Monday, September 29, 2008

Paul Newman, 1925-2008

The problems of being beautiful are something the Siren does not generally worry her little head about, such difficulties ranking in her mind with whether it is hard to maintain a large house in Manhattan and what on earth will become of Dirk Kempthorne on January 20, 2009. But in the case of Paul Newman, one of the great male beauties of the American screen, it's an underlying critical theme. How much of his appeal was based on his amazing looks?

David Thomson declared himself "suspicious of such blue-eyed likability," but he was only the most forthright of critics. As you go back through reviews of Newman's work, and even now as you read the obituaries with a heavy heart, here come the references to his charm, his charisma, his alleged "cool." The subtext, frequently, is that this was somehow all natural, that Newman was gifted from birth with certain genetic qualities that were fated to pop up on screen. He came from a well-to-do Cleveland family and grew into a beautiful man whom the camera was bound to love. Even his admirable charity work fits into the myth, in that it's taken for granted that his tremendous good luck made him want to give something back. (Phooey. There are others far luckier who never give back a thing--what has Pia Zadora done for us lately? Giving away $200 million is a far deeper statement about character that merely wanting to share the wealth.)

But the Siren is here to talk about Newman's acting, and to remind us that charm does not follow naturally from being handsome, nor does possessing that quality in life mean you can bring it to the screen. Consider Alain Delon, an excellent actor with looks so perfect they seem a cosmic joke, but resolutely uncharming in role after role. Think of George Brent, a well-loved man in Hollywood but often a limp screen figure. Look at Peter Sellers and Rex Harrison, despised by colleagues but the picture of charm in so many movies. Charm is a learned technique for an actor. Either you choose not to use it, as the Siren presumes Delon has chosen, or you can only bring it out when the stars align, like Brent, or you learn to project it despite your real personality. Newman seems to have been a wonderful man in real life, but that's irrelevant to his talent. The things he was able to bring to the screen came from his dedication to acting, not the Good Fairy Merryweather hovering over his cradle.

For further evidence, you don't have to sit in a dark room with Newman's entire filmography on disc. All you have to do is watch The Silver Chalice, his first movie, from 1954. It is neither, as Newman variously described it, the worst movie ever made, nor the worst movie made in the 1950s. It is bad, however. And Newman, as he would tell every interviewer for the rest of his life, is terrible. As the Bible Films blog points out, The Silver Chalice hits every cliche: "a young man becoming a Christian as a result of his pursuit of an early Christian relic...pagan-finds-faith falling for beautiful-Christian-girl." The movie couldn't even capitalize on the genre's mystifying popularity in the 50s, and it lost a fortune. What astonishes a latter-day viewer isn't the ridiculous sets, or the disorganized screenplay that veers from a search for the Last Supper cup to a search for a witness to Newman's adoption and then back again, nor is it even Jack Palance bringing his modern gait and All-American vowels to the role of a Roman-era magician. No, what leaps out at you is this: Newman isn't charming. I mean, look at him in that still above. He is anticharm, in the sense of antimatter. When Pier Angeli looks at him, it isn't with love, but with wonderment that this gorgeous man has the personality of a just-caught red snapper, with lifeless eyes (can you believe it?) and ungraceful movements.

Well, that was his first role. He was never that bad again. Two years later he took the part intended for James Dean in Somebody Up There Likes Me. Boxer Rocky Graziano was a well-loved figure, but many's the character beloved in real life who comes across far differently in a biopic. This is, after all, the story of a guy who starts out more familiar with jails and reformatories than schools, a member of the Greatest Generation who declines to contribute to the struggle, instead repeatedly going AWOL from the Army and eventually earning a dishonorable discharge for striking an officer. That this selfish, immature delinquent becomes quite lovable is due in part to a screenplay that takes care to show the roots of Graziano's behavior, but even more credit is due to Paul Newman. Some will take this as heresy, but the Siren doubts very much that the intense, fiery Dean would have been as sweetly tentative in the love scenes (again with Pier Angeli, looking as though she can't believe her costar's improvement) or as sympathetically big-lunkish when behaving badly.

What was he doing for the two years between roles? Some television, some theater, classes at the Actor's Studio. What flicked the switch? Hard work, definitely. Accretion of experience, I suppose, and perhaps the knowledge that the movie was a do-or-die second chance. Not to mention the fact that Graziano, a street tough who was about as close to the real-life Newman as Rosalynn Carter is to Sandra Bernard, was nevertheless a part far more suited to the actor's ineffably modern sensibility than some silly Greek slave. Somebody Up There Likes Me was the first inkling of Newman's unique talent for playing antiheros, an ability to burrow down into the lives of the small-time and hard-luck cases and find what could bring the audience to the character's side.

