Friday, September 30, 2011

Sweet Smell of Success (1957) -- Alexander MacKendick

What makes New York City the most interesting metropolis in film is its dark side and Sweet Smell of Success opens up the 1950s underbelly of the place in all its fascinating ugliness. 

Sidney Falco (Tony Curtis) is an unscrupulous press agent who wants to get "way up high, where it's always balmy." Right now he's one of the little guys; the nameplate on his office door is cheaply printed and taped on. He's tired of being a lapdog and trolls his talents to J. J. Hunsecker (Burt Lancaster), the city's most influential columnist and gossip monger. Hunsecker wields his power, making or breaking men with a few words, from small-time comics to senators. He relies on sleazebags like Falco for the only commodity that counts in his trade, information. But he's smart enough to keep his own hands clean, at one point telling Falco that his right hand hasn't seen his left hand for thirty years.
Curtis as Falco -- his greatest performance.

It's hard to say who's slimier, Hunsecker or Falco, but Falco is willing to pimp a girlfriend to get copy for a client, saying, "Come on, baby. Do it for me." Hunsecker dotes over his kid sister like a father. When he learns she is involved with a jazz musician, he engages Falco to dig up some dirt.  
"Come on, baby. Do it for me."

Falco knows all the tricks of his dirty trade. He can be charming one minute—he's described as having a half dozen faces for the ladies—conniving and demeaning the next. He will even plant drugs on the unsuspecting boyfriend.
The story plays out in the tony clubs and restaurants of Broadway and Times Square, and on the dark, crowded, wet streets of New York. It's a wonderfully shot film by famed cameraman James Wong Howe, whose gritty black and white cinematography creates a noirish atmosphere, helped immensely by Elmer Bernstein's tense jazz scoreyou can almost smell the cigarette smoke and garbage cans, and feel the hot sweat running down people's backs in the jostling street vendors and crowds.    

The film's most famous scene takes place at Club 21, where Hunsecker presides over the city. In turn he humiliates a U.S. senator and Falco. It's the first time the two main characters are thrown together. Their relationship, rotten and symbiotic, is the heart of the film. (Their actors' ages work perfectly for relationship: Lancaster was 43, Curtis, 32). 

Curtis and Lancaster at 21 Club - rotten to the core.

Hunsecker knows he's the dominant partner and enjoys ripping into the sycophantic Flaco. Here's a sample of some his best lines of dialog:
J.J. to Falco:

"I'd hate to take a bite outta you. You're a cookie full of arsenic."

"I love this dirty town."

"You're dead, son. Get yourself buried."

Another revealing sequence occurs at Toots Shor's, a leading celebrity hot spot in New York during the 40's and 50's. Falco attempts to blackmail another columnist to incriminate the boyfriend. He fails miserably when the man rebuffs him. A chilly exchange takes place, ending when the man tells Sidney he's got the morals of a guinea pig and the scruples of a gangster. A few minutes later Falco uses those same words as if they were his own as he tries to ingratiate himself with another columnist. 
Director Alexander Mackendrick has fashioned an alluring but disgusting world of corruption. It is a fascinating look at how newspapers peddle scandal and insinuation to titillate readers. You can't help but take a peek. Unfortunately, the subject matter must have been too grim for American audiences at the time, resulting in poor box office and the curtailment of the director's career. It also failed to garner even a single Academy Award nomination. Today it is considered one of the best American films of the decade.   

Clifford Odets and Ernest Lehman's script seems charged with electricity. Its great dialog is full of innuendo. A frightening example is when an old-time cop on Hunsecker's payroll threatens Falco with, "Come back here, Sidney... I wanna chastise you." Falco wisely keeps his distance—the man looks like he'd enjoy breaking a few bones. Emile Meyer plays the menacing cop. He starred in Shane four years earlier as the main antagonist. 

Tony Curtis mostly kept to costume dramas and romantic comedy his whole career. His time at the top was brief, less than ten years. He'd never remotely approach this level of performance in any other film, a perfect match of an actor to a role. It is a startling turn. When he says to his girlfriend, "Don't do anything I wouldn't do! That gives you a lot of leeway...," you know he means it. 
Lancaster is nearly as good as the ruthless, but lonely columnist.    
Susan Harrison as Susan Hunsecker - J. J.'s sister.

