A movie log formerly known as Bookishness / By Charles Matthews

"Dazzled by so many and such marvelous inventions, the people of Macondo ... became indignant over the living images that the prosperous merchant Bruno Crespi projected in the theater with the lion-head ticket windows, for a character who had died and was buried in one film and for whose misfortune tears had been shed would reappear alive and transformed into an Arab in the next one. The audience, who had paid two cents apiece to share the difficulties of the actors, would not tolerate that outlandish fraud and they broke up the seats. The mayor, at the urging of Bruno Crespi, explained in a proclamation that the cinema was a machine of illusions that did not merit the emotional outbursts of the audience. With that discouraging explanation many ... decided not to return to the movies, considering that they already had too many troubles of their own to weep over the acted-out misfortunes of imaginary beings."
--Gabriel García Márquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude

Friday, December 25, 2015

Sweet Smell of Success (Alexander Mackendrick, 1957)

What do Sweet Smell of Success, His Girl Friday (Howard Hawks, 1940), Sullivan's Travels (Preston Sturges, 1941), and The Searchers (John Ford, 1956) have in common? They are all among the critically acclaimed films that, among other honors, have been selected for inclusion in the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress. And none of them received a single nomination in any category for the Academy Awards. Sweet Smell is, of course, a wickedly cynical film about two of the most egregious anti-heroes, New York newspaper columnist J.J. Hunsecker (Burt Lancaster) and press agent Sidney Falco (Tony Curtis), ever to appear in a film. They make the gangsters of Francis Ford Coppola's and Martin Scorsese's films look like Boy Scouts. So given the inclination of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to stay on the good side of columnists and publicists, we might expect it to shy away from honoring the film with Oscars. But consider the categories in which it might have been nominated. The best picture Oscar for 1957 went to The Bridge on the River Kwai (David Lean), a respectable choice, and Sidney Lumet's tensely entertaining 12 Angry Men certainly deserved the nomination it received. But in what ways are the other nominees -- Peyton Place (Mark Robson), Sayonara (Joshua Logan), and Witness for the Prosecution (Billy Wilder) -- superior to Sweet Smell?  The best actor Oscar winner was Alec Guinness for The Bridge on the River Kwai, another plausible choice. But Tony Curtis gave the performance of his career as Sidney Falco, overcoming his "pretty boy" image -- in fact, the film makes fun of it: One character refers to him as "Eyelashes" -- by digging deep into his roots growing up in The Bronx. Burt Lancaster would win an Oscar three years later for Elmer Gantry (Richard Brooks), a more showy but less controlled performance than the one he gives here. Either or both of them would have been better nominees than Marlon Brando was for his lazy turn in Sayonara, Anthony Franciosa in A Hatful of Rain (Fred Zinnemann), Charles Laughton in Witness for the Prosecution, and Anthony Quinn in Wild Is the Wind (George Cukor). The dialogue provided by Clifford Odets and Ernest Lehman for the film crackles and stings -- there is probably no more quotable, or stolen from, screenplay, yet it went unnominated. So did James Wong Howe's eloquent black-and-white cinematography, showing off the neon-lighted Broadway in a sinister fashion, and Elmer Bernstein's atmospheric score mixed well with the jazz sequences featuring the Chico Hamilton Quintet. Even the performers in the film who probably didn't merit nominations make solid contributions: Martin Milner is miscast as the jazz musician who falls for Hunsecker's sister (Susan Harrison), but he hasn't yet fallen into the blandness of his famous TV roles on Route 66 and Adam-12, and Barbara Nichols, who had a long career playing floozies in movies and on TV, is surprisingly touching as Rita, one of the pawns Sidney uses to get ahead. As a director, Alexander Mackendrick is best known for the comedies he did at Britain's Ealing Studios with Alec Guinness, The Man in the White Suit (1951) and The Ladykillers (1955). His work on Sweet Smell was complicated by clashes with Lancaster, who was one of the film's executive producers, and after making a few more films he accepted a position as dean of the film school at the California Institute of the Arts in 1967, where he spent the rest of his career as an instructor after resigning his administrative position. Sweet Smell currently has a 98% favorable rating on Rotten Tomatoes's Tomatometer and an 8.2 rating on the IMDb.

Niagara (Henry Hathaway, 1953)

Niagara was one of three movies starring Marilyn Monroe that were released in 1953. The other two, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (Howard Hawks) and How to Marry a Millionaire (Jean Negulesco), were hits, confirming what we now know: that Monroe was a peerless comedian, not, as Niagara wants her to be, a film noir siren. She had done earlier turns in legitimate film noir, a small role in The Asphalt Jungle (John Huston, 1950), larger ones in Clash by Night (Fritz Lang, 1952) and Don't Bother to Knock (Roy Ward Baker, 1952), so this time 20th Century-Fox decided to go all out in exploiting her as a femme fatale. There are many things wrong with Niagara, one thing being that it can't quite decide whether it's a noir thriller or a Technicolor travelogue about the eponymous falls and their various tourist attractions. But what's most wrong about it is its misuse of Monroe, who is not even the real lead character in the film: Her role is decidedly secondary to that of Jean Peters. And she is grotesquely exploited in her part as Rose Loomis, unhappily married to a mentally unstable man (Joseph Cotten) and plotting to have her lover (Richard Allan) bump him off. The studio can't resist dressing her in skin-tight clothes, with high heels that make it impossible for her to walk without bumps and grinds, and flaming red lipstick that's obviously freshly put on even when she's supposed to be waking up in the morning. A producer less under the control of the studio than Charles Brackett (who also wrote the clunky screenplay with Walter Reisch and Richard L. Breen) might have made Rose into a credible character, but here she's only an adolescent boy's fantasy. But even a misused Marilyn is better than no Marilyn at all, as we find out two-thirds of the way through the movie when the focus shifts to the character played by Peters and her grinning ass of a husband (Max Showalter), and we have nothing to marvel at but the Falls. If the screenplay had fallen into the hands of a Hitchcock, Niagara might have been a success, but Henry Hathaway directs as if he's bored by the whole thing.