The Siren finds his next part, as a soldier who cracked under torture in The Rack, fascinating both for the subject matter and for the place it occupies in Newman's development as an actor. While the screenplay offers him some backhanded compassion, Newman's character is ultimately condemned as a vague example of some kind of weakness in the younger generation. Here again, however, you see that Newman reserved charisma for the parts that demanded it, and the tormented officer he plays gives off no glow. It's an interesting forerunner to another self-hating man Newman would play to far greater effect many years later in The Verdict.

Newman's roles up to the early 1960s are often seen as a sort of romantic-lead holding pattern for the actor, until he could reach his destiny in brilliant turns as The Hustler, Hud and Cool-Hand Luke. These early films have their rewards, though. The drifter in The Long, Hot Summer in some ways is a dry run for the venal but mesmerizing Hud, and his chemistry with Joanne Woodward is delicious. Glenn Kenny pointed out to the Siren that Martin Scorsese mentioned From the Terrace in his tribute to Newman, right alongside Butch Cassidy. Walter Chaw may call it a film "only a dinosaur Republican could love," but the Siren sees it of a piece with Newman's later work. It is, after all, the story of a man materially gifted from birth who still has a reverse Midas touch in his personal life, a type of role that emerged with a slightly different spin the year before as he climbed the ladder in The Young Philadelphians. Moral choices dog early Newman characters. He was usually asked to come down on the side of the Establishment, but you believe him more as he mocks the system, describing his Wall Street office in From the Terrace as an "aging fortress of banking integrity" and sparring bitterly with his father and wife, not when he cleans up in the last act. These are men whose appeal burns fitfully, usually in the love or flirtation scenes. The confrontations and ethical dilemmas are played straight and truthful.

Moral choices dog Newman, too, in the two Tennessee Williams plays he filmed, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and Sweet Bird of Youth. Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, alas, is a hot mess, but it isn't Newman's fault, although he might have tried to make Brick less petulant. The main problem is that there is no way in hell you can make a heterosexual man's refusal to sleep with the 1958-vintage Elizabeth Taylor believable. Even being gay wouldn't completely explain it but at least that's a start. Newman seems to know this, and if you ask the Siren, he's pretty much punting his scenes with Taylor in favor of the scenes with Burl Ives as Big Daddy, which are quite touching in spots. Newman's expression as he watches his father grapple with imminent death makes you forgive Brick, momentarily, for being such a putz in the rest of the movie. While Sweet Bird is flawed, Newman is quite convincing as a would-be actor and pseudo-gigolo in the second film, his follow-up to The Hustler and Paris Blues. Plus the Siren confesses eternal love for the scene where a shirtless Newman does slant-board sit-ups. I deeply admire his acting, I think he was so much more than a pin-up, but still, I could watch that thing on a loop for as long the film held out.

Anyway, what you have, up to the watershed of The Hustler in 1961, is an actor already working at a high level and, for the most part, attacking roles with great fervor and seriousness. The only movie from this period in which the Siren really sees Newman on autopilot is Exodus, and she can't say she blames him for that one. Otherwise, in his early films he isn't relying on his looks and his charisma comes out sparingly. Maybe that's why his 1960s work, which brought him a number of roles that required allure in spades, was and remains such a thunderclap.

With 1963's Hud, Newman would eventually express dismay that the amoral, ruthless title character was taken for his charm and not the viciousness underneath. That audience reaction was the result, however, of perfect playing. Orson Welles's depiction of Harry Lime had the same fate. How else would these men do their dirty work, if they could not make a surface so dazzling it blinded people? In Cool Hand Luke, allegory goes down so easily at least in part because Newman takes Luke and gives him more allure than any straight-up movie Jesus ever had. The Siren likes to think it was maybe a bit of payback for that earlier exercise in Christian mythology.

In later years Newman contributed to the "blue-eyed likability" meme by describing acting as unfit work for a grown-up and pouring his efforts into other interests, like auto-racing, politics and his charitable endeavors. It may well be that at some point the parts he was being offered began to bore him--another irresistible devil, ho-hum. Well, talent Newman had in abundance, but technique and ability must be kept in shape, something Newman acknowledged when he retired a couple of years ago. The Siren does not for one minute believe that he truly despised acting. He stayed too good for too long, his performance in 1994's Nobody's Fool as fresh and true as any he gave in the first golden years of superstardom. His Absence of Malice costar, Sally Field, remarked that "He's so easy you keep thinking he's not doing anything. You know, 'When is he going to act?'" The secret to Paul Newman, and what has the Siren missing him so badly this morning, is that he wasn't just lucky. He was working for the audience all along.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Wednesday Night at the Movies: The Apartment

Tonight at 9 pm at Newcritics, uberblogger Lance Mannion takes over Wednesday Night at the Movies. Under discussion: Billy Wilder's The Apartment. Stop by and help us hit the jackpot, discussion-wise.

