Number One (1969) ****

Quite possibly Charlton Heston’s best performance – as an ageing pro footballer refusing to bow down to the inevitable. Ron Catland (Heston) has much in common with Ned Merrill (Burt Lancaster) in The Swimmer (1968) as characters who believe they have been let down by the American Dream. And like that picture, plot is in short supply, it’s mostly a character study with sideswipes at the realities and inanities of American football.

An injury puts star quarterback Catland’s career in doubt. The media write him off, younger quarterback Kelly (Richard Elkins) is waiting in line, while former colleague Ritchie Fowler (Bruce Dern) offers him a job in his car leasing business, or he could opt for a second career in computers, but Catland wants the only life he has ever known to go on forever.

There’s nothing inherently likeable about Catland. In fact, he’s downright mean most of the time, in part because of the falsity of his profession, management buttering you up when it’s contract time, then on your back once you have re-signed. He’s got a hero’s arrogance, has ignored from the outset the coach’s instructions, at odds with independent fashion-designer wife Julie (Jessica Walter), no children to shore up their marriage. Hardly surprising he drifts into another affair, “an occupational hazard” his wife calls it, this time with the fey Ann (Diana Muldaur) who owns a tennis shop.

VHS cover

You are probably familiar with the kind of football picture which climaxes with a last-minute touchdown or the more realistic movies like North Dallas Forty (1979) or the superlative Any Given Sunday (1999) where nonetheless the focus is on winning and characters are ramped up for dramatic effect. Or you might imagine Hollywood had been routinely churning out football movies like Knute Rockne All-American (1940) and Jim Thorpe All American (1951) for decades. But strangely enough the movie industry had not focused on this particular sport for well over a decade until the NFL documentary They Call It Pro Football (1967) and comedy Paper Lion (1968).

Number One sets out to set the record straight on the reality of being a football hero. And it’s by far the most realistic of the species. For every good-looking gal wanting to pass him a note on a napkin in a restaurant there are plenty fans turning on him for refusing to sign an autograph. For every sports reporter writing a puff piece, there are others tearing him to pieces in print.

The documentary-style approach by director Tom Gries (100 Rifles, 1969) serves the film well. This is a different kind of football team to the later fictional depictions. It’s a lonely life for a start. The players are rivals, not comrades.  There’s little camaraderie. The dressing room is like a morgue. No practical jokes and tomfoolery. No over-the-top team talk by the coach and thank goodness no padre who pretends to walk every aching mile in their shoes. Any exhortation is almost a plea. Injury is mostly ignored. Legs are constantly strapped up. And when your career is over you might be reduced to bumming a loan from a current star. The politics are brutal.

New Orleans Saints cooperated with the production so the game scenes come across well though not obviously with the razzamatazz of Any Given Sunday and Heston has the physique for a sportsman. Primarily a television writer, David Moessinger (The Caper of the Golden Bulls, 1967) only crafted two films and this, the second and last, was an unusual effort, as the character twists and turns trying on the one hand to escape the cage of his career and on the other determined to squeeze the last drop out of his golden imprisonment.

Catlan still sees himself (at the age of 40, no less – but younger than today’s legendary Tom Brady) as the best quarterback in the business and simmers with anger that his body is letting him down and that he has nothing in place to fill the gap that abandoning the game will create. Underneath the volatility is a hole of pain. There’s no sense either that he has enjoyed his time at the top, just that it has always one way or another been a struggle.

Heston and Gries took a different approach to the western Will Penny (1968) and here they do the same to the sports picture. Although the movie was marketed with Heston as an aggressive individual, in fact it calls for a far wider range of emotions from Heston, and for this part he delivers in spades. Jessica Walter (Grand Prix, 1966) gives as good as she gets, Bruce Dern (Hang ‘Em High, 1968) as the fast-talking salesman who got out of the game in good time and Diana Muldaur (The Swimmer, 1968) are excellent. But this is Heston’s film. But it’s more of a reflective piece, none of the dramatic highs and lows of other football pictures, instead it is true to the cynicism and human exploitation of the game.