out, confessing to everything quickly now, as though he needs to race past the thought of a loneliness so complete and absolute that it made him turn his back on everything he’d been trained for. “I’ve gotta get some sleep, and I can’t be alone anymore,” he says, his voice finally cracking. The vulnerable timbre of his voice in this moment…what a desperately human ache. 

We do let ourselves understand that our soldiers are scared of a lot. They fear their own death and bodily destruction, of course, and occasionally we admit that it must be difficult for them to deal with the mental torment of having to take another person’s life. But to be asked by the film to genuinely empathize in this moment, to understand that even the most steadfast soldiers still struggle with the all-too-human need for connection? It feels quietly radical.

Stern later stated that Newman drew on his own experience in the army for these sequences. “Paul had been a belly-gunner on a torpedo plane in the South Pacific during World War II, and he’d been on a base landing strip waiting for a flight carrying his best friend from the Navy,” Stern told Roger Ebert. “One of the planes on the airstrip had just started its engines, and after this guy had landed he took a few steps back on the tarmac without looking. Paul was watching as his friend was sliced into pieces by the plane’s propeller, and he used that memory for ‘The Rack.’” This is Newman’s Actors Studio training in action, drawing upon sense memory in performance, and it leads to incredible results here. 

Because, though being a traitor in war is supposed to be abhorrent and unforgivable, thanks to Newman’s work here, we do empathize. Stern recalled that they tested many actors for the part, but that many refused to take the role, fearing the ramifications on their career of playing a sympathetic traitor to the country. Newman barrels ahead anyway, perhaps still too new to the industry to be able to turn down a role like this, but also perhaps a bit more brave, a bit more willing than many of his contemporaries to investigate what postwar American masculinity needed to look like. Is it braver to remain silent, as Hall’s fellow captives did, or braver still to admit that you can’t?

The film cannot resolve the sociological tension at the heart of its plot; after all, Hall did it, and he admits to it; in the end, he’s found guilty. Still, through Newman’s performance and Stern’s dialogue, The Rack resolves the moral question by resolving its familial tension: yes, of course we should change the way we think about what we ask of our military, and correspondingly, of oblivious nationalism itself. After all, Colonel Hall forgives his son.

It happens in a car, with the younger Hall sitting ramrod-straight in the passenger’s seat while his father grips the steering wheel next to him for support. As when he was on the stand, Newman keeps his body mostly controlled, betraying his inner agony only in the quiver of his lip and the tears shining in his eyes, searching the distance, seeming to seek some sort of solace on the horizon. A boy desperate for the love and approval of his father is one of the most elemental, archetypal conflicts that exists, going all the way back to the Book of Genesis; here, in The Rack, the father is the one who reaches out to his son, shaken by his admission on the stand that his abdication of his role as a patriarch is what ultimately caused his son’s treason. “Ed, is there always going to be this distance between us?” Col. Hall asks, and Newman’s face finally betrays the agitation he feels inside. “I don’t know,” he admits. While Newman takes big, gulping breaths, his chest heaving, his father pulls him into a hesitant side-hug, finally showing the physical affection that Hall was afraid he’d never get. “Ed, give a little,” his father begs. Newman is shattering, a lifetime of hurt at his father’s hands visible on his face in the way he grinds his jaw, trying to keep from sobbing.

In Serling’s version of the story, while he awaits his verdict, Hall visits a military chaplain who tells him, “Your guilt is breaking faith in a prison camp. The guilt of men is that there are prison camps.” It’s a bit more complex in Stern’s version, which gives Edmond O’Brien a monologue about the questions at hand. He warns the court that the military has found most members of the Armed Forces to have had no idea what communism actually was, or what they were actually doing fighting on the Korean peninsula. “If there is guilt, where does it lie?” he asks. “In that small number who defected under pressure, as Capt. Hall did? Or do we not share it? At least those of us who created part of a generation which may collapse, because we have left it uninspired, uninformed, and—as in the case of Capt. Hall—unprepared to go the limit, because he had not been given the warmth to support him along the way.”

These are questions we still don’t have answers to, and to my eyes—which have known nothing but morally-corrupt war for much of my life—they seem more relevant than ever. The second season of the podcast phenom Serial examined the ordeal of Bowe Bergdahl, a man accused of aiding and abetting the Taliban through his desertion because he couldn’t handle the pressures of an endless war he wasn’t prepared for. The podcast picked apart the nuances of Bergdahl’s declining mental health in a system that made no allowances for such a deeply-human struggle, and they found that, despite the resources wasted in trying to find the captured Bergdahl, no lives had been lost due to his actions. It didn’t matter; the second season was a relative failure, and audiences weren’t interested in an attempt to humanize a man that many viewed as a traitor. We still won’t face these questions head-on, but The Rack demands that we try.

What, then, to make of the final twist, the final stretch upon The Rack, wherein a cross-examination convinces Hall to admit that he thinks he probably could have held out just a little bit longer? The moment surely plays to some audiences as an admission of guilt, a moment where the film finally acknowledges that Hall is a spineless traitor after all, one they can feel satisfied seeing locked up. Aside from talking about its box-office failure, Paul Newman: A Life does contain one other snippet of information about The Rack: the detail that Stern was forced to do rewrites on his script “to accommodate the concerns of military censors.” This moment does not appear in Serling’s original teleplay, so there’s certainly a chance that it was added specifically to soften the script’s subversive potential.

However, there’s an alternative reading available here, too: the moment also works as one final twist of the knife, one final moment proving that, despite his ‘freedom’ from the camp—from the war—Hall is still trapped by the system of thinking that led him to crack in the first place. While he admits that he could have lasted “another day, an hour, even a minute,” Newman blinks rapidly, as though clearing all hope of leniency from his eyes. The tragedy of this admission is not that he was guilty all along, but that he has chosen his military side over his human one, has broken one final time under questioning, inviting the judgment he feels he deserves rather than standing with the idea that he’s a human being who deserves compassion.

Paul Newman went on to film Somebody Up There Likes Me (1956)a role that James Dean had booked before he died—and his part as boxer Rocky Graziano catapulted him to superstardom. The Rack came and went with relatively little fanfare, but stands as a document of the subversive power of Newman’s performance style. The bones of the performance are there in Marshall Thompson’s take on the same story, but Newman dresses it up and breathes a deeply human, deeply sensitive life into the character—and, by doing so, shakes the very foundation of American life: our belief in ourselves and our institutions to withstand any and all trials and tribulations. Sometimes, we break. And the quiver of Paul Newman’s lip says that maybe, just maybe…that’s okay.