Monday, September 22, 2008

The "12 I Haven't Seen, So Use Them Up" Challenge

So, Dennis Cozzalio of the splendid Sergio Leone and the Infield Fly Rule tagged me with this "12 Movies I Need to See" meme. Now, as I understand it, the original meme was supposed to be about movies that you wanted to see, but could not locate, perhaps in the generous supposition that you've seen all the important stuff that's available. Well, there's a lot the Siren hasn't seen. It is, to be blunt, fucking embarrassing, some of the movies I haven't seen. The biggest gap: no Robert Bresson. Nary a film. You can all log off right now.

But rather than indulge in my own form of Cinematic Humiliation, à la David Lodge, I decided to combine this with another occasional meme from my beauty-blogger pals. This is called the Use It Up Challenge. If you're a beauty-product junkie, you always wind up with a bunch of half-used stuff abandoned in the back of your medicine chest or vanity case, waiting patiently to be taken out and played with again like so many cosmetic Velveteen Rabbits. The Use It Up Challenge asks you to take out the stuff, use it up, recycle the containers and move on with your life. It's a very good thing to do. (Although it has risks. In trying to use up one Serge Lutens perfume, an extraordinarily pungent jasmine scent called A La Nuit, the Siren succeeded in putting herself off jasmine for almost two years.)

So when this homework assignment came up, the Siren's head immediately swiveled from her computer screen to her DVD shelf, and the group of discs she still hasn't watched. It's a diverse and poignantly large group. Poor little guys. They don't ask much, just their chance to strut and fret upon the screen, and instead the Siren keeps tuning into her TCM addiction or her Netflix discs or Netflixing old Columbo episodes (Columbo is what I do for stress, instead of hard liquor) or popping into other people's blogs.

There are the DVDs that the Siren bought, unwrapped and hasn't watched yet, and those are bad enough. But the ones that really reproach her are the unseen movies sent by friendly bloggers. These wonderful guys went to all that trouble, and still I haven't watched. What's wrong with me? I guess I procrastinate a lot. I'd tell you for sure, but I won't be able to ponder it until a bit later in the week.

So here's a list for the Siren's "12 I Haven't Seen, So Use Them Up" Challenge. I am starting this with a handicap, in that I still haven't purchased a DVD player. I'm having a bit of Consumer Anxiety, trying to decide what to get. As soon as this is rectified, however, I am going to watch 'em all, and post at least something brief as I periodically check them off the list.

The first three were received via the kind offices of Mike P., the movie brain known as Goatdog.
1. Heroes for Sale (William Wellman, 1933) Sent to me after I was wowed by Wild Boys of the Road.
2. The Constant Nymph (Edmund Goulding, 1943) Sent to help complete my Joan Fontaine viewing. I read the book as a girl and perhaps that's why I have put it off--it's a tearjerker, if it follows the original story.

3. Christmas Holiday (Robert Siodmak, 1944) Sent because of my kind words for Deanna Durbin. I wanted to schedule this for Christmas but I seem no more capable of watching a Christmas movie at Christmas than I am of finishing all my shopping by Thanksgiving weekend.

The next four came a long while ago via Peter Nelhaus:
4. Blue Swallow (Jong-Chan Yun, 2005) Sent to shore up my shaky Korean film knowledge, without my having to watch someone get tortured.

5. The Curse of the Golden Flower (Zhang Yimou, 2006) Sent because he knows I love both director and star (Gong Li).
6. Exiled (Johnny To, 2006) See #6 (although maybe someone does get tortured in this one, I'm not sure).
7. Letter from an Unknown Woman (Jinglei Xu, 2004) With this one I think I'm just afraid of the comparison to the Ophuls.

This next was received via David Cairns's Duvivier Giveaway.
8. La Fin du Jour (Julien Duvivier, 1939) I will have to get another multiregion to watch it, I'm afraid, but I really want to.

This one was given me ages ago by Girish and somehow I never watched it.
9. The Marriage Circle (Ernst Lubitsch, 1924) God I suck. Why haven't I sat down for this one? It's Lubitsch, for crying out loud.

This one was sent by Flickhead:
10. A Talking Picture (Manuel Oliveira, 2003) Sent because he's a mensch (don't tell him I said so) and because I expressed admiration for Je Rentre à la Maison.

These two were purchased on Glenn Kenny's say-so:
11. L'Argent (Marcel Herbier, 1928) Glenn swore you can read the intertitles with limited French. Let's hope he's right.
12. Make Way for Tomorrow (Leo McCarey, 1937) Actually, this was purchased on the entire blogosphere's say-so.