Lancaster's character is loosely based on real-life gossip columnist Walter Winchell. At the height of Winchell's fame, his newspaper column was syndicated in over 2,000 newspapers worldwide, and he was read by 50 million people a day from the 1920s until the early 1960s. His Sunday night radio broadcast was heard by another 20 million people from 1930 to the late 1950s. He famously said: “I usually get my stuff from people who promised somebody else that they would keep it a secret."

The film is one of the best of the 1950's noirs. As such, you know it won't end well for Curtis and Lancaster, whose rotten character eventually knock them down a peg.

Other films shot by James Wong Howe:
  • The Rose Tattoo 1955
  • Picnic 1955
  • Hud 1963
Another great script by Ernest Lehman:
  • North by Northwest 1959
Other Films by James Wong Howe:

   The Rose Tattoo 1955

   Picnic 1955

   Hud 1963

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Seven Days in May (1964) - John Frankenheimer

It's the height of the Cold War. Relations between the United States and the Soviet Union has the U.S. military on edge. When an unpopular president (Fredric March) negotiates a nuclear arms treaty with the enemy, he incurs the ire of the military and the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who see him as soft, and playing politics with the nation's security. Its hard line chairman is General James Mattoon Scott (Burt Lancaster), a popular hero who considers the president a traitor. Scott's aide, Colonel Jiggs Casey (Kurt Douglas), comes across inexplicable and unsettling information. Convinced a military coup is afoot, he takes his suspicions to the White House. The president calls together his most trusted advisers to get to the bottom of matter and, if necessary, stop the coup before it is too late.
Fredric March as President Jordan Lyman

Seven Days in May is a fine follow-up for Director John Frankenheimer, fresh off his critically acclaimed The Manchurian Candidate. As a political thriller, it succeeds even better than its predecessor because the plot is considerably more plausible. Where Manchurian featured an over-the-top U.S. Senator and his wife hell-bent on securing the presidency through any means possible, wrapping itself in the paranoia of the Cold War period, Seven Days in May keeps it characters firmly rooted in reality. It more accurately captures the sense of foreboding and uncertainty of the age, when kids were drilled at school to duck their heads under their desks in the event of an atomic bomb attack, and Russia tried to site missiles in Cuba.

The film, based on a best-selling novel by Fletcher Knebel and Charles Bailey, is a tense thriller with great pacing, a hallmark of Frankenheimer. The plot unfolds innocently enough; Colonel Jiggs stumbles unto what ostensibly is a betting pool among certain officers for the upcoming Preakness Stakes. The junior officer who brought it to his attention is suddenly transferred. Jiggs hears of a secret military base out west, where disturbing amounts of military resources are being housed and directed. None of it makes sense. Once he takes his suspicions to the president, the pace picks up.

Because the cast and script are so good, it's easy to get caught up in the action. Not surprisingly, March is particularly effective as the beleaguered president, willing to sacrifice his political future for what he believes is in the nation's best interest. He looks and reasons like a president, at least how we might wish. His character encapsulates the message of the film when he says it's the nuclear age, and not a person or group that is the enemy. "It has killed man's faith in his ability to influence what happens to him."

A winner of two Best Actor Oscars, March gives another appropriately emotional performance, looking older than his 67 years. His face is clouded in anguish. You believe this man is under crushing pressure, and you root for him to fend off his opponents. He has two terrific scenes. The first in the living quarters of the White House, in a tense confrontation with Scott. Here we have two men, diametrically opposed and passionate, each with the firm belief that he is right.

"Then by God, run for office."
Scott: And if you want to talk about your oath of office, I'm here to tell you face to face, President Lyman, that you violated that oath when you stripped this country of its muscles - when you deliberately played upon the fear and fatigue of the people and told them they could remove that fear by the stroke of a pen. And then when this nation rejected you, lost faith in you, and began militantly to oppose you, you violated that oath by not resigning from office and turning the country over to someone who could represent the people of the United States.
President Lyman: And that would be General James Mattoon Scott, would it? I don't know whether to laugh at that kind of megalomania, or simply cry.
Scott: James Mattoon Scott, as you put it, hasn't the slightest interest in his own glorification. But he does have an abiding interest in the survival of this country.  
President Lyman: Then, by God, run for office. You have such a fervent, passionate, evangelical faith in this country - why in the name of God don't you have any faith in the system of government you're so hell-bent to protect?

