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…

24 Responses to “Random jottings from the shores of the overfamiliar”

  1. […] speaking of David Cairns, he takes on The Sweet Smell of Success by way of Burt Lancaster’s size. “Hunsecker is a Brobdingnagian in Lilliput, a mountain among midgets.” Friday, February […]

  2. The way Lancaster holds himself in here looks forward to his equally amazing performance in The Leopard. Visconti called him “the most mysterious man I have ever met.”

  3. This film, of course, is one of the classics of cinema of any kind. I’ve loved it since my first viewing, and like you and Glenn, find more in it every time I watch it. This is a great look at the wonderful physicality of Lancaster, in a film that makes extraordinary use of physicality from all its actors. I especially like the scene when Steve confronts J.J., and we see Tony Curtis in the background in a Puckish standing pose, arm over arm, leg over leg – a real double-crosser of his own better self. Thanks so much for this.

  4. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by dcairns, Rebecca. Rebecca said: RT @dcairns: Burt Lancaster and the uses of Bigness — https://dcairns.wordpress.com/2011/02/19/random-jottings-from-the-shores-of-the-ov … […]

  5. David Boxwell Says:

    You’re dead, son. Go and get yourself buried.

    If you’re funny, I’m a pretzel.

    I love this dirty town.

    He’s the boy with the ice cream face.


  6. Come here Sidney, I want to chastize you.

  7. I’d hate to take a bite out of you. You’re a cookie full of arsenic.

  8. The cat’s in the bag and the bag’s in the river.

    By the way, check out the film’s trailer. Remember the amazing fast track behind Hunsecker when he says “This one is toting that one around for you”? Unlike in the finished movie, in the trailer we can see that the shot originally continued in another zippy movement to finish on the startled senator ~

    Around a minute in.

  9. I was seeing CRISS CROSS this week as part of the Noir blogathon(My pieces will likely be the last things set up) and Lancaster’s presence there is also great. Not so much in the more romantic scenes with Yvonne DeCarlo but in the scenes with his family and later when he makes his heist pitch to the gang. He was a very physical actor as is apparent in SWEET SMELL.

    His presence in THE LEOPARD is one of the great miracles of movie history. The producer was the one who cast Lancaster based on the fact that he walked into his office and made a beeline to the book on his desk(he was a big fan and avid reader) and Visconti was amazed when he met him that he knew so much about Sicily(based on stories he heard from immigrant neighbours growing up). The result is the magic that makes masterpieces.

  10. Oh by the way, David E. belated happy birthday.

  11. david wingrove Says:

    Yes, happy birthday David E! I’ve finally got hold of a copy of SEPENT OF THE NILE, so will watch it in your honour.

  12. “In the great entertainment tradition of Trapeze” HAH It’s the polar opposite of Trapeze

  13. David E,

    I read “great entertainment tradition” to mean “hey, it’s us, Hecht-Hill-Lancaster!”. Not a long entertainment tradition at the time, of course.

    Happy Birthday! Heard of Paar-Levant conversations over the years, but they were a bit before my time.

  14. Happy Birthday! Great post. I only heard about Paar recently in reference to Jonathan Winters and his wild improvs.

  15. Paar was really something else. A talk show host who was an actual intellectual. He had a regular series of guests: Oscar Levant, Alexander King, Dodie Goodman, Genevieve, Jack Douglas. They cmae on when he wanted them — and not to plug something. When the networks figured out that talk shows could be designed as one gaint commerical — with actors on to plug their films and writers to plug their books — Paar retired. He simply refused to be part of such a thing.

  16. From what I saw of retrospectives of Jack’s shows, it was a great deal more intellectual and more fun/unpredictable than later Tonight shows, where you’d get a lot of mundane chatter about business and an occasional unexpected bit that was outside the ironclad format. The only interview show that interested me at that time was Dick Cavett, as he had a lot of unusual people, and did let them talk.

  17. My God Judy’s funny! An object lesson in the correct use of the drawl/slur.

    Via YouTube I’ve seen a lot of US 70s chat show material (we had Michael Parkinson, and that was it) and it all looks a lot better than the current sound bites, but Paar looks better still.

  18. Judy was, among many other things, a great natural wit.

  19. Looks like it! I’m going to have a little hunt for more Paar clips now.

  20. I think they cut off the very end of the Marlene Dietrich story, which was that she lifted and dropped the record player needle on the applause from each concert, This is Amsterdam dahlings, This is London darlings, etc…

    Judy Garland just lacerates that song,… in a good way. Rockin arrangement too.

  21. Ah, that’s even better!

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