Random jottings from the shores of the overfamiliar
In a typically excellent post over at Some Came Running, Glenn Kenny, ever an inspiration, presages some illuminating comments on SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS’s location-work with the observation that the film “has already been written about pretty much to death” — which I wouldn’t really take issue with, especially since the director himself, Alexander Mackendrick, spends a good bit of space on it in his seminal study On Film-Making, which you should all read.
And yet, as Mr. Kenny might say. He disproves his own assertion by digging up some fascinating details, revealing not only where the scenes were shot, but whose delivery vans doubled for those of the film’s fictional paper, The Globe. What else can we observe. As it happens, I ran the film for students this week and noted a few little details I don’t recall reading about elsewhere — they may not blossom into full-blown points, but they seemed like they might shed some light or provide some amusement.
The film makes surprising use of Burt Lancaster’s sheer SIZE on numerous occasions. I can’t promise that all these instances have gone unremarked, in fact I’m sure many of them are well-worn, but let’s see —
Mackendrick recalls that, in order to transfigure the heroically-proportioned Lancaster into a villainous sophisticate, they not only fitted him with glasses (“The Eyes of Broadway”) but had cinematographer James Wong Howe follow him around with a little light, high over his forehead, casting light shadows from the rimless underside of the spectacle lenses, adding an impression of skull-like hollowness to Burt’s cheekbones.
In conjunction with this, Lancaster, trained acrobat that he was, turns in a restrained physical performance — the actor did much of his best thinking with his body, and I don’t mean that as a knock. By ensuring that he moved with delicacy and grace, Lancaster still suggests the character’s immense power — J.J. Hunsecker apparently never sleeps, towers over everybody, can crush them on a whim, but expends the precise minimum energy required to smoke a cigarette with total poise.
Here, Hunsecker is framed so that he literally towers over Manhattan like a colossus. It’s even a plus that the shot is taken via rear projection (Hunsecker’s penthouse is entirely a studio creation), thus evoking KING KONG.
Giving J.J. a tiny, narrow silver pen (with which to casually toss off death notes) might seem to emphasise his delicacy, but when clasped in Burt’s meaty fist, it also stresses his size and power. The pen is shiny and beautifully designed, but he could crush it like the stem of a flower if he wanted to.
And there’s even humour in equipping him with such a tiny fork, especially when shot from below table level with a wide-angle lens, making Lancaster’s hand look yet more massive. Hunsecker is a Brobdingnagian in Lilliput, a mountain among midgets.
Best of all, in a moment of cinematic choreography that takes my breath away, there’s the moment of Hunsecker’s defeat. As his beloved, persecuted sister walks out on him forever, having delivered words he knows can never be taken back or forgotten, Hunsecker’s strength retreats somewhere deep inside, leaving only the vast weight of his body, impossible to support. So we get the BULK of Lancaster behind the door, a potential force that can easily hold it shut, if only that force were his to command. Instead, Hunsecker attempts to hold the door shut with two fingers, and even then, he exerts no strength whatever — the gesture is symbolic, a plea for pity rather than an attempt at winning.
And then the graceful, poetic, and finally final way that the elevator door opens for Susie just as she glances back, then steps inside and the door slides shut, followed just a micro-moment later by Hunsecker’s closing of his own door in defeat, a movement achieved by the same two fingers, acted upon by the whole weight of his lifeless, soulless body…
This has been my penultimate entry in the 2011 For the Love of Film (Noir) Film Preservation Blogathon, hosted by the Self-Styled Siren and Ferdy on Films. Embarrassingly, some of my donation links weren’t working for half the week, but they are now, and so before you buy the new Criterion disc of SSOS (superior in every way to the frame-grabs above), I absolutely must insist that you make a contribution, however small, to the restoration of THE SOUND OF FURY, a movie whose rep might actually rise shoulder-high with that of Mackendrick’s masterpiece, if only people are able to see it in good condition…