As a bonus, to keep with the spirit of the original challenge, here are twelve I dearly want to see, but am having the devil of a time finding:

1. No Greater Glory (Frank Borzage, 1934) Of course there's a Borzage. There's always a Borzage. This one is an antiwar allegory based on a novel by Ference Molnar. It's lovingly described in Lawrence Quirk's The Great Romantic Films. (Quirk's volume was one of my first movie books ever and to this day I use it as a reference. If Wikipedia is right, he's about 75 now, and one day I'd like to meet Mr. Quirk and tell him how much his serious exploration of this type of movie influenced my instinct to take them seriously as well.) No Greater Glory is one of the few Borzage movies that doesn't depict a couple's romance. Instead the focus is on the war games played by feuding groups of boys in a lumber yard, and one misfit boy's (George Breakstone) yearning for love and acceptance from his group's leader (Jimmy Butler, who in a painful irony was killed in action in France in 1945).

2. So Red the Rose (King Vidor, 1935) My father preferred this Civil War movie to Gone with the Wind. Dan Callahan's Senses of Cinema article on King Vidor (do click, Dan is worth reading on any topic) says the movie portrays slavery in a far more complex way than Selznick's opus, which might explain why it failed at the box office. It was such a complete disaster, in fact, that no one would touch a Civil War movie for a number of years afterward. Not available in any format.

3. Only Yesterday (John M. Stahl, 1933) Margaret Sullavan in a loose adaptation of Letter from an Unknown Woman. People who have seen it are unanimous in praising it. Apparently stuck back in whatever hidey-hole Fox has put a bunch of other Paramount movies.

4. The Crash (William Dieterle, 1932) Ruth Chatterton was a remarkable actress, stage-trained but perfectly in tune with the camera. She bowled me over in Lilly Turner, Female and the great Dodsworth. I want to see more.

5. Un Carnet du Bal (Julien Duvivier, 1937) Along with Pepe le Moko, one of the movies that put Duvivier on the map. Not available. Why?

6. Safe in Hell (William Wellman, 1931) My respect for Wellman just keeps growing. This one has popped up in repertory houses and at least once on TCM but I haven't seen it yet.

7. Les Visiteurs du Soir (Marcel Carne, 1942) Because Children of Paradise is one of my favorite movies of all time. As far as I know, not available on DVD in any region. I will probably resort to getting it on VHS at some point.

8. La Traversée de Paris (Claude Autant-Lara, 1956) Available in France but not with subtitles.

9. Floating Clouds (Mikio Naruse, 1955) Available in a French DVD and a BFI edition, in both instances packaged with two others I have already seen, which means that on my budget I don't want to stomach the exchange rate. If I hear one more time that Criterion is working on this one I will scream. Promises, promises!

10. The Private Affairs of Bel-Ami (Alfred Lewin, 1947) Lewin was a true talent and this is said to be one of George Sanders' best performances. Will probably resort to VHS for this too.

11. Summer Storm (Douglas Sirk, 1944) Not available in any format.

12. The Blue Veil (Curtis Bernhardt, 1951) Incredibly rare. One IMDB user claims to have spent more than $1,000 trying to locate a watchable copy. Never released on VHS either. Stars Jane Wyman, who isn't a favorite of mine, but also Charles Laughton and Joan Blondell, who certainly are. Curtis Bernhardt directed A Stolen Life and Sirocco, both of which I liked.

I was going to list What Price Hollywood? (George Cukor, 1932), but to my utter delight, this one is showing Oct. 1 at 11:45 pm on TCM. So that's my deadline for fixing the DVD recorder situation.

I'm not sure there is anyone left to tag, but if you want to keep me company and fess up to the DVDs you own, but need to Use Up, by all means do so. And if you haven't contributed to this meme, or its variations, by all means do so.

(Pictures, from top to bottom: Peter Lorre, as fellow bloggers demand to know why he has been neglecting Bresson. Kidding. It's him in Crime and Punishment. I haven't seen that one either. Next, Christmas Holiday: Gene Kelly and pal want me to watch this one before Halloween, Deanna just wants me to watch it. The Curse of the Golden Flower, also know as Gong Li Displays Entirely New Assets. So Red the Rose--probably not a good one to watch if I'm in a firebreathing political snit. Finally, The Private Affairs of Bel-Ami, which was clearly a feminist polemic.)

(Updated & corrected 9/23. Thanks J.C.)

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Sunday Stroll Through the Blogs

The Siren's been tagged by Dennis Cozzalio. As Lance Mannion says--homework! You're giving me homework! She has her own idea about how to approach this meme , of "12 Movies I Need to See," so she's working on it. In the meantime, here's some of what the Siren spent the week reading instead of doing her homework.

A little while back the great Peter Nelhaus of Coffee Coffee and More Coffee wrote an excellent essay about Give Us This Day, arguing that it may be director Edward Dmytryk's best film. The Siren remarked in comments that filmmaker Raymond De Felitta was mentored by Dmytryk at the American Film Institute, and she wished Raymond would write a full post about the director of Murder, My Sweet, Crossfire and The Caine Mutiny--and Hollywood Ten member turned friendly witness.