The second scene is a press conference at the end of the film, with some of Knebel and Charles' strongest writing. President Lyman offers the nation a hopeful message, though an ironic one, considering that shortly after the film's release the United States found itself mired in Vietnam.

"There's been abroad in this land in recent months a whisper that we have somehow lost our greatness, that we do not have the strength to win without war the struggles for liberty throughout the world. This is slander, because our country is strong, strong enough to be a peacemaker. It is proud, proud enough to be patient. The whisperers and the detractors, the violent men are wrong. We will remain strong and proud, peaceful and patient, and we will see a day when on this earth all men will walk out of the long tunnels of tyranny into the bright sunshine of freedom."
Lancaster and Douglas

Frankenheimer surrounded himself with a solid supporting crew. Jerry Goldsmith provided the effective score, suspenseful and dramatic; and Edward Boyle served as set director. Boyle was nominated for an Oscar for his work on this film. He knew his stuff, having won four years earlier for The Apartment.

Rod Serling of The Twilight Zone penned the taut screenplay. He did a great job translating the book to the screen, making you wish he had done more film work. For dramatic effect, Serling and Frankenheimer made Scott more publicly blatant in his criticism of the president and reduced the involvement of one character in the novel who adds little to the story, a Secret Service agent. Both decisions enhance the story.

Douglas is great as Jiggs, giving one of his most understated performances, confused and, at the end, shocked that the man he so admired could disgrace his uniform. What makes his position so compelling is that he agrees with Scott; he tells the president that the Russians are playing them for suckers. But he understands the role of the military in a civilian government, and though a whistle-blower, he is the true patriot of the film.

Frankenheimer makes good use of closeups, showing the strain on the face of the characters. The best occurs as Jiggs is first relating his suspicions to the president. Lyman feels the officer is beating around the bush and asks him if he "has something against the English language." He tells him to speak plainly. The camera pulls in on Douglas as he finally gets his suspicions off his chest. It's a dramatic moment.

Another great pleasure is the supporting cast. O'Brien (nominated for an Oscar here), Martin Balsam, Andrew Duggan, George Macready, and Ava Gardner are each terrific, shinning in short screen time. O'Brien is the president's good friend, an alcoholic Senator from South Carolina. His accent is a little over the top but his emotions are spot on. His character is involved in the one true action sequence in the film. On a fact-finding mission, he finds himself held incognito at the secret military base, where his captors try to ply him with alcohol. When a friend of Jiggs shows up (Duggan), together they attempt an escape. Considering the amount of armed solders present, it stretches the imagination that they would succeed, but this is a film more about ideas than action, so it's easy to overlook this slight flaw.

The character Clark helps illustrate something else that is surely true about any presidency--it can be an incredibly lonely job. When the most difficult decisions are required, it comes down to one man. He may have a few friends and close advisers he can talk things over with, but in the end the responsibility is his alone. March and O'Brien's relationship brings this front and center.

Edmond O'Brien as Senator Raymond Clark.

There is another small flaw in the film and the novel. In each, the president has the chance to stop Scott through blackmail: in the novel with evidence of income tax fraud, and in the film with a pack of love letters. (The film's approach here works far better than that presented in the novel.) That in neither case is this strategy needed in the end doesn't matter. The president refuses to employ such unsavory tactics. But that decision at the time defies logic as any man faced with similar circumstances would use whatever means necessary to stop a coup. Moreover, it portrays Lyman as being too good and pious, having too much integrity, a clear liberal bias of the authors.

In the end, the film presents hope, and a firm message that democracy will stand triumphant.

Frankenheimer and Lancaster collaborated on seven films. This is one of their best.

Monday, September 5, 2011

The Roaring Twenties (1939) - Raoul Walsh

Eddie Bartlett (James Cagney), comes home to New York City after serving in France in WWI. Jobs are scarce. He tries his hand at driving a cab with his good friend, Danny (Frank McHugh). Prohibition is soon enacted and Eddie gets arrested doing a passenger a favor--delivering illegal liquor to Panama Smith (Gladys George), owner of a speakeasy. Although innocent, Bartlett takes the fall. When Smith pays Eddie's fine and he is released, she introduces him to bootlegging. Eddie has a good head for business and his operation grows, as does his criminal nature. He forms a partnership with an old army acquaintance, George (Humphrey Bogart), a ruthless racketeer, who soon takes issue with Eddie's dominate role in the gang.

