Sunday, August 25, 2019
Whatever crush I had on Molly Ringwald back in the day ended long ago but I follow her on Twitter for old times’ sake and was very pleased to see her 2018 New Yorker piece where she looked back at the films she made with John Hughes to confront certain plot points in them which, to be blunt, have aged about as well as Mickey Rooney’s Mr. Yunioshi in BREAKFAST AT TIFFANY’S. Acknowledging such things are necessary, particularly since people out there are presumably showing these films to their kids but as for the films themselves I’m not sure how passionate I am about them. To be honest, I lost interest in high school about 48 hours after graduating from high school so revisiting THE BREAKFAST CLUB or FERRIS BUELLER’S DAY OFF never holds much interest for me. The freewheeling all-in-one-night aspect to SIXTEEN CANDLES can still be fun although I can’t ignore that film’s problematic aspects nor do I want to. I still have a fondness for the Howard Deutch-directed PRETTY IN PINK and SOME KIND OF WONDERFUL in theory even considering how they mirror each other but, in truth, I haven’t seen either one of those in years.
Coming in the middle of all this, WEIRD SCIENCE is just about the silliest of this group and the one most detached from any sort of reality, so much so that it almost overrides whatever issues there might be with the plot of inventing a gorgeous woman as plaything. Not that it makes any difference now but it’s the only one of these films that I’ve never seen in a theater; released by Universal in early August ’85, I was trapped in summer camp up in Maine at the time and it must have already left the local multiplexes by the time I got back. Looking at it now, WEIRD SCIENCE seems to represent a moment when Hughes let his attention wander away from Ringwald and PRETTY IN PINK notwithstanding never seems to have entirely gone back. Maybe instead of a muse he wanted an alter ego and that’s where his interests led him. WEIRD SCIENCE is maybe too slight to be offended by but as a full movie maybe there’s just not enough there. It does present the idea of a teenage weekend where everything goes right thanks to a fantasy woman who shows you the way and even now I can kind of relate to that as a daydream while still being very aware that maybe there’s nothing wrong with leaving this movie back in the 80s.
Teenage outcasts Gary (Anthony Michael Hall) and Wyatt (Ilan Mitchell-Smith), whose parents are out of town for the weekend, are doing nothing on Friday night when Gary gets an idea to use Wyatt’s computer to make a girl, an actual girl. Miraculously this somehow works and the beautiful Lisa (Kelly LeBrock) appears in his doorway, ready to do whatever they want. And she wastes no time upending their lives but soon Lisa’s real agenda to makes their lives better, to give these boys a shot at becoming men, becomes clear and even as Wyatt has to deal with bullying older brother Chet (Bill Paxton) the two of them see a chance to win over the girls of their dreams and throw the greatest party the town has ever seen.
The key image of the film, not counting any shot which contains Kelly LeBrock, might be the two guys with bras on their heads which could be seen as a metaphor for the teenage male trying to find a way into the female psyche but on the other hand it could just be typical John Hughes immaturity. Looking at WEIRD SCIENCE now is a reminder that what John Hughes could do was write scripts that might have actually come from real high school students (most likely male) if they really knew how to write them. They’re slight, they’re goofy, they’re immature even as they reach for deeper themes and in many ways they’re fearless which allows them to capture something about the feeling of being a suburban teen in an affluent suburb that many other such films haven’t. For a film set over the course of a weekend—36 hours, really—it feels a little like WEIRD SCIENCE took just as long to write, which considering some of the stories about how Hughes cranked out things during this period may not be far from the truth. It’s a weekend movie that feels like it was written over a weekend but I don’t mean that in a bad way. It doesn’t even have the briefest time span of these Hughes films but it does feel like the slightest of any of them with even the big party, which you couldn’t be blamed for remembering as the climax, kicking off before the film is even half over. In broad strokes, it’s a story about two guys maturing due to the guidance of a woman but also how clueless you can be when fantasy unexpectedly becomes reality and only you can decide what’s going to happen next.
Coming out during the same summer as other teens-and-science movies like REAL GENIUS and MY SCIENCE PROJECT (Joe Dante’s EXPLORERS sort of counts, to say nothing of BACK TO THE FUTURE), more than anything WEIRD SCIENCE plays right from the start as a much goofier RISKY BUSINESS, maybe the closest Hughes came to that other Chicago teen film, combined with the wish fulfillment aspect of this woman willing to do anything with powers that are never clarified but so what, but is really there to turn the boys into men just not the way you’re thinking. All of this works as well as it does thanks partly to the sheer energy of the leads but the slapdash nature of it all means that it doesn’t have too many plot ideas beyond the big party. The way the high school kids are paired up from the leads to the girls they’re going after as well as the bullies played by Robert Downey (Jr.) and Robert Rusler all against the singular force that is Lisa feel like a set of parallels that a more fleshed out concept could have done something with, particularly since Downey and Rusler basically disappear by a certain point. When Lisa takes Gary and Wyatt to a sketchy bar downtown it’s actually not a bad idea as a comment on how sheltered kids are up in the suburbs but the whole sequence feels a little random coming so soon in the film and the racial element plays like leftover ANIMAL HOUSE material combined with some half-baked improv. John Kapelos, who gets the immortal line “What’s a beautiful broad like you doing with a malaka like this?”, is always welcome in these movies and if Hughes had written ADVENTURES IN BABYSITTING (he didn’t, you just think he did) I’d call this a very rough draft of the club scene in that film. But as usual this is very much set in the affluent white Chicago suburban Hughes world of Shermer, Illinois, with less screen time in the actual high school than the other films but we can get a taste of what it’s like. It feels just as segregated as ever with the brief glimpse of the one tough-looking, somewhat androgynous girl at the end of a line of guys ogling Lisa about as progressive as this world ever gets.
It feels like the future according to this film is computers and a colorized version of FRANKENSTEIN although it seems a little curious that they’re not watching BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN, but never mind. “I want her to live, I want her to breathe. I want her to aerobicize,” Gary tells Wyatt as Lisa is created and it’s a film where all logic is sent spiraling into outer space but as much as Hughes has no interest in rationality here, LeBrock somehow grounds it. From Lisa’s very first line she gets the tone and even finds an emotional logic to every scene, possessing no inner life—hell, nobody in this movie has an inner life—but she also never hesitates for a moment in what she does, pushing the guys into taking command of their situation as they bounce off her in scenes displaying disbelief although oddly, even though Hall was the star at the time he doesn’t get the big kissing scene with her. Parents are more irrelevant than usual in Hughes’ films this time out and Gary’s are a joke but one bit near the very end where Wyatt’s returning dad declines a hug has a surprisingly plausible edge in the middle of all this, another of those fathers trying to turn their sons into men in the most toxic way. The stuff with the grandparents showing up works pretty well, especially the line about “the Rex Harrison hat” even though the movie totally forgets about them too and when the film goes vaguely near T&A material with the girl at the party who gets her clothes ripped off when things go haywire and hurled out of the chimney I wonder how much of the slightly skeezy vibe can be attributed to producer Joel Silver (this was the only time Hughes and Silver worked together; a Silver-produced remake announced in 2013 has yet to happen). But even the girlfriends, mostly presented as insecure and confused in wondering why they’re with any of these guys to begin with, are still kind of playthings to be bartered over as well as rescued which turns out to mean more than simply having the courage to talk to them ever would.
