Archive for Sweet Smell of Success

Random jottings from the shores of the overfamiliar

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , on February 19, 2011 by dcairns

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…

Cliff Richard IS Bongo Herbert

Posted in FILM, MUSIC, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 6, 2008 by dcairns

 bachelor boy

Yeah, I laughed too, but that is the premise of this film (EXPRESSO BONGO) and we must ACCEPT IT UNQUESTIONINGLY.

Anyway, the good news is that Sylvia Syms is still VERY MUCH ALIVE, and first became VMA on this very day, some 74 years ago, and is still working. Long may she reign.

I saw S.S. talk at the Edinburgh Film Festival many yonks ago, and I remember her forthright and robust humour. During a lull in questions she ran through her entire C.V. — “ASYLUM, in which I get dismembered: I still get fan mail about that one. THE QUARE FELLOW with the terrible Patrick McGoohan…” I like McGoohan… but then I’ve never worked with him. Reminds me of Alan Bennett on Christopher Plummer: “Christopher is his own worst enemy, but only just.”

Look but don't touch.

Syms plays a burlesque artiste in Val Guest and Wolf Mankiewicz’s pop-culture spoof EXPRESSO BONGO, and shares the stage with go-go girls in pasties, mini-kilts and G-strings during an eye-poppingly bizarre “history lesson” number. No G-string for our Sylvia, though: as a highly-paid Featured Player she gets to wear Proper Human Underpants as befits a star. As a Scot, I detest all forms of Tartan pageantry, so I quite liked seeing it dragged through the sewer like this. There’s another good and weird tartan musical number in Bunuel’s first Mexican film. Nobody does Tartan like the Mexicans.

Mary Queen of Scots

Syms played a lot of what Jean Simmons calls “poker-up-the-arse” parts, which is not an Edward II kind of thing, but a reference to the straight back required to play stiff middle-class WIVES (Syms does this very well in the commendable VICTIM), so it’s great to see her excel here as a nice working-class girl who happens to earn a living in porn.

Guest’s movie HITS THE GROUND RUNNING, with titles spelled out in neon signs, restaurant menus and sandwich boards (production designer Tony Masters is the real mega-talent on this film — he went on to 2001 while Guest went on to CONFESSIONS OF A WINDOW CLEANER), and within instants we spot a nubile Burt Kwouk (“No, Cato, now is not the time!”) buying a hot-dog from a Soho stand, where eleven years later he will be seen working, in Skolimowski’s DEEP END. And they say there’s no such thing as progress.

a sandwich in soho

absolute beginners

And then we meet Laurence Harvey as a very yiddisher agent on the make (such ethnic overtness in a lead character would have been impossible in a Hollywood film, even one about Jesus). He’s like Tony Curtis in SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS or Richard Widmark in NIGHT AND THE CITY, except that the movie is more like THE GIRL CAN’T HELP IT, a brash, lurching satire about music and mammon.

Teen pop idol Cliff Richard (real name Harry Webb) plays teen pop idol Bongo Herbert (real name Bert Rudge) with his customary adequacy, but with a surprising Elvis sneer that was soon honed from his act as he went safe and mum-friendly. B.H. is Harvey’s discovery/creation, and we follows the ambitious fifty-per-center as he exploits the hapless naif through the London media world of 1960.

This is where the film works as a time machine: first, by transporting us back to a bygone age when Soho was the only spot where a cup of espresso could be obtained. We get real T.V. presenters and a checklist of then-current entertainers and location shots of an all-but vanished habitat. There are also topical film quirks, like a split-screen phone conversation between a semi-dressed Harvey and Syms, mirroring PILLOW TALK from the year before (Guest had a long-standing aim to get sex into British cinema, it seems).

But the film (Prophetic Cinema Alert!) also projects forward into the future, our present: in his desperation to leave no aspect of human life unexploited, Harvey yolks his prodigy to the cash-cow of RELIGION, having him sing a maudlin number about shrines and Madonnas: Mankiewicz and Guest obviously view this melding of pop and church as grotesque, vulgar and tittersome (and are laughing at how Jewish moguls churn out cynical Christian propaganda),  but it’s the exact path followed by Sir Cliff in subsequent years, and the results are just as awful, though more degrading to music than to faith.

(Cliff today is a still-virginal, botoxed crooner, who would surprise nobody if he came out of the closet, though I hasten to add that he’s not in the closet so far as I legally know and if he was he’d no doubt be sprinkling Holy Water in it and generally doing Good Works.)

Cliff went on to a film career of feelgood musical pablum (under the directorial aegis of Sidney J. Furie, among others) and thence to playing a plastic puppet in THUNDERBIRDS ARE GO, which is really typecasting when you think about it.

not gay

My favourite line in EXPRESSO BONGO: “And now, straight from New York, Hollywood and Las Vegas, we are very happy to be able to afford the fantabulous, the fantastico, DIXIE COLLINS!!!”