powered by AFI
Of leading men throughout cinema history, there may be no more individual niche that that inhabited by the temperamental and talented Paul Muni. Time, tastes and a comparatively small on-screen resume admittedly have taken their toll on his career's luster. Through the '30s, however, there were few actors in Hollywood that enjoyed professional esteem of the sort that the stage veteran, who started honing his craft as a youngster on the Yiddish Theater circuit, commanded. Consider that of his total 23 film credits, five of them garnered him Academy Award nominations for Best Actor, with his having won the prize for The Story of Louis Pasteur (1935). Muni is also unique in Oscar® history for having received a nomination for his first screen performance--The Valiant (1929)-- and for his last, a role that coaxed him back from the stage after a 13-year self-imposed exile from Hollywood, The Last Angry Man (1959).
The project cast Muni, then 63, as Sam Abelman, an aging, infirm doctor steadfastly devoted to the populace of his Brooklyn tenement neighborhood. His years of unsung service to the community inspire his newspaper copyboy nephew Myron (Joby Baker) to inveigle the publication of a human interest article celebrating this "Schweitzer of the slums." The piece doesn't go unnoticed by Woodrow Wilson Thrasher (David Wayne), a highly ambitious network television producer, who sees Sam as ideal fodder for his projected series on real-life everyday heroes.
The individualistic Sam, however, is uninterested in Thrasher's entreaties, deeming his time better spent on the community than such glossy nonsense. The doctor is particularly concerned with the young delinquent Josh Quincy (Billy Dee Williams, in his screen debut), who has been suffering with seizures, and is afraid of seeking medical attention. Woody responds by trying to break down Sam's resistance indirectly, first by trying to make an ally of Sam's best friend, the prosperous specialist Dr. Max Vogel (Luther Adler). He then convinces Lyman Gattling (Robert F. Simon), the show's pharmaceutical magnate sponsor to foot the bill for the new house that Sam has longed for.
Woody, of course, keeps all of this from the proud physician, who has finally given his tepid cooperation to the presence of a camera crew at his practice. Thrasher's difficulties with his subject continue to mount, though, from his willingness to bolt from the "set" to try and reach Josh, to his level of on-air candor concerning the commercialism of the producer's whole enterprise. Woody's efforts to keep Sam arm's length from the truth, and the doctor's desperation to break through to the seriously ill young hood, move the narrative to its emotional conclusion.
The screenplay, so perfectly tailored to Muni's strengths, was adapted by Gerald Green from his popular 1956 novel, which drew its inspiration from the life of Green's own physician father. The actor, who was coming off an ill-fated stage musical adaptation of Grand Hotel, was impressed with the novel and screenplay proffered by director Daniel Mann, as described by Jerome Lawrence in his bio Actor: The Life and Times of Paul Muni. The performer confided to his wife Bella "Sure, I'm tired and sick...But what this film says is important--about what medicine should be and what doctors should be. To play an honest doctor would be something--particularly a Jewish doctor helping poor people."
A rancorous perfectionist when in his prime, age did absolutely nothing to mellow Muni, as the planned six-week shooting schedule for The Last Angry Man stretched into seventeen weeks. "Though he was scrupulously on time for every scene and every setup many delays were caused by a recurring cue from Muni: 'Can I say something?'" Lawrence recounted. "Everything would stop while Muni discussed a point in the script at length. But when anybody said yes, he would scream, 'Don't agree with me! I'm not a writer. I'm a poor son of a bitch of an actor who's asking a question. Don't accept my question as an answer!'"
Mann recounted for Lawrence an appreciation regarding a bit of Muni's craftwork during the film's climactic sequence, where Abelman suffers a heart attack. "He leaned over the banister; when he came up again, his face was completely sunken in. He looked like a different man. I went over and congratulated him and asked him how he achieved that remarkable transformation. I thought it was marvelous. Smiling mischievously, he opened his hand and showed me his false teeth. He had a kind of childlike glee about it."
The supporting cast of The Last Angry Man were equally impressive in their roles. In addition to the aforementioned, noteworthy work was turned in by Nancy R. Pollock as the enduringly patient doctor's wife, and Betsy Palmer as Thrasher's corporate grind-weary spouse. Claudia McNeil was effective in her screen debut as Josh's mother, and you can spy Cicely Tyson and Godfrey Cambridge in small, early roles. The art direction by Carl Anderson and William Kiernan netted The Last Angry Man its one other Oscar® nomination.
Producer: Fred Kohlmar
Director: Daniel Mann
Screenplay: Gerald Green (novel), Richard Murphy
Cinematography: James Wong Howe
Film Editing: Charles Nelson
Art Direction: Carl Anderson
Music: George Duning
Cast: Paul Muni (Dr. Sam Abelman), David Wayne (Woodrow Wilson Thrasher), Betsy Palmer (Anna Thrasher), Luther Adler (Dr. Max Vogel), Joby Baker (Myron Malkin), Joanna Cook Moore (Alice Taggart).
by Jay S. Steinberg