There’s still a definite conservative streak to the whole thing and maybe another film might have tried to play games over whether or not anything ever really happened between Lisa and the two guys. Even back in 1955 it was only the production code that kept Tom Ewell from sleeping with Marilyn Monroe in Billy Wilder’s THE SEVEN YEAR ITCH, after all. It maybe feels more finely honed production-wise than SIXTEEN CANDLES but that film had better jokes as well as Molly Ringwald at the center and there are maybe a few too many shots here of the guys standing, staring incredulously at whatever’s happening. It moves so fast at the start, jumping into things as quickly as possible with the whole creation montage that makes no sense but who cares helped by that incessantly bouncy Ira Newborn music but it’s still pretty thin and when the movie hits the hour mark even though I know what’s coming I still wonder how there’s actually 30 minutes left to go. Broader than the other Hughes-directed films during this period it’s loaded with throwaway gags tossed into the frame like Hall drinking Coke from a brandy snifter but just as many of those jokes fall flat, another thing that makes it all feel a little tossed together so the mayhem doesn’t quite hit a peak.
A few Frank Tashlin-style sight gags as the party spirals out of control along with the missile that emerges from the floor to stick out of the chimney makes it seem like the movie could have gone crazier and even the blocking in the big confrontation with the bikers who invade the party is pretty dull as if they had no real time to shoot it. But more often than not the film maintains a sense of looseness through its rush to have almost nothing of actual consequence happen and some actors even visibly break character in one scene, smiling during some Bill Paxton antics near the end but it’s the sort of film where this isn’t a big deal. Mainly, it’s a movie about overcoming fear and trying to find the real person in an illusion, a lonely Friday night fantasy of what you wish could happen over a weekend before going back to school. Plus the title song by Oingo Boingo is pretty great. The film was released in August and even though I didn’t see it then, it’s a dog days of summer movie that’s a product of a more innocent time. Nothing wrong with revisiting, of course, I just never want to stay there.
It’s so broad that if it was a movie with more naturalistic performances it wouldn’t work and unlike his character Anthony Michael Hall seems up for trying anything; no reaction is too big and his acting style becomes the equivalent of the fearlessness in Hughes’ writing. With Ilan Mitchell-Smith (who starred in the Cameron Crowe-scripted THE WILD LIFE the previous year) as Wyatt, the charm is in always looking like he might start cracking up at his friend even when he’s supposed to be upset so the relaxed vibe bounces off him nicely and he even gets a sly fourth wall break. Kelly LeBrock is confident, loose and seemingly up for anything as Lisa, always working the frame that she’s in so no one pays attention to anyone else and using the commanding tone of her voice to full advantage, as if always daring the younger guys to take command of a scene they’re in together.
The forever awesome Bill Paxton almost steals the movie as Wyatt’s brother Chet, going even bigger than Anthony Michael Hall if that’s possible and doing things to contort his face that are still mesmerizing and finding the joy in this prick that Robert Downey and Robert Rusler never do as their bullies who aren’t as much fun in their assholishness. Boy, I miss Bill Paxton. Suzanne Snyder, who went on to play two separate roles on SEINFELD and Judie Aronson, who appeared again with Robert Downey, Jr. as “Gift Bag Girl” in KISS KISS BANG BANG, have a sincerity to their scenes which comes off as genuinely likable and their bits together have a genuine chemistry that makes the friendship seem totally real in the middle of all this. Vernon Wells of THE ROAD WARRIOR and Michael Berryman of THE HILLS HAVE EYES are a few of the mutant bikers who invade the party while the perfume salesgirl is played by Jill Whitlow who one year later starred in NIGHT OF THE CREEPS, a film Suzanne Snyder had a small part in which always gave the impression the two had switched places for some reason.
WEIRD SCIENCE was released only six months after THE BREAKFAST CLUB and maybe it makes perfect sense to follow that one with a movie which is pretty much its total opposite in tone but it does feel like the genuine sensitivity that people have always responded to in John Hughes’ films, for better and also for worse, is a little absent this time out. It wasn’t the hit that some of his other films of the period were although it actually did slightly better than SIXTEEN CANDLES just over a year earlier. Go figure, but of course it has the expected cult following these days. WEIRD SCIENCE was also the last Hughes film to feature Anthony Michael Hall, which is still surprising maybe since we just assumed at the time there would be lots more and feels like what we remember about the 80s was already starting to fall apart halfway through the decade. Maybe the filmmaker’s biggest hits were still to come but it’s as if the things people responded to in them as well as the looseness they had which feels so rare these days (SUPERBAD comes to mind) was lost along the way. There’s never any reason to think all that much about WEIRD SCIENCE, a film that doesn’t really ask you to anyway. It has its charms but strains a little too much to get there and maybe isn’t really worth defending all these years later. Guess I still have to think about it anyway, whether it’s because I missed it at the time or because I never had a weekend like this one in my own suburb. Of course, eventually you have to move on.
Saturday, August 17, 2019
It’s an unavoidable observation about comedies that sometimes the concept of cinema is just a little too incidental. Of course, in certain cases it can be argued the only thing that matters is whether or not a film succeeds at being funny. And it’s not that there’s anything wrong with comedies or that they’re some sort of lesser form but when it comes to writing about them sometimes there’s simply not much to say. It may be insulting to point out that often comedies aren’t meant to be good movies and the history of film calls this out as a lie but it’s still the approach many of them seem to take, especially when a film plays like they shot a lot of footage, went crazy with the improv and assembled it out of the pieces of that, plot be damned, construction be damned, logic be damned. Whether or not it’s a good movie be damned. The recent film THE HUSTLE is a remake of the fondly remembered 1988 Frank Oz comedy DIRTY ROTTEN SCOUNDRELS but this in itself is not a terrible thing especially since that film is also a remake, specifically of the 1964 BEDTIME STORY starring Marlon Brando and David Niven. The plots of the three films are so close that original writers Stanley Shapiro & Paul Henning even get full credit on the scripts of the other two films (THE HUSTLE opening credits lists the two along with DIRTY scripter Dale Launer and the new writer) but on its own BEDTIME STORY isn’t very good at all, acted by leads who are mostly waltzing through their parts and it’s directed like a sitcom of the time which makes sense since that’s what director Ralph Levy mostly did otherwise. It’s an early 60s studio comedy which contains all the bland artificiality that implies with a particularly bad ending so today it doesn’t play as much more than a reminder that those movies back then weren’t all fortunate enough to be directed by the likes of Blake Edwards or Stanley Donen. Coming 24 years later, DIRTY ROTTEN SCOUNDRELS is such an improvement in every possible way that it’s a safe bet it would be regularly named on the list of best remakes if anyone knew or even cared it actually was one.