Ask, and ye shall receive. Raymond has a long post up today, and it is a wonderful tribute to Dmytryk as a complex, sometimes exasperating man and to his qualities and talents as a director. If you can't read it now, bookmark it and read it later. You won't be sorry. Here's a taste:

Eddie once said to me: 'I got all the drunks. They always gave me the drunks, for some reason.' As I was laughing (and he was too) he listed every famous drunk in Hollywood--and Eddie had worked with them: 'Clift, Bogie, Bill Holden, Gable, Tracy, Richard Burton...Jesus, I worked with every great drunk in Hollywood.' Funny as this was, later I gave it some thought and realized that every director had their specialty and perhaps Eddie was onto something; his own assuredness (and he didn't drink either) mixed with a patience and respect for actors made him the ideal 'drunk-handler.'

The Siren agrees with Raymond (and Peter) that this director deserves to have his work reappraised.

I'm late on this one (it went up while I was in France) but was delighted to find it: Over at And Your Little Blog, Too, Vertigo's Psyche posted a complete rundown on the outtakes of Night of the Hunter recently screened at UCLA. It was more than 2½ hours of Charles Laughton, Robert Mitchum, Shelley Winters and Lillian Gish, behind the scenes as they worked.

At Some Came Running, Glenn Kenny has been posting correspondence with Joseph Failla about the Blu-Ray Godfather restorations. This marvelous series of posts gives you a clear-eyed summary of the debates over how older movies should look on our home screens, with Glenn at his pithiest ("Joe--Not to be disrespectful or vulgar, but the 'home theater crowd' can go eat a bag of dicks"). It also covers weighty matters such as That Kiss and Part III, operatic coda or greedy desecration? Part One, Part Two, Part Three and a Postscript.

John McElwee has also been watching as much Kay Francis as the traffic will bear, and has written up his impressions so far. As always, great pictures unique to Greenbriar and something you never knew before, as with the marvelous Jewel Robbery:

You can’t help speculating upon depression-era viewers, already short of bread at home, so inspired by such rascally goings-on as to hold up boxoffices on their way out (and indeed, theatre robberies, often at gunpoint, were rife during the early thirties).

Jacqueline T. Lynch has written a warm defense of a movie the Siren holds dear, The Enchanted Cottage.

Gareth at Gareth's Movie Blog has an index of his movie reviews up and running now, so if you want to see his thoughts on, say, Le Testament du Docteur Cordelier it's easy to do so. (Gareth has a particularly large number of well-executed reviews of French films, both old and modern, on his site.)

Jonathan Lapper meditates on why movies have gotten so goddamn long, a curmudgeonly topic the Siren herself has been known to rant about.

And finally, the Siren hopes y'all are still keeping up with the Best Pictures from the Outside In, sponsored by Nathaniel R, Nick Davis and the fabulous Mike, aka Goatdog. The latest: The Great Ziegfeld (gentlemen, I submit that you were way too hard on dear Luise) vs American Beauty (and on that one they aren't hard enough, though I hasten to add, before Nathaniel hurts me, that I share his love for La Bening).

Don't look at me like that, I do!

One last that I stupidly forgot: Darcy James Argue posts a clip from Sweet Smell of Success that includes the Chico Hamilton Quartet, of which we are asked to believe that Marty Milner is an integral part. Darcy and I had an interesting back-and-forth in comments about whether a little weed and some reddish politics would be enough to sink a sideman in the world of 1957.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

New York City of the Mind: Sweet Smell of Success Open Thread at Newcritics

Tonight marks Round 2 of Wednesday Night at the Movies at Newcritics. This week's selection: Sweet Smell of Success. Read the thoughts here, then mosey over to Newcritics at 9 pm Eastern time and let's talk about this cookie full of arsenic, which for many is the movie about New York City.

At the time the Siren was living in Harlem, she was working to support herself behind a jewelry counter at a downtown store, now long gone. To say the pay was low is like saying the same about the Mariana Trench. For a time it was a wildly popular store, and a lot of celebrities came in. They had one thing in common. Major and minor, of-the-moment and washed up, they all got big discounts, just as soon as the suck-up manager spotted them.

That killed me. People who were up to their facelift scars in cash never, but never paid retail or anything like it. My pals and I spent the day before payday pooling resources in an attempt to make sure everybody had cigarettes and lunch, like some crazy display-case version of Our Daily Bread. What I didn't realize was that this store wasn't that bad. The store owners, guys who came up the hard way and could squeeze a nickel till it screamed for the cornerman, still didn't give anything away. Some retail workers watch celebrities walk out without paying a dime.

In the Sweet Smell of Success, you never see J.J. Hunsecker pay for anything. Sidney Falco, on the other hand, doesn't wear a coat, so he won't have to tip the hatcheck girl.

