Thursday, January 26, 2006

Sweet Smell of Success (1957)

Dir. Alexander Mackendrick
Writ. Ernest Lehman (novelette); Clifford Odets, Ernest Lehman
w/ Tony Curtis, Burt Lancaster, Susan Harrison

When a script contains the kind of dialogue that Success wields, all else follows, especially when the chemistry is right between players. In this case, background played a heavy role both in the success of the film and its arrival to the Time list. According to the Film Encyclopedia compiled by Ephraim Katz, Tony Curtis "grew up in poverty in a tough section of the Bronx and by age 11 was a member of a notorious street gang. It was in a neighborhood settlement house that he had his first taste of acting, playing a little girl in an adventure drama about King Arthur." When he got out of his service with the Navy, having been wounded in Guam, Curtis soon started down the path that led to a signing with Universal on account of his "pretty boy looks, the pressure of fan mail, and publicity buildup." Critics were shocked when he pulled this performance seemingly out of his vest pocket, after having ridiculed him for playing swashbucklers and Arabian Nights caliphs alike with that inescapable thunder-mouth. From all viewpoints, the role of press agent Sidney Falco belonged to Curtis, born to it, and he played the man with range, style, and finesse.

Not an easy thing to do, either, when your character essentially acts as a demonstrative puppet with a card or two up his sleeve just in case. It might have been much easier for Curtis to play this as a wiseguy or a more menacing (but a lot less interesting) character. Opposite Lancaster, though, is a lot of energy to be combatted and experimented with -- without the actual presence of his co-star for many of the scenes. He's acting against unseen forces and playing the odds, the whole time cognitive of his miniscule abilities and extreme vulnerability, sensitive to that, and taking the blows as they come to a guy on a shoestring budget with very little to lose. Because Lancaster's capabilities with language alone must have been an education in itself, the results are often nothing less than pure cinematic magic. Smooth-talking old school and rough improv. Those are the raw materials, but Mackendrick doesn't let it happen without serious back-up.

With photography that belies the premise and direction that betrays all motives, Success sizzles and Curtis's nervous energy merely underscores naturally the plot twists and turns. Basic plot, if you haven't already read, involves two men grappling each other for something intrinsic to survival. Lancaster, as the voracious gossip columnist J.J. Hunsecker looking to protect a sister that he has some very unnatural hold over, would not even give the opportunistic Falco scraps from his table had he not that self-same card to pander that would help Hunsecker keep that hold, and tightly. Taut battle of the wills? That's an understatement.

As for Susan Harrison's role as the confused kid sister liable to throw herself off a balcony rather than be forced to choose between standing up to her brother or simply eloping, it's all but swallowed in the process. A shame, too. She plays an intimidated, spineless nothing well; and, with these two Titans running around loose, it's really remarkable that she can even get a word in edgewise. As for the actress herself, she never really surfaced.

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