As for THE HUSTLE, there’s not much to say about that film, certainly not much to write about it, even if it is surprising that roughly 95% of the plot has been retained. It’s simply not very good and maybe the nicest thing I can say about the film is that it makes me want to send a letter to Anne Hathaway saying some of us are getting worried about her. Along with the lack of actual wit is the poor construction to what should be a pretty solid narrative, especially compared with DIRTY ROTTEN SCOUNDRELS which possesses a tangible sense of elegance to its storytelling and through that an undeniable economy in how it’s told. THE HUSTLE merely rushes things and when it does diverge from the other film the reasons don’t feel correctly thought out, seeming to have little awareness of what worked before and why, possibly making changes simply to give more screentime to star Rebel Wilson for no reason other than she was one of the producers. And, this should probably be said, it’s not very funny. But there’s little reason to dwell on that. Better to figure out why a comedy was successful and what can be learned from that since THE HUSTLE certainly didn’t. Sometimes it doesn’t matter that a comedy isn’t a great film. Sometimes you instead get a sense of the care which was put into a film and how much attention was paid in order to make it all come together. Too often we get reminders that the things which allowed certain films to work so well are long in the past. But even in the 80s when DIRTY ROTTEN SCOUNDRELS was made, it was still possible for that to happen.
Wealthy con artist Lawrence Jamieson (Michael Caine) resides in the seaside town of Beaumont sur Mer in the South of France with the Chief of Police as his main ally, spending his time almost effortlessly bilking money from wealthy women traveling through, often in the guise of a deposed prince looking for funds for his freedom fighters. All is well until the arrival of Freddie Benson (Steve Martin), an American who has traveled to the region in search of the finer things and looking for women to fleece himself. After failing in an attempt to get Freddie out of the way, Jamison accepts his presence and instead tries to teach him in the art of his trade. But when their brief partnership ends due to a falling out, Freddie suggests a bet to have them both go after an agreed upon woman and the loser will have to leave town. They settle on visiting American soap heiress Janet Colgate (Glenne Headly) with each man willing to stop at nothing to get her money and prove that they really are the best at the game.
There’s a surprising melancholy tinge to DIRTY ROTTEN SCOUNDRELS mixed in among the laughs, particularly in the way Michael Caine’s Lawrence Jamieson explains to Freddy that in spite of his ambition of becoming an artist he had little actual talent, merely the appreciation for the finer things so life as a con artist was the way he chose to pursue that. In a way, achieving the goal of spending money on beauty and culture served its purpose just as much as being an artist ever would have. In its own way, what he does is an art. Not everyone is qualified to aim so high and sometimes you never know that the other person already has you beat. Released during the Christmas ’88 season when most of the comedy business went to TWINS, the fantasy of SCOUNDRELS (written by Dale Launer and Stanley Shapiro & Paul Henning) is rooted in the old world money of the south of France and the characters of this movie are part of this fantasy, ready to take advantage of the women looking to be a part of all that opulence whatever the cost. BEDTIME STORY was the title of the original so it was told in that fashion but what DIRTY ROTTEN SCOUNDRELS does is make that feeling so matter of fact it comes off as effortless and every laugh seems perfectly natural as if there was no other correct way for certain moments to play.
The films Frank Oz has directed, just going by the funny ones, haven’t always totally succeeded as comedies and a few of them aren’t all that great as films (hot take: BOWFINGER, for example, is funny but a little slapdash). But while DIRTY ROTTEN SCOUNDRELS is as broad as it needs to be at times to get the joke across, never holding back on the stupidity if it’s necessary, the film never forgets to exude a sense of elegance and class to fight against that, to give us a sense of the fine life this con artist lives at the expense of all those others. If the film weren’t so impeccably made this wouldn’t come across at all and Oz intentionally directs his film as an old school Hollywood entertainment, giving each of the three leads big movie star introductions and in filming his actors he always knows where to put the camera to let us observe them playing these roles as big as possible in tandem with each other. There’s a sense of calm to the direction, aided in how the look of the film is pulled off by the great cinematographer Michael Ballhaus (whose other 1988 credits included THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST and WORKING GIRL) and along with that expert camerawork is a confidence to how the visuals are laid out. Shots gradually reveal what they are as they happen and even the transitions seem to glide perfectly from one scene to the next. The subtlety to the laughs are all played with expert timing; there’s almost no way to explain just why and how Barbara Harris being pushed up against a series of plants as she’s let into what she thinks is the private life of a deposed prince is as funny as it is but when played out the joke makes perfect sense. Just the sight of the two leads sizing each other up in the early scenes wastes no time in showing off the expert rhythms they display together and by the time Caine as Jameson takes on the guise of the very Germanic Dr. Emil Shaffhausen to examine his newest ‘patient’ it’s a beautifully constructed sequence of reveals and blocking with each of the three leads bouncing off each other beautifully. Even the throwaway touches, like the bookmark Freddy keeps in his copy of Mad Magazine, are just the right sort of appropriately ridiculous details that the film pulls off as it glides along.
Through that impeccable plotting the film is always looking for the comic beats that can be brought out within a scene, doing this while being in no rush whatsoever. It pulls off the trick of having almost no real conflict until roughly the 45 minute mark but once it does the developments quietly snowball, one after the other. On the DVD audio commentary Oz, very analytical about his approach, gives lots of credit to Shapiro & Henning for the original structure but seems too modest to say that his film is an improvement over what was already there and even when much of the dialogue is the same it’s often been improved, taking comic beats beyond points where they stopped in the original and pushing those moments in the pursuit of greater payoffs, even down to the way the plot beats of the second half build bit by bit to a final twist which BEDTIME STORY didn’t have. The brief musical interludes also fit in so well with the relaxed yet spirited vibe like when Martin’s Freddy is being trained for this lifestyle, utilizing old standards of the “We’re in the Money” and “Putting on the Ritz” sort via the score by Miles Goodman, playing so close in tone to an actual musical that it’s no real surprise it became one on stage later on. And the French locations that make up the fictitious Beaumont sur Mer offer the perfect storybook quality, just as fitting as the innocence that Glenne Headly’s soap queen projects while the two men squabble over her. Because, really, it’s not like there’s anything at stake here and, as it turns out in the end, even less than we ever realized.