The film covers the rise and fall of a man who gets involved in a life of crime during America's failed grand social experiment--Prohibition. You understand why men like Eddie were attracted to this type of life. Director Raoul Walsh gives context to the story and achieves authenticity with voice overs, period songs and documentary-like footage. This approach, and the fine cast that avoids the over-the-top performances that characterized earlier gangster films like Scarface, and to a lesser extent Little Caesar, make The Roaring Twenties the best of Warner's 1930's gangster films. Its realism is also attributable to the source novel, written by Mark Hellinger, a Chicago reporter during the heyday of Al Capone. 

The best part of the film is its star, James Cagney. Few actors held the screen like Cagney, who might best be described as a ball of pugnacious energy. His personality and magnetism compensated for his slight statue, a remarkable achievement when you think about it because he did it consistently throughout his career.  Here he delivers a finely controlled and dynamic performance. On the surface, Eddie might be just another tough hood, albeit a likable one. In Prohibition, he's sees an opportunity to live a comfortable life. He grabs it, not letting anyone stand in his way. He forces his cheap liquor on nightclub owners and highjacks competitors' supply. Yet, he's loyal to friends and enables the girl he loves (Priscilla Lane as Jean Sherman) to have a successful singing career, putting a human face on the character. Despite his tough-guy behaviour, he's a sensitive man with a heart.

Cagney and Bogart embody the roaring Twenties as bootleggers

Cagney commands nearly every scene of the film, compelling the viewer to focus on him as the action unfolds. It's a delight watching his expressions and posture. His characteristic sardonic smile and shoulder role are here, as well as his confidence. Here's a character who won't take anything from anyone--even Bogart. It's quite believable that this man could rise from nothing, using just his guile and determination to head a crime operation. Unlike the reckless Tom Powers he played eight years earlier in The Public Enemy, Eddie Bartlett is able to check his emotions--even when things go south.  When Jean rejects him for another man, Eddie is crushed, feeling betrayed. He goes to confront the man but stops himself, saying he's sorry after the first punch.  Later, when he suspects that Bogart has set him up for a hit, he doesn't retaliate.     

Eddie shows off his operation to Priscilla

Considering the subject matter, some viewers might think there's surprisingly little action. But there's enough to convey the violence of the era. Tommy guns mow down a few gangsters, there's a good fight on a ship between warring factions of bootleggers, a cop is murdered, and one gang tosses grenades at another's speakeasy. 

Gladys George gives the strongest supporting performance as Panama. She loves Eddie but he only has eyes for Jean, who loves another. Panama looks out for Eddie, even though she knows her love will be unrequited. When the stock market wipes Eddie out, he turns to drink. Panama's the only shoulder he can lean on. By the end of the film, you understand that he knows of Panama's affections. You might recognize her as Dana Andrews' mother in The Best Years of Our Lives and the widow of Bogart's partner in The Maltese Falcon.

Gladys George and Humphrey Bogart
As with all films of the era, crime does not go unpunished. Even though we are rooting for Eddie, and understand that the choices he made reflected his environment, he is a killer and thief. Still, he goes out a hero of sorts, dispatching the conniving George before being tracked down by a police officer and gunned down on the steps of a church. It is a fine death. Panama Smith rushes to cradle his head in her lap as the cop approaches. 
Panama: He's dead.
Cop: Well, who is this guy?
Panama: This is Eddie Bartlett.
Cop: Well, how're you hooked up with him?
Panama: I could never figure it out.
Cop: What was his business?
Panama: He used to be a big shot.

Bogart's death seems slightly out of character. He cowers like a frightened punk, his face contorted in fear and his hands shaking. It's a bit too much. Thankfully, within two years he'd have Roy Earle of High Sierra under his belt and forever after knew how to die like a man. 

Walsh would work with both Cagney (White Heat) and Bogart (They Drive by Night and High Sierra) again, drawing out some of their best performances. 

The Best of James Cagney:
  • The Public Enemy (1931)
  • Angles with Dirty Faces (1938)
  • The Roaring Twenties (1939)
  • The Fighting 69th (1940)
  • Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942)
  • White Heat (1949)
  • Mr. Roberts (1955)
  • The Man of a Thousand Faces (1957)
  • One, Two, Three (1961)