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Tuesday, September 9, 2008

The Sweet Smell of Success

All right. I admit it. I didn't watch the movie of the week this week because I was too busy judging scripts. But. I have of course seen it before and not all that long ago.

Burt Lancaster as J.J. Hunsecker (a version of Walter Winchell) is sheer genius. I hereby nominate Lancaster as one of the best actors EVER. In his later years, he took a lot of jobs that were no indication of his incredible versatility and acting chops. BIRDMAN OF ALCATRAZ, ELMER GANTRY, FROM HERE TO ETERNITY are just a few movies I have loved him in.

Tony Curtis - if you have heretofore thought of Curtis as an actor of limited chops, seeing him as Sidney Falco will forever put that to bed. He is amazing.

Ernie Lehman and Cliff Odets - we should aspire to such writing. Rarely are the names of the writers of a movie so quickly and closely associated with the movie but these two were writers writers and pulled no punches in this sharp-as-a-knife look at the dark side of the soul. Nobody else could have written this movie (based on a novella by Lehman).

Cinematography by James Wong Howe was just gorgeous; the slick black and white was a perfect match for the story which for me was filled with creeping dread. You can't watch THE SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS without a feeling of vague anxiety.

The movie is a morality play which is totally relevant today - maybe even moreso. The allure of power and the power of media is explored here in an unforgettable way. THE SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS is the perfect storm: great performances, amazing score and cinematography and writing that is pitch perfect.

For any Wavers who watched: what did you think? Should the movie be remade with Kevin Spacey or is it something that should never be spoiled by reinterpretation? Did you feel any empathy for Sidney Falco or was he as cold and reptilian as J.J. Hunsecker?

Next week:

Elmer Gantry

Because it's Burt Lancaster at his absolute, most entertaining best.

Because it combines both an illuminating look at a historical time and place but also is totally relevant today particularly at election time; the power of charismatic showmanship is just as persuasive during the time of snake oil salesmen and religious prophets as it is during the time of Obama and McCain.

Because not enough people have seen this movie and that's part of the point of the movie club; to expose Wavers to great movies that are down on the lower left shelf at the video store. You want to work in this industry, right? Don't be one of those people who looks down at your toes, embarrassed, while other people talk about great movies from yesteryear.

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Deb said...

I almost didn't watch the movie again, either, because I had seen it quite recently--about two months ago. I thought that was enough of a refresher.

But I decided, what the heck, I'd watch it again for this discussion.

I'm really glad I did. Because it's remarkable how context impacts your impression of a movie. Seeing this in the middle of the current political climate brought out some subtleties that were always there, but maybe didn't seem as significant.

What jumped out this time was how little reality matters compared to perception in both this world of 50 years ago, and our own media-saturated world today. Hunsecker's almost sociopathic nature is simply not relevant his audience; they care only about the persona he projects.

Another thing that resonated was the melding of show business with politics. I think there's an erroneous belief today that this is something relatively new. I doubt that there was ever a time when it wasn't the case. I mean, Ben Franklin was a superstar.

Did I feel empathy for Falco? Yes, in this sense: he is such a slave to his own ambition. It's almost like watching someone in the grip of an unconquerable sexual passion. When Susie says to J.J. at the end that she pities him, I believe her and can almost agree with her. Is there a person more alone than he is?

One gripe I have about some movies today with dark themes is that often every character in the movie is a total creep. One of the things I think we can learn here is the importance of having a moral center. Dallas and Susie's love and goodness are an important contrast to the other characters' cynicism and amorality.

What makes it really work is that while they are both good, neither is perfect. Dallas' bravado is a poor match for Sidney and J.J.'s schemes. Susie is weak--and not above vindictiveness herself when given the opportunity. Another contrast is the columnist who won't submit to Sidney's blackmail. In my opinion, one of the signs of a really strong script is when the cast of characters represents an entire spectrum between two extremes.

And what dialogue! My favorite line: "I'd hate to take a bite outta you. You're a cookie full of arsenic."

Like J.J., "I love this dirty town." Having grown up in New York City, while it has certainly changed in many respects since this movie was made, in others it's not that different now. I love how the movie brings the crazy, hustling aspect of the city to life.

Should it be remade? Hell, no. I have nothing against remakes per se (the 1939 version of THE WIZARD OF OZ is a remake, after all) but when a movie is as perfectly made as this one, my feeling is, leave it alone. Remake movies that never attained true classic status. That's one reason why 3:10 TO YUMA was such a successful remake. The original was good, but was never in the same class as other Westerns of the period.

Julie, BIG agreement here about Burt Lancaster. He is one of my favorite actors of all time. I love ELMER GANTRY--in fact, Sinclair Lewis is one of my favorite writers, and except for DODSWORTH, GANTRY is my favorite adaptation of his work. Looking forward to talking about that next week.

Christina said...

I had never seen this before, so it was all new. I liked Deb's thorough write up and don't have a lot to add.

I found Falco sympathetic. At the end, he saves Susie. He does have a soul, unlike J.J., but he's also HIGHLY flawed. On the other hand, J.J. is definitely a white-collar sociopath with the additional creepy detail of being in love with his sister. Did anyone else read his possession of his sister that way, i.e. creepy? Ick!

The cast sure smoked a lot.

I bet Canadian Club Whiskey paid a lot for the product placement on Times Square. Those shots were held reeeeally long.

Some great craft moments -

Susie's suicide attempt is foreshadowed twice before it occurs. In the first act, when they're talking about a successful suicide. And then at the midpoint, when J.J. goes outside his penthouse and looks down over the railing.

The story starts and ends at the same place - Times Square. At the beginning of the movie, it's Sidney waiting to get a hot-off-the-press edition of the paper. At the end, he's in Times Square again being taken away by the Police while Susie emerges from J.J.'s apartment building free of his spell. It feels complete.

Susie leaves J.J.'s place in a simple wool jacket instead of the damn mink she was wearing most of the movie. I agree with Dallas - don't like that coat! And not because it was fur, but because it made her look like 15 years older.

Remake? Sure, why not. I'm not so against remakes, though agree with Deb that maybe a classic shouldn't be remade. However, I must say I can see Kevin Spacey in the Burt Lancaster role - totally. The actor I see in the Tony Curtis role is Robert Downey Jr., but he may be too old.

Great pick! Really impressed with the acting of Tony Curtis and Burt Lancaster. I'm curious about Elmer Gantry. I just read the synopsis and it looks interesting.