Everyone who has seen DIRTY ROTTEN SCOUNDRELS of course remembers the absurdity of Martin’s guise as Ruprecht holding that trident and his quizzical “Not mother?” will always be funny, I don’t care what you say. Whether it’s the pure physicality of Steve Martin or what Michael Caine does to play against that, sometimes without moving a muscle, not to mention how this may be the only film with a Deny Terrio joke, for crying out loud, so many of the laughs pay off but the quieter moments balance them out whether Caine’s musings or Martin’s indignant claims that men are the weaker sex as the justification for doing what he believes is right by taking their money to give an edge to all the silliness. The sexual politics of the film are largely of another time, I guess the early 60s, and it makes sure we know that most of these snobby women don’t deserve anything less (“You were saying the poor shouldn’t be allowed in museums?” Caine asks one played by SIX FEET UNDER’s Frances Conroy). But just as Martin’s civilian wardrobe is a little 80s to clash with the surroundings, Glenne Headly’s unknowing Janet who believes just about anything anyone tells her is the sort of innocent no one in the Riviera has ever encountered and whose unquestioning goodness seems to be part of the new way of doing things, lulling us into a sense of sweetness and humanity almost without realizing it.
Miles Goodman’s lovely and boisterous score offers some of that as well, heavy on the violin but in addition to lending the film a richer sense of luxury it also contains a wistfulness that develops near the end as if to underscore how impermanent all this fantasy really is. Through his direction, Oz is always looking to underline this feeling, even in the economy of how a farewell at the airport late in the film holds on one character with another reflected in a nearby window and the surprising emotions being felt. But in another beat soon after that holds on Martin and Caine during a certain realization, the shot becomes about how they react as well as who moves and who doesn’t, turning it into a perfect reflection of their chemistry and in a nutshell this moment encapsulates what the film is more than anything. It’s possibly the best directorial work of Frank Oz’s long career, at the very least his most impeccable as well as the one most fully aware of where the jokes should go in order to truly matter.
The film always knows how much it’s about the two leads in the frame together facing off and even one of the slyest directorial moments has them gradually coming closer to camera during a tense moment, daring the other to go one step further. It’s safe to say this remains one of my favorite films of both of them; Steve Martin is more of a broad comic figure in his performance, obviously, taking his various characterizations as far as they can go particularly during the unspeakable insanity of Ruprecht but he always finds the right joke in moments like his desperation to remember someone’s name but also the way everything about his jittery energy throughout gets on people’s nerves. And it makes sense up against the fully fleshed out portrayal Michael Caine brings to his part beginning from the simple physicality of him turning around into close-up but particularly displayed through his timing in the guise of the officious Doctor Emil Schaffhausen. Even what Caine does with his hands can be fascinating to watch in this film and he cuts through every line of his dialogue with just enough of an edge to remind us of how much of an act the elegance is. The great and sadly underappreciated Glenne Headly is perfectly matched with the two of them in the way Janet Colgate seems to totally accept every ludicrous thing she’s told and the total sense of goodness it seems to bring out in her, with even the mere sight of her walking becoming a key part of that characterization. It’s very much a three person show but there’s also the way Barbara Harris as Fanny Eubanks of Omaha is so wide eyed in believing everything she’s told, Anton Rodgers (who later played a French chief of police again in Blake Edwards’ SON OF THE PINK PANTHER) bouncing off Caine nicely and in particular Ian McDiarmid aka Senator Palpatine as Jamison’s butler Arthur who amusingly gets extremely little dialogue but slaughters a few of the lines that he does get.
A film becomes a product of its time. This is unavoidable. Both BEDTIME STORY and THE HUSTLE are products of their time at least in the way of how mediocre they both are (although discovering what Brando does in the Ruprecht scenes makes a look at that film worth it). And as much as there’s nothing wrong with doing this particular plot with women in the lead roles maybe this is a case where keeping the final twist just seems wrong, in a thematic way or maybe just for comedy and the way the new film handles it simply gives the impression that it wasn’t very well thought out making the whole thing feel like a step backwards. Even comedies need to feel like there was some thought behind them, after all. In his memoir “The Elephant to Hollywood”, Michael Caine has nothing but fond things to say about filming DIRTY ROTTEN SCOUNDRELS in the south of France (you can hardly blame him) along with calling it one of his favorite films as well as the funniest. It’s the epitome of a film that you think of fondly years later, remembering both the jokes as well as the spirit of the whole thing, playing as light as it should but with just enough depth to remind us of that dream of jetting off to the south of France in the summertime. You still need those dreams while stuck in the real world and that’s the fantasy DIRTY ROTTEN SCOUNDRELS reminds you of. And it’s funny. That matters too.
Thursday, July 18, 2019
“Roger died,” said the text. I knew this already. I just hadn’t wanted to be the one to tell her. This was the day, several years ago now, a lifetime ago now, that Roger Ebert died. We still remember him as a great writer and critic as well as someone who bravely fought cancer in his final years after his voice was taken away but often in the dead of night it’s going to be about his screenplay for the legendary BEYOND THE VALLEY OF THE DOLLS. The film’s director Russ Meyer continues to be celebrated for it as well and though he’s also known for the likes of VIXEN and FASTER, PUSSYCAT! KILL! KILL! it’s BEYOND THE VALLEY OF THE DOLLS that I return to, often in the dead of night, always trying to figure out just what this film is that’s unlike any other. Originally released in 1970 with an X rating (changed to an NC-17 years later), the film is known these days partly due to pop culture references in places like AUSTIN POWERS but all on its own is about as compulsively entertaining as any movie ever made and rewatchable as few others have ever been, making multiple viewings almost mandatory, the more the better. There is nothing like it. That’s even on the poster: This is not a sequel. There has never been anything like it.
There has still never been anything like it in every possible way and there are few films that bring the same exuberant rush of dangerously pure cinematic crack to every single shot, every single manic cut. You can’t say that about many films made these days and you certainly can’t say it about the original VALLEY OF THE DOLLS but no sane person would ever write about that film anyway (full disclosure: I’ve seen VALLEY OF THE DOLLS exactly twice but have seen BEYOND exactly 5,643 times). The thing about BEYOND is that, as extreme as it is, as much as it gleefully dispenses with anything resembling actual life in the real world, there’s something about it which is impossible to resist that somehow lets you identify with its madness. It’s the perfect film for L.A., making you think of those people in this town who fall into your world, the ones who keep you up until all hours of the night and what tears that connection apart in the end. For a long time I used to say that one of the reasons you keep going to parties in L.A. is the hope one night you’ll end up at Z-Man’s—for the first party, obviously, not the last. Since I don’t go out to parties as much anymore that dream isn’t as strong, but we all need to hold out a sliver of hope for these possibilities.
Kelly MacNamara, lead singer of the rock group The Kelly Affair along with guitarist Casey Anderson (Cynthia Meyers) and drummer Petronella Danforth (Marcia McBroom), suggests to manager/boyfriend Harris Allsworth (David Gurian) that they give L.A. a try which will give an excuse to look up her long-lost aunt Susan Lake (Phyllis Davis), the heir to the family fortune. When they are reunited, Kelly’s presence causes suspicion in Susan’s lawyer Porter Hall (Duncan McLeod) but she wastes no time inviting everyone to a party thrown by teen rock tycoon Ronnie “Z-Man” Barzell (John LaZar) who after hearing them perform immediately announces that he can take the band which he renames The Carrie Nations and make them the biggest rock group around. As they rise on the charts with everyone getting sucked into the fast rock lifestyle, Harris is left behind and as Kelly squabbles over the family fortune that Porter Hall insists she won’t get a penny of, each of the girls begin to lose sight over what they really care about as they tumble further into that hard living land known as the valley of the dolls.