Thinking about Sid makes the Siren recall a couple of hours she once spent waiting on a condescending twit, biting back retorts as he ceaselessly needled her and insulted the merchandise. And when it was over, the Siren had to watch him leave with everything at half price. Not because HE had ever done (or ever did in future) anything worthwhile, but because he was the brother of a single-monikered pop star. Sid says he wants to be "way up high, Sam, where it's always balmy, where no one snaps his fingers and says, 'Hey, Shrimp, rack the balls!'" When the Siren remembers that SOB customer, she starts to think like Sid: Maybe the rules are for suckers, and the only way is to claw your piece out of the pie.

A lot of critics categorize Sweet Smell of Success as film noir, which I suppose fits as well as anything. Noir is usually a fatalist morality play disguised as a crime thriller or mystery, and Sweet Smell wears no disguise. It's an ugly story about amoral people, with an elegantly simple plot. The omnipotent king of the New York columnists, J.J. Hunsecker (Burt Lancaster) is furious that his sister Susie (Susan Harrison) is taking baby steps toward independence by dating a rising jazz musician (Marty Milner, whom the Siren cannot look at without hearing a dispatcher calling for Adam-12). Hunsecker enlists press agent Sidney Falco (Tony Curtis) to plant a false story about the musician. Sid, who has earned J.J.'s ire with a prior misstep, is willing to plant the story, and to do a whole lot more, to ensure no one will ever snap their fingers at him again.

This movie about ambition and treachery made its way onscreen via one betrayal after another. We've all read that Hunsecker was a take on columnist Walter Winchell. Former press agent Ernest Lehman, who wrote the original novella and co-wrote the script with Clifford Odets, acknowledged the connection, but claimed he'd tried to differentiate between Hunsecker and Winchell with things like Hunsecker's wall of golf trophies. (Winchell didn't play golf, so everyone was supposed to say "Hey, maybe it isn't Winchell!" Right.) Anyway, in The Bad and the Beautiful, the authors write that Falco was an obvious take on press agent Irving Hoffman, who had known Lehman for years and was displeased that while a lot of his recognizable perks and foibles were in the novella, there were none of the many instances in which Hoffman had stood up to Winchell. Unlike Falco, Hoffman never toadied. "Irving had a right to feel betrayed," said Lehman, and though they eventually made up, Hoffman quit speaking to Lehman for a year.

The backstabbing didn't end there. When Burt Lancaster's production company, Hecht-Hill-Lancaster, became interested in making the film, Lehman was lured with the promise that he'd direct. He didn't, of course, and people like Tony Curtis and producer Jim Hill confirmed years later that nobody ever had any intention of letting Lehman direct. Instead they signed up Alexander Mackendrick, known for comedies like The Ladykillers. "He was from Scotland for god's sakes!" said Lehman, who came down with a stomach ailment that landed him first in the hospital and then on a tour of the South Pacific, trying to recover from the whole experience. Mackendrick, whom even Lehman came to see as an extravagantly gifted director, found the making of the movie a physical and emotional ordeal that was compounded by its failure at the box office. Two weeks into making The Devil's Disciple, also for Hecht-Hill-Lancaster, Mackendrick was removed because, they said, he was running up the budget. Although the Siren likes A High Wind in Jamaica, which Mackendrick made in 1965, his later career ended abruptly and he moved into teaching film. His too-short career as a director is as painful to contemplate as Charles Laughton's.

The machinations amongst Hecht-Hill-Lancaster would also do Hunsecker proud. The original partnership was between Lancaster and Harold Hecht. How smoothly it went may be surmised from the incident where Lancaster lifted Hecht off the ground and threatened to throw him out the window. Lancaster, loathed by both Lehman and his director, brought in Jim Hill, after which Hecht lost interest in Sweet Smell of Success. When a reporter named Ezra Goodman told Hecht the film had bombed in previews, Hecht's face "broke out into a wide Cinemascope smile."

Between these stories in The Bad and the Beautiful, and the many appraisals around the Web, Siren has spent all week with the low-down, lying snake that is Sid Falco. And he really is a heel. But in his single-minded desire to get ahead, he is also a piece of almost any New Yorker, except maybe the saintliest ones. (And if they're saints, what're they doing here?) Falco is pure ambition, and by that sin fell the angels. But the fall of Sid and J.J. doesn't mean there aren't plenty behind them, knife in hand. If you can make it here, you can make it anywhere. What the song doesn't mention is that afterward you may not like yourself.

Sex flows underneath the movie like a sewer, the subtext to everything from the come-hither shot of his sister that Hunsecker keeps on his desk, to the cop purring "Come here Sidney. I want to chastise you" for all the world like a brass-buttoned dominatrix. But sex is a currency, not an objective. Ambition is the animating force, and power is what these people do for excitement. Is Hunsecker's interest in his sister incestuous? Oh sure, that idea is there. So is a whiff of the homoerotic in the way Lancaster mouths, "Match me, Sidney." But more than anything, Hunsecker is viscerally offended when anyone dares to slip away.

