Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Sweet Smell of Success. A

I urge anyone, everyone, to buy the Criterion edition of Sweet Smell of Success (it's a beautiful thing to own, from the exquisite cover art, seamless transfer, to a host of useful bonus features, and finally to the film itself) and see it as many times as possible until you feel you've mastered its many complexities. I saw the movie twice in two days and fell in love with it. I've seen four movies this year that provided a sense of real buzz and a reminder of what a love affair with a piece of cinema entails. Scarlet Street, The Tree of Life, Apocalypto, and this. The movie is at once comprehensible and complex, a result of a simple story made very complicated by human nature's quest for success, love, and protection of our most precious associations. Tony Curtis' Sidney Falco is a press agent and friend of the formidable and eerily influential New York gossip columnist J.J. Hunsecker, played by Burt Lancaster as a dark, unsympathetic soul with a single prize in life: his little sister, the beautiful, delicate, and naive Susan. On his desk, where one would expect to find a picture of his wife, there's a framed shot of Susan. He's so obsessed and selfish for her that when a young Jazz guitarist named Steve Dallas engages in a relationship with Susan, J.J. turns to Falco to break it off. The movie is swift and exciting, full of rich detail and noirsh compositions from the legendary James Wong Howe. Directed by Alexander Mackendrick, Sweet Smell of Success is a brutal and exhilarating up-close-and-personal look at the hot-shot New York press and squalid, disreputable men that fill its positions. The beauty of the film is that it comes across as deeply realistic when in fact its script is teeming with exaggerated dialogue used to emphasize ideas about the media rather than get truly accurate representation of it. Read these lines, play them in your head, and imagine them in a movie: "What does this mean?" "Integrity. A pocketful of firecrackers waitin for a match." "Sidney, this you're giving out with. You poor it over waffles, not J.J. Hunsecker." "Gentlemen, I'm tasting my favorite new perfume: success." "I'd hate to take a bite out of you. You're a cookie full of arsenic." And my personal favorite: "He's got the scruples of a guinea pig and morals of a gangster." These characters fire lines like these at each other the entire movie. It's a pleasure in and of itself the hear such inventive use of dialogue. More importantly, it suggests a life, a type of behavior that's at once fascinating and terribly unnerving.

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