Sure, I could have made that synopsis longer adding a few more characters and incidents but we’ve got places to be. To accurately describe BEYOND THE VALLEY OF THE DOLLS is to fully understand it and I’ve never made that claim. To say the film is simply exhilarating isn’t quite enough, because to only specify what it achieves in one way is selling it short. It’s a glorious piece of exploitation, it’s a rock movie, a melodrama, a spoof, maybe even a little bit of a feminist film as well as a commentary on the nature of movies itself. Roger Ebert’s hand in the script (official credits: story by Ebert and Meyer, screenplay by Meyer) is a reminder of how while providing the expected melodramatic tropes it also plays as a compendium of maybe just about everything he had ever bemusedly noticed about movies up to this point, the sort of details he later compiled in his various glossaries of movie terms and clichés.
Along with how utterly quotable it is, said the spider, et cetera, it’s all filtered through the Russ Meyer prism of extreme sexuality, hell extreme sense of everything within the frame, of manly men and, more importantly, as many well-endowed women in a shot as is ever possible. The combination of the writer and director’s viewpoints explode in an array of madness which creates an immensely colorful and cluttered widescreen image that rapidly shoots from one type of film to another. It leaves no time to catch your breath as if daring you to scream uncle in the first ten minutes but once you get adjusted to the rhythms there’s also a joy to its arch playfulness as well as a strange familiarity as if a remake of a film we’ve watched in dreams but can’t quite remember.
Right from the start the sheer density of what Meyer brings as a filmmaker is undeniable, beginning with the kaleidoscopic way of structuring the film and how the baffling sequence of events under the opening credits make no sense but of course it all will eventually. What gets teased at the start is inevitable, just like much of what happens in L.A.is inevitable, just as Z-Man seems to understand it always is. The perfect ideal for a Russ Meyer shot is a packed widescreen frame, possibly at a canted angle, one that cuts as fast as possible to the next before we’ve fully registered what’s in it, but as intense as the pacing is even during a brief scene filmed from every conceivable angle it always feels focused, none of it is ever random. The early frenzied montage used to illustrate everything we need to know about the people and places of Los Angeles (“Rich Aunt Susan?” “Bitch Aunt Susan.”) works now as part time capsule and part something else entirely but also on a smaller scale is the manic intensity of the fashion studio introduction to Susan Lake that shortly follows which is just as dizzying, barely giving us a chance to catch our breath. From early on the film always seems to be looking for bits of footage to insert in other places as part of that approach to make its point, the series of edits in rapid succession whether what’s coming between Casey and fashion designer Roxanne (Erica Gavin of VIXEN) who takes an immediate interest in her or a simple reminder of the joys of what Edy Williams’ lecherous Ashley St. Ives does in a Rolls versus a Bentley.
The first Z-Man party introduces us to seemingly a hundred people, some of whom we’ll get to know and others we’ll never see again, with snatches of pseudo-hipster cool dialogue that never make complete sense spoken by the most eccentric bit players imaginable and who the hell are all these people anyway. “This is my happening and it freaks me out!” Z-Man famously exclaims while showing Kelly around his pad, introducing her to what will be all the supporting characters in the film, nothing subtle about all that exposition but fitting for this rock tycoon who has taken control of everyone in this city he knows inside and out. Z-Man says they’ll be superstars and, poof, The Carrie Nations are superstars, the band’s rise to success depicted in a tableau of the girls performing bracketed by what they think of as the two men in their lives on each side, repeated later almost in a mirror image as the darkness of that success takes hold. It’s the strong, decisive women of Meyer’s films at the center of it all and whatever mistakes they fall into still have power that the men, almost all weak in their own ways, are never able to handle.
For Russ Meyer, the maverick approach of his independent films combined with the studio aesthetic seems perfect for the Hollywood collapse of 1969-70 in the wake of EASY RIDER and all the events of the time. I can never explain what it is about movies circa 1970 for me that feel a little nightmarish as if there was something about the film stock or lenses used but maybe I’m just thinking about this film in particular which always seems to come from somewhere unexplainable or maybe it’s just the unreal fashions and all that hair on the women, playing as both an exaggeration of the time and a total representation of it, or at least what I think it was. There’s no point getting caught up in the unending debate over what exactly camp is but there’s too much style found in the way BEYOND is staged and shot to ever consider it a bad movie, let alone an intentionally bad one, it’s just a style that is almost impossible to pin down. Everything about it is calculated in a pre-fab way, every second has just a little more intensity to it than you’d expect, the characterizations too vivid and when compared to the likes of MYRA BRECKINRIDGE which happens to be the other X-rated 20th Century Fox film of 1970 (they came out a mere week apart and what a time that must have been) it’s a reminder of how much that film is an unfunny chore to sit through once you take away the holy-shit vibe, no discipline to its offensiveness.
BEYOND constantly veers close to the cliff of total anarchy but never falls over, reveling in each heightened “Since the last time I saw you, you won the heavyweight championship! Congratulations!” moment. The music has some of that blatant manufactured pop style to fit the fake groovy vibe but it also has an unexpected power, whether that never-ending scream that kicks off the anthem “Find It”, the cheery hippie vibe of “Come with the Gentle People” or how well the later “Look On Up At The Bottom” goes with the darkness that’s falling over everything. All throughout, the music correctly highlights the specific tone of the moment whether for wacky Russ Meyer sex antics, the soap opera organ that invades the most histrionic moments or the title track by The Sandpipers presented totally poker-faced as if meant to be the theme for the normal version of this movie and no one said anything to stop them.
Plotted in the immediate wake of Tate-LaBianca and released the following summer after arrests had been made, part of where the story leads may be done in extreme tastelessness at least partly because of who one of the stars of VALLEY OF THE DOLLS was, after all, but on the other hand if an exploitation movie doesn’t exploit anything then what would be the point. The excessive nature of how even the most basic scene is staged almost manages to disguise how much of a modestly scaled film it is with almost the entirety of the main unit footage shot on either the Fox lot or presumably out at the Fox ranch in Malibu, but there’s always something within the clutter to disguise it (that said, a few night shots of Edy Williams driving, maybe on Wilshire Blvd, have a dangerous kick to them and I wish there was more of this sort of thing).
The film isn’t perfect, granted, since a few characters fall away when the film doesn’t have anything left to do with them and it does dwell too long on Porter Hall’s financial machinations in the middle section, dragging things with more literal plot than it really needs. This is a film about emotions, after all, and it never has to make any more sense than the fury of those emotions (the way Sam Fuller describes Cinema in PIERROT LE FOU comes to mind), the excess of the second hour’s rising fervor and the bloodshed of the climax which seems to come out of nowhere, coinciding with a use of the famous Fox fanfare to provide a joke late in the film if you’re listening for it during just about the grisliest moment. It’s all an exaggeration of what movies usually are as well as real life. But in Hollywood very little ever has to do with real life anyway.