There's no point in debating who's better here, Lancaster or Curtis. Their performances are as symbiotic as Hunsecker and Falco--host and parasite, David Bordwell calls them. Lancaster was one of Hollywood's most magnificent physical specimens, a true athlete who once made his living as an acrobat. Curtis, born Bernie Schwartz in the Bronx, wasn't as physically powerful as Lancaster (who was?) but nature had given him looks that were no less striking. Both of them spent a long time in movies that made great use of their sex appeal. In its way, Sweet Smell does too. Lancaster plays a guy who rules the world from a table at 21, a night owl whose eyes never seem to blink behind his glasses. But Lancaster still moves with natural elegance, his posture is still majestic. Curtis constantly uses his looks to ingratiate himself, especially with women.

We all know how certain directors--Alfred Hitchcock, Anthony Mann--could take a beloved actor and show how his charm could turn sinister. Sweet Smell shows us how something sinister can charm. The Siren is always surprised when she reads essays about this film that go on and on about the morally repellent characters, but fail to acknowledge their sleazy allure. The press agents and columnists and hangers-on have their own kind of talk, full of slang, as jagged and rhythmic as Elmer Bernstein's great score. Even the less-famous lines insert the stiletto.

"President? My big toe would make a better president."

"It's a dirty job, but I pay clean money for it."

"Maybe I left my sense of humor in my other suit."

"What am I, a bowl of fruit? A tangerine that peels in a minute?"

"Watch me run a 50-yard dash with my legs cut off!"

"Harvey, I often wish you were dead and wore a hearing aid. With a simple flick of the switch, I could shut out the greedy murmur of little men."

The Siren could quote this movie all day. Another line the Siren loves, because it punctures a rare moment of moral clarity, after an honest columnist has refused to run Sidney's fake item: "What do I do now? Whistle 'Stars and Stripes Forever'?"

The old complaint that "nobody is likable!" is particularly irritating when applied to Sweet Smell of Success. Why do you need to like these guys? All the Siren wants to do is listen to them. You can show characters like Falco and Hunsecker pulling every dirty, manipulative trick in the book, but when you endow them with some of the best dialogue in American cinema, you are giving them power.

And when the cinematographer is James Wong Howe, it doesn't matter how many vipers come crawling out of the nest, your city is going to glitter and beckon like no other. Howe was a genius and Sweet Smell is his masterwork. There has been a lot written about the light in Greece and even in the Hamptons, but it took Howe to give us all the nuances of light in Manhattan. There's the light as the sun is going down and people are deciding where to go, there's the light in the first part of the evening, when every part of the city is blazing. Then the grainier quality you get as the night wears on and the less-hep start to switch off, and finally the sunlight staggering through the streets in the early morning. Through Howe's camera, the air and the light seem to have texture, so that you feel the difference between Sidney dashing out coatless in the evening and Sidney grabbing a paper before dawn. And Howe often shoots from down low and wide-angle, so you've got the same view on the New York lowlifes that a tourist gets on the New York buildings.

People who lived through this era of New York City loved it and speak about the 1950s like a long-dead first love. This may well be the best movie ever made about New York, capturing the city's Golden Age, while it shows you a lining of pure lead.

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

Bigger Than Life on Fox Movie Channel Sept. 12

Because I love you people, I have to point out this listing: On Friday, Sept. 12, at noon EDT, Fox Movie Channel is showing Nicholas Ray's Bigger Than Life. In letterbox. And if you miss it, it's showing on Sept. 21, also in letterbox, also at noon.

The Siren is just a teensy-weensy bit peeved about this, since she bought the movie on DVD in Paris at the current exchange rate. (The Siren sure is glad that the dollar hit an eleven-month high, with the euro closing at a bargain $1.41, and that you're still following a strong dollar policy, Mr. Paulson. Because she sure would hate to go shopping when the dollar was actually weak.) It's possible this is a run-up to Fox putting this out on DVD at last, which would put the Siren in Peter Nelhaus's camp of people who get Region 2 DVDs just before the movie comes out on Region 1.

If you don't have the service tier for Fox Movies, this movie is worth a temporary upgrade in my opinion. In fact, Fox shows a lot of hard-to-find and interesting movies, including things like Violent Saturday, The Egyptian, Wild River and Tales of Manhattan, but you have to be willing to comb through their frustrating website (the schedule setup is awful) to figure out when the good stuff is on, and record them while you're at work or asleep. Fox reserves prime time for the real classics like Jack the Bear.

If anyone needs more incentive to watch, you could start with Kim Morgan's typically fab post. Also, do not miss Peter's excellent analysis, which takes in the film's framing, something Ray is always revered for, as well as Bigger Than Life's development of the Ray theme of rebellion. For more of a contrarian view, see Evan Kindley's take at Not Coming to a Theater Near You. John at Greenbriar Picture Shows gives a convincing explanation of why the movie bombed upon initial release and remains a hard one to watch: "Show this to your teenagers if you want them to stay single."

