New York — October 3, 2008. That's the night that the lights went out on Broadway. Last Friday, marquees in the theater district dimmed to honor the passing of a star who lit up stages there for half a century. The haunting yet beautiful
The haunting yet beautifulvisual moment of silence reminded me of a scene from Paul Newman's final role on the big screen.
In 2002, Newman portrayed fictional godfather John Rooney in Road to Perdition, a film based on a graphic crime novel set in Depression-era Chicago. Newman's co-star was Tom Hanks, who played Michael Sullivan, Irish crime boss Rooney's "Angel of Death"—a hit man who also did jobs for Al Capone.
Witness to Murder
To set the stage for that late scene in the film, I must say a word about the conflict that sets the story in motion. The hit man's son, Michael Sullivan, Jr., 12, witnesses one of his father's business associates commit murder during a rough up at a warehouse. The boy was spotted by the executioner, Connor Rooney, the Mafia boss's loose-cannon son, played by Daniel Craig.
"Did you see everything?" Michael Sullivan asks his boy, who nods.
Conner asks Sullivan, "Can he keep a secret?"
"He's my son," says Sullivan.
That's not good enough for Connor, who takes it upon himself to eliminate Sullivan and the boy. But when Connor arrives at the Sullivan residence to take care of business, neither target is home. A frustrated Connor guns down Sullivan's wife and the couple's other son.
Michael Sullivan sets out to exact revenge. This leaves the avenger and Newman's character in direct conflict, each facing impossible choices:
Sullivan knows that his surviving child's life will remain in jeopardy if he does not execute the man who meant to kill them—even if that man happens to be the son of his boss.
And John Rooney's son expects him to eliminate Sullivan, who will surely kill Connor for shooting his wife and child. "You gotta take him now," Connor pleads to his father.
Choosing between the life of a valued hit man or his son may not seem like much of a conflict for John Rooney. But Sullivan, who never had a father of his own, has been more like a son to Rooney than Connor, who is as much of an albatross to his father as Sullivan is a prize.
Connor showed bitterness and jealousy toward Sullivan long before he or Michael Jr. posed any problem for the family. That resentment was stoked just prior to the warehouse execution, when John Rooney ordered his son to "take Michael" along, presumably to avoid unnecessary violence. Sullivan was a judicious hit man. So when Sullivan's son was an eye-witness to Rooney's son committing murder, Connor could not resist the opportunity to take out his only rival for his father's affection.
In the Name of the Father
For Sullivan, getting rid of Connor meant he would also have to kill his father. The crime boss had his son under protection, watched by armed men 24/7. As long as John Rooney was alive, his son could not be killed. The catch was this: No one in Rooney's family wanted Connor to succeed his father. With the crime boss dead, those men would turn the other way for an outsider to take out a childish tyrant waiting to fill his father's shoes. Thus the film's tagline: "Every son holds the future for his father." (Newman's character at right, reacting to his son's news that Sullivan's wife and child had been hit.)
Michael Sullivan first tried to gain access to Connor through his father. When John Rooney said that was something he could never do, Sullivan knew he would have to execute the head of the Rooney crime family, a man heavily guarded. And so the stage is set for the godfather's death.
The dimming of the lights on Broadway to mark Newman's death reminded me of the muting of gunfire in the death scene of Newman's character in his final feature film. Befitting an exit of a star like Newman, the scene is, in my opinion, one of the most elegant portrayals of mass violence in the history of American cinema. Never has an assassination in a hail of gunfire taken on such an operatic quality—largely because until the scene's climax, gunfire is never heard.
A Beautiful Death Scene
The surreal street scene is muted by rain and populated with black-silhouetted mobsters carrying umbrellas à la Magritte. From the soundtrack we are entranced by a gorgeous score from classical composer Thomas Newman. (No relation to Paul Newman—but from a rich pool of musical talent—Thomas Newman is also known for the moving soundtracks to The Shawshank Redemption, American Beauty and Six Feet Under's opening credit sequence.)
As the wing-tipped mobsters take their places on the rain-slicked street, the scene turns when the crime boss realizes his driver is not standing with umbrella at an open car door. In the driver's seat, Rooney sees his chauffeur, who appears to be sleeping until Rooney tries the door, and the driver slumps to the steering wheel.
Umbrellas twirl as mobsters pivot, searching for the source. In short order, men collapse around the crime boss, unable to see where the fusillade is coming from. As the ballistics ballet plays out, piano keys echo the tinkling rain as one by one, Rooney's men go down in sync with the sound of descending notes. There is no visible bloodshed.
In the distance, we see the lightning flash of the muzzle from an automatic weapon we know is held by Sullivan, who, after killing everyone but Rooney, emerges from the darkness to do what must be done: kill a man who might as well be his father.
At the end of the scene, Rooney turns to face his executioner. Any Mafia crime boss knows the odds on how he'll die. The question he's plagued by his entire life is—Who will do it? . . . The Law? . . . Family? . . . Foe? . . .
Rooney knew who held the submachine gun the moment he saw one of his bodyguards get hit. In his final moments on screen, facing a man who has been like a son, Newman delivers his last line in cinema: "I'm glad it's you."
This gives Sullivan the courage to open fire, shattering the strange tranquility of the silent street massacre with a blast of bullets to ensure swift, painless death—effectively drowning out the conflict Hanks' character is feeling. The wordless interval between Newman's last line and his assassin's gunfire holds the scene's most poignant moment. In the audience's mind, and no doubt Sullivan's, was Rooney's recent observation: "This is the life we chose—the life we lead—and there is only one guarantee: None of us will see Heaven."
It's no secret that Paul Newman did not want to be remembered for his acting roles. But his role as Godfather in Road to Perdition—his last appearance on the silver screen—is one I'll never forget.
When Newman's many roles in life ended on September 26, the world lost a star of a human being. But because of the life he chose to lead, the heavens are now one star brighter. He will always be remembered through those whose lives Mr. Newman improved. And thanks to the magic of cinema, Paul Newman lives on—even when the lights go out.