BEYOND was almost going to serve as an actual sequel to VALLEY at one point and the draft I’ve read even has the names of the two characters from the first film before they were changed, presumably after threat of litigation from the author of the original novel but as Vincent Canby said in his New York Times review, “Any movie that Jacqueline Susann thinks would damage her reputation as a writer cannot be all bad.” Released in late 1967, the original VALLEY OF THE DOLLS was a huge hit at the time, presumably meant to be serious but since then has always been a so-bad-it’s-good joke. Coming several years later, BEYOND was meant by Meyer & Ebert to be a joke in the first place but is heightened to the point that gives every scene an unexpected intensity, never holding back on each overly emphasized emotion which manages to make it all the more strangely real, that cruel showbiz feeling of standing on the outside looking in.
Even now I still kind of hope for the best for some of the characters after the credits roll and also feel bad for a few who didn’t make it that far and don’t quite get redemption via the epic closing narration which in its benediction offers sympathy to only some through its skewering of conservative morality. In some ways the entire film is a joke, a borderline offensive joke down to the perverse dark humor of at least one particular sound effect, daring us to actually care about some of these people but it’s also a film about what films are in the first place and it lets us make up our own minds. The mayhem of the climactic party lives up to its nightmarish aims and while the most surprising revelation is the most problematic in this day and age it still plays out as a perfect joke about those last-minute revelations that come out of nowhere, answering everything and nothing all at once. Whatever new thing the film becomes on each viewing it’s always a combination of the L.A. we want to find and the one we’re afraid might still be out there, maybe even when we answer our phone in the dead of night. Maybe there is no code to crack when it comes to BEYOND THE VALLEY OF THE DOLLS, merely simple acceptance of how in its own way this movie is really every movie.
All of this goes perfectly with the unrelenting energy of Dolly Read as Kelly who commands the film and seems ready to devour the world in every scene, no matter how much she loses sight of the people around her, no matter how many times her English accent slips in. It’s charming, just as Marcia McBroom also has a bubbly charm as Pet and she’s the one who seems to have the most fun with some of the over-enunciated dialogue she’s given to say and her scenes with Harrison Page as law student/love interest Emerson Thorne are just about the most relaxed of anyone. Cynthia Myers as Casey gives what is maybe the rawest performance in the film, her nervous energy bubbling under until it explodes without a hint of irony and is one of the strongest elements to really challenge whatever we might think this film is supposed to be. It comes through in her scenes with Erica Gavin, who herself is part of what is probably the film’s most notorious image and as much as it sometimes feels like the movie cuts around her, Gavin still gives her part more soul than it feels like was on the page.
John LaZar is extraordinary as the unforgettable Z-Man, fearlessly belting out every piece of pseudo-Shakespearean dialogue he has, becoming one with the film in his sheer display of intensity while David Guarian as Harris almost seems to be mentally wrestling with whatever intricate instructions Meyer has given him while saying the words, as if he’s struggling to stay afloat in all this as much as his character is. Michael Blodgett oozes sleaze as gigolo Lance Rocke who Kelly gets mixed up with while Charles Napier (all these years later, maybe the most recognizable person in the film) and his chiseled matinee idol looks play like he’s walked right out of an unseen Douglas Sirk film so he fits right in when reunited opposite the charming but slightly underused Phyllis Davis as Aunt Susan. Everyone here gets moments that will never be forgotten and it’s safe to say that for even some of the bit players here, this film is their immortality. When Edy Williams as Ashley St. Ives leans in close to David Guarian and says, “You’re a groovy boy, I’d like to strap you on sometime,” there’s nothing else to call it. Among the extended cast of bit players, Pam Grier is credited in the end crawl as “Fourth Woman” and is almost totally invisible but existing stills prove she was there for Z-Man’s party and I’ve actually spotted her, I swear!
And Roger did die on that day in 2013, sadly, but all things considered he made it longer than expected although still not as long as we wanted. Many years ago he gladly signed my copy of the script for this film, adding “Another BVD fan!” on the cover page. Russ Meyer passed away in 2004 and only made one other studio film after this, also for Twentieth Century-Fox, the considerably more normal and mostly forgotten THE SEVEN MINUTES which I haven’t seen in decades. Also in my own history, one day long ago I was wearing my BEYOND THE VALLEY OF THE DOLLS t-shirt while working on a low budget film when the cinematographer, the legendary Gary Graver, walked up to me and said, “I used to go out with…that one” pointing at one of the girls on the shirt (Erica Gavin, for the record). And through the years from my first viewing at SUNY Purchase in glorious 16mm Scope then to 35mm, the old Magnetic Video VHS, laserdisc, DVD and now that stunning Criterion Blu-ray, BEYOND THE VALLEY OF THE DOLLS continues to fascinate. Plus if you’ve ever seen it with a packed house you know that it just about destroys the place but even watching it by myself it still makes me want to examine each cut and figure out what’s going on there as if I’ll ever really get an answer. I’ll also remember how, in writing this film, Roger Ebert passed along a twisted reminder of what you sometimes need to expect from movies in the first place which is one of the reasons why they matter so much. And all that will be part of what I think of when I remember the text I received on the day he died, even if it is one of those pieces of the past you should decide to finally forget. But the film will continue, those words that Roger Ebert gave it will continue and the film in all its sleazy glory will be there to trust and count on, as the Carrie Nations once sang, come a rainy day.
Sunday, June 30, 2019
Let’s slow this down for a minute. Because I recently went up for a job that in some ways I was perfect for but in others made me want to splash cold water on my face in terror, not because of the hours or what I’d be doing but because of the place itself. You’ve heard of this place, you might even be a fan of it, but you definitely have an opinion about it. And I wasn’t offered the job, I didn’t even hit it out of the park at the interview but if I’d decided to pursue it just a little more, who knows. Still, there was the angle of feeling like I’d be making a deal with the devil and I’ve worked in this world before so the language they spoke was one I recognized. And it made me wonder what sort of person I want to be from day to day, along with the realization that this might literally be a case of admitting you can’t pay me to give a shit about certain reality personalities out there in what we call the world. That’s the truth. I’ve gotten so far away from it already.
I can’t imagine watching SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS during the day. The vibe is just wrong. So much of it is made for the night, the later the better, the right time to be lingering in smoke filled bars with jazz playing as you wait for your next drink, wait for the next chance to make your move. The New York in this 1957 film was already long gone by the point I spent any time there but the world it presents is still as ferocious as ever. I understand that feeling of desperation while you’re in the middle of it all, knowing deep in the pit of your soul that you might be willing to do anything to get ahead. It’s a nastiness that you can identify with whether you like it or not for all those words in the script, for the performances found in that black and white nastiness of the New York night that makes up its world. The night, after all, is where the greatest betrayals take place, where the strongest desires feel closest, where the most traumatic endings are forced on you. It’s where this movie belongs.
New York press agent Sidney Falco (Tony Curtis) is on the outs with ultra-powerful New York Globe columnist J.J. Hunsecker (Burt Lancaster) after failing to break up J.J.’s sister Susan (Susan Harrison) with rising young jazz guitarist Steve Dallas (Martin Milner). But he has one more plan to put into effect before the night is through to get him back in J.J.’s good graces and continue his ascent to the top, the only place he wants to be. But when the plan actually goes into effect Sidney finds himself having to do one too many favors for J.J. and it might be more than even he’s prepared to do.
The world in SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS is Times Square, or at least it’s just about the only part of the world that matters, the only place we see that New York Globe delivery truck driving around during the opening credits to send the latest J.J. Hunsecker column out into the atmosphere. It’s a world of those bustling masses teeming with life that Sidney Falco is a part of, a world that he wants to rule but for now he’s still one of them as he waits for that bundle of papers to drop down on the sidewalk to hopefully give him some good news before going back for his hot dog. All these people are crowded together but it feels like everyone we meet in the insular universe of this film is directly connected somehow, even down to Sidney Falco being the nephew of Steve Dallas’ manager, a reminder of how everybody you know somehow knows everybody already and eventually it all closes in on you. “I’m no hero,” Sidney Falco flat out states near the beginning, just in case anyone who has bought their ticket to this film thinks otherwise, practically meta dialogue announcing to the screaming fans of Tony Curtis that they shouldn’t wait for him to be a nice guy, no matter how many dialogue references there are to him being pretty. Sidney Falco keeps a temporary sign taped to his office door, maybe waiting for the day he can put up a permanent one that’s gold plated, and one suspects it’s been there a while as he waits for just the right bonus check to finally come in and pay for all his dreams. He revels in those moments where people point out his insidiousness and he does what he wants with that simmering anger he has at the world when the film opens and he doesn’t deny it, forever intent on making people think he belongs there in Manhattan and not whichever outer borough he likely crawled out of. He goes after that ancient comic Herbie Temple with the story of passing along a line to J.J.’s column just to prove that he can, intent on making people crawl to him, over broken glass if necessary. It always feels like there’s a balancing act to the script (screenplay by Clifford Odets and Ernest Lehman from the novelette by Lehman) in the ice cold way it doles out the information we need to know and what it doesn’t hold back in the way things are said, the nastier the better, the more vicious the better. Sidney Falco’s “The cat’s in the bag and the bag’s in the river” to reassure J.J. about his plan taking effect is likely one of the most famous examples of this dialogue to go alongside J.J.’s own “You’re dead, son. Get yourself buried,” heard over the phone before we even meet him and the film is packed with these phrases, even down to the tossed off asides I wish I were clever enough to think of in my daily life. We hear those words mixed in with the black and greys provided by cinematographer James Wong Howe in how he shoots the film through those low angles that make the characters even more imposing, standing over each other out on the street so we get lost in that darkness ourselves.
Director Alexander Mackendrick’s other films include the likes of THE LADYKILLERS and A HIGH WIND IN JAMAICA which don’t have much to do with this one but there was also the late 60s beach comedy DON’T MAKE WAVES starring Curtis, Claudia Cardinale and Sharon Tate which I’ve long had a crazy fondness for (it was also his last before a 24-year tenure at CalArts, including serving as Dean of the School of Film/Video there), maybe more than I should. The two films really have nothing much in common—and no way am I saying that DON’T MAKE WAVES comes anywhere close to being the masterpiece SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS is—but if I want to reach I’d say that spoof of the southern California lifestyle almost has a comparable sense of place and of the mood in the air, the nastiness of New York held up against the arch promise of a new tomorrow out in California. Interestingly, the director is buried just a few yards away from Burt Lancaster at the same cemetery in Westwood and, come to think of it, Ernest Lehman is there too (Tony Curtis rests in Vegas, alas). Just like the characters in the film, they’re all connected and always will be but maybe because he’s the least known of anyone here Mackendrick becomes the odd man out in history but what he brings to the film is a sense of total control in every shot. In a way it feels representative of the personalities of both male leads, the way J.J. Hunsecker’s every movement is calm as opposed to how jitteriness felt from Sidney but regardless the direction keeps us close to the conversations and it’s always about what’s in the frame, paying close attention to the distance between characters even if just a few inches and remembering to give us a chance to observe the silent reactions to the horrible things being said. The ferociousness of the frame is always vivid as the camera follows Sidney’s own interest in what’s around him, even down to a subtle shift in shots moving in closer to the characters while keeping the same angle, forcing us to be closer to how that nastiness takes hold whether we like it or not. And in the way it knows how much the plotting of the film is in the abstract with the words spoken becoming its own form of jazz, which that music student eager to quiz Steve Dallas on his quartet is so eager to hear about but this is a world where no one explains themselves. You either know the language already or you don’t and the film always understands the meaning in those words, pausing to observe the silences as they take hold.
Unlike about a hundred other New York films that you can think of, there are no glorious scenic vista shots of Manhattan from overhead at the start of SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS. We’re right there in the middle of the island from the very first moment, seeing it just as the people in the movie do and the closest we ever get to a god’s eye view of the city from above is from the penthouse apartment terrace belonging to J.J. Hunsecker in the Brill Building (does the Brill Building have apartments? Did it ever?) as he overlooks his domain, fitting since he is, after all, god to this world that he rules. It still takes 20 minutes into the film before the character turns up in the flesh and it fittingly has to go to him, holding court at 21, as if he isn’t even in any rush to grace the film with his presence. And how many J.J. Hunsecker scenes are there in total, anyway? Nine? Ten? Whatever the number is, we see the full breadth of his character in that time and once in the film he takes full control even when the scene still technically belongs to Sidney, moving through it with the force of a jackal not quite ready to pounce on his prey and without a worry since no one is ever going to question him, glaring at everything through those glasses he uses as a shield. “I’ll clean my glasses for a better look,” he says at one point to mollify Suzy’s concerns over Steve but it’s those glasses that make him, the few times we do see him remove them it’s like he immediately has to move into darkness, his very being somehow incomplete. He keeps his ever-present sense of calm right up to the edge of physical violence and he knows that he barely has to move a muscle, a man so powerful that he barely puts on pretenses of politeness with people, cutting anyone who wants something down with all the honesty he cares to express. If he allows a peon like Sidney Falco to shine his shoes it would be out of the sheer goodness of his heart. ”Match me, Sidney,” J.J. threateningly tells him early on after cutting him down in front of others and maybe the only thing that keeps Sidney in good graces is declining at that point but he does eventually light that cigarette later on, right at the moment when J.J. casually threatens to take a baseball bat to his skull, the perfect phrasing to keep them totally in synch. As Sidney puts it, J.J. happens to be one of his best friends, after all.
We never quite know how far J.J.’s feelings for his sister go which is probably for the best, just as I’m never entirely clear on what’s up with their significant age difference. When we meet her Suzy seems proud to see Steve Dallas up on that stage and even relaxed enough around Sidney to joke with him but the way Susan Harrison plays her it’s like she shrinks as the film goes on, gradually becoming more fragile as if made of tissue paper to the point where it barely seems like acting. Seeing the film when younger I always got a little impatient whenever the film stayed with Steve and Suzy for too long as if they were lovers in a Marx Brothers movie taking time away from the good stuff. Now all these years later I know how essential they are to this world, their confusion held up against the greater forces they can’t control. Steve Dallas never comes off as the friendliest guy in the world to me but his integrity, as Sidney calls it, is always there, it’s just that he has no interest in playing anyone’s games so it’s clear what Suzy sees in him. He’s not her brother, after all. It still feels like the world around Steve Dallas has seeped into that stoicism, the way he throws around the “That’s fish four days old, I won’t buy it” phrasings but he still has to hold back his true feelings until Hunsecker gives him no choice. There’s not a shred of flippancy to him, ready to use everything he has to protect Suzy and her fur coat that he hates so much with the way Susan Harrison plays certain moments it’s as if she genuinely might not make it to the end of a take without collapsing.
The unrelenting darkness of SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS makes it at least noir adjacent although maybe it’s even nastier since the reasons for messing with people’s lives here are truly dark and complex, not for simple desires like love or money but for their own selfish glory and shot at even more power than they need. In other words, it’s more connected to the world we actually know and, besides, people destroy other people all the time and no one cares. Set over less than a day and a half and not even a particularly long film anyway, SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS is these characters, these words, the cold in the air that’s felt when Sidney doesn’t wear a topcoat to save on tips. It’s the way Burt Lancaster answers the phone late at night and places the receiver down, leaving the caller waiting even longer for the privilege to exchange a few words with him. And the way the glorious Elmer Bernstein score seemingly never stops except maybe for when Steve Dallas plays his guitar with Chico Hamilton and the film bristles with that pounding feeling, moving as fast as a shot from one point to the other. It never holds back on what Sidney Falco, a man looking to win at chess without realizing he’s playing checkers, might be willing to do but the film lets almost no one off the hook, even Barbara Nichols’ cigarette girl Rita who protests over what Sidney expects her to do is just as much a part of that world as he is. It’s just Rita wants Sidney to think she’s not that bad. And he probably doesn’t even care anyway.
Every moment of SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS is thrilling as it revels in that nastiness so much it becomes otherworldly, the story feeling cut to the bone, scraping away at it with no mercy and that pain is always felt since we see the hurt, we believe how far someone like Sidney will go for a shot at the brass ring. Even if it is one of the greatest screenplays ever put to film there are still a few places where it seems apparent dialogue was added after the fact to presumably clarify things (like early offscreen dialogue from Sidney to his secretary in order to explain the plot) but in some ways this reassures me that the people who made this film were still mortal. There’s still hope. Looking at the way Steve and Suzy are torn apart through all these machinations it feels like the start of the modern world, a lone man of righteous virtue bravely calling a demagogue using his power to chip away at anyone’s happiness he doesn’t personally approve of a “national disgrace” right to his face. “My big toe would make a better president” J.J. states after leaving his senator friend, a line in particular that I think of a lot in the past few years but I also suspect he wouldn’t mind doing it himself if it didn’t mean giving up that table at 21. When you live in this world, when you’re confronted with the hatred of those around you, it can force you to spend the rest of your life aware of the person you are. Even when Sidney Falco’s conscience finally nags at him he’s already too far gone for anyone, maybe even himself, to care. He’s just lost in the city up near the bridge, waiting, looking down but he’s still part of them and no better--this might be one of my favorite unsung moments in the film maybe just for the pure sense of New York in the shot with Sidney making his way up towards the bridge as traffic goes by, looking down at the club and what he’s putting into effect. Just as something bubbles up inside of me as Suzy walks off into the morning light of the film’s final shot, the frenzy of Elmer Bernstein’s masterful score reaching its conclusion. It’s impossible to avoid living in the world but when it comes to the life you’ve forced yourself into it can become clear that sometimes you just have to walk away.
And there’s the battle between the two phenomenal leads, Burt Lancaster and the sheer force of his imposing presence, unafraid to look people in the eye, intimidating them with just a few syllables. That feeling of pure ice he gives off is unforgettable and it’s as if you can see Burt Lancaster’s body shift when he realizes who he’s dealing with so when he spits out the legendary line “You’re a cookie full of arsenic,” it’s filled with that glorious combination of disgust and grudging admiration. The way every word slithers off his tongue is a form of perfection and Lancaster lives up to the poisonous legend that he is required to be. Through Sidney Falco’s nervousness and shallow veneer of confidence Tony Curtis gives what’s likely his best performance, snapping eagerly at every word he gets to speak and totally determined to keep himself in the ballgame, almost as if this press agent has been learning about his trade from seeing Kirk Douglas movies. The way he darts across shots plays like Sidney can’t go more than a few seconds without being noticed and staring people down as if daring them to call his bluff, unaware of how far the game he’s playing is going to go, forcing himself to look the other person in the eye as he tries to convince himself of his own awfulness. Backing them up is a remarkable cast with the nervous energy of Susan Harrison as Suzy, getting more and more fragile as the minutes tick b until all she has left is an ounce of determination that can save her alongside the more stoic conviction of Martin Milner and the way he keeps saying ‘smear’ as if the word rolling off his tongue is offensive to his very being. Plus there’s the self-loathing of Barbara Nichols as Rita telling Sidney off until there’s nothing left for her to do but give in, IN A LONELY PLACE’s Jeff Donnell as Sidney’s secretary, Emile Meyer as the cop Harry Kello calling at Sidney to come back so he can chastise him and the uncredited Lawrence Dobkin (endless credits in front of and behind the camera—his final role was a 2001 appearance on POPULAR) as rival columnist Leo Bartha pushed to his limits via attempted blackmail, particularly strong in his few minutes onscreen.
So may as well pick up the pace again. I’ve got some things I need to figure out. Just can’t lose sight. Even during the day. J. J. Hunsecker is mostly based on the legendary columnist Walter Winchell who in the world we live in now is largely forgotten (but if you’re interested, the 1994 biography by Neal Gabler is pretty great) but this film is still alive, powerful enough that it still has a hold, you still feel the desperation that comes through as the New York feel pulsates through every scene and it’s one of the most rewatchable films for those late hours where you can’t decide if you want to be in the center of the world or hide away from it as long as possible. There are few other films like it, few that have this sort of power. Just as Sidney Falco finally realizes, it’s a reminder of how close you can get to your dreams as you find out for yourself what you were willing to do, what some people around you actually did do and what all that means for the people they turned out to be. Maybe all you’re left with is the rush of those moments where you came close. That’s what the New York of SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS was, that’s what Los Angeles usually feels like now. Still, as always, I love this dirty town and as long as that’s the case the hold this film has on me will be one I completely understand.