P.S. And if anyone has posted, or found, any other particularly good writing on Ray's masterpiece, by all means drop me a line in comments and I will link it here.

Monday, September 08, 2008

Anita Page, 1910-2008

Hollywood history records a lot of ways women have dealt with possessing world-class looks. There are those who find it a cross from the beginning, test people constantly to make sure it isn't affecting every interaction, and wilt when they find it usually is. Others profess great disregard for their beauty but use the hell out of it all the same. Then there are the women who never bother to conceal how much they love being stunning, and flaunt it like a gambler's winnings. So firmly did the ravishing Anita Page belong to that last group that even after time had done its damage, she scarcely seemed to notice, retaining the ways and prerogatives of a beauty even as she approached the century mark.

She would receive guests and tell them about, for example, Mussolini's attempted wooing with an air that suggested her heyday was last week, not more than 70 years ago. And why not? All stars are accompanied by their celluloid ghosts. As a reporter sat with latter-day Anita he sat also with her companion, the face on film that led Clark Gable to say that when he met Grace Kelly in the 1950s, he immediately thought of Anita Page. She died Saturday in her sleep, age 98, and like Amy-Jeanne the Siren feels cheated, having always assumed the unsinkable Anita would make 100 with time to spare.

Her career began with bit roles in silents and lasted until 1936. After that came marriages, a role in 1963 and a handful of horror roles in the last decade. The Siren has seen only two movies that starred Anita, The Broadway Melody and Our Dancing Daughters. In neither did she leave an impression of shimmering talent. But like Ava Gardner, another woman who savored her beauty to the dregs, just to look at Anita gives so much pleasure you feel churlish mentioning something like technique. Which is not to say Anita was bad; she wasn't. But the contrast provided by Joan Crawford, her ambition burning through every frame of Our Dancing Daughters, gives a more plausible explanation of Page's relatively short time at the peak than any stories about Irving Thalberg as an unlikely Casting Couch Creep.

In later years Anita was known for surrounding herself with adoring gay men, which in the Siren's eyes just shows fundamental common sense. As life winds down, who among us wouldn't be content with friendship, laughter and daily affirmations of fabulousness? Aside from food, shelter and family, there isn't much else the Siren sees herself wanting if she makes it past 90.

Mr. C likes to tell people about an interview he saw with France's oldest living woman, then well north of 100. She had buried something like four of her doctors and at least one man who had foolishly taken a type of viatical settlement on her when she was a spring chicken of 80. Asked about the downside to such advanced age, the Frenchwoman said wistfully that it got a bit lonely, outliving everyone. As we lose the last threads that connect us to the old days of greatness, the Siren feels more and more lonely herself.


The Siren was delighted and honored to be included in a critical symposium for Cineaste magazine, "Film Criticism in the Age of the Internet." The whole megillah is now online, so do take a look. There's quite a range of opinions expressed.

Also, David Cairns is giving away DVD copies of a film by Julien Duvivier, La Fin du Jour. The Siren shares his high regard for Duvivier and hopes many people take him up on this generous offer, designed to spread the word about the work of this great French director.

Sunday, September 07, 2008

New York City of the Mind: The Series at Newcritics

After an adventurous weekend that involved attending a wedding at a beach resort during a tropical storm, the Siren is back in warm, safe, almost-dried-out Brooklyn and ready to announce the Next Big Thing. No, no, not the New York Film Festival--the New York City of the Mind edition of Wednesday Night at the Movies at Newcritics.

Many thanks to the Derelict, whose splendid New York City in the Movies blogathon gave rise to the Siren's post about movies that inhabit our vision of New York, whether shot here or not. Tom Watson and Lance Mannion got together and decided that the Siren needed to use this for the next five-segment installment of the Newcritics Wednesday Night at the Movies. The Siren at first tried to say no. Have you tried to say no to Mannion? It's beyond difficult. I'm reading Little Dorrit because of him, for goodness sakes. And loving it, but that isn't the point.

No, the point is that this series begins Wednesday, Sept. 10, and given that these are movies that are pretty much Cinephilia 101, we've all seen them and I want everybody to stop by Newcritics and chat about them. The setup is exactly the same as my original post, with movies added by theme and just one addition, as you will see.

September 10: People-watching - Rear Window.
September 17: Ambition -- Sweet Smell of Success.
September 24: Drudgery (loneliness) - The Apartment
October 1: Romance - Desperately Seeking Susan
October 8: Resilience Double Feature - Serpico and The 25th Hour

Lance will be hosting the discussion for The Apartment and last I checked was still offering a free baseball cap to those who could guess his title for the introductory post. The others will be hosted by me.

The idea is to focus on the films' relationship to their New York settings, but that certainly doesn't begin to cover all the thematic ground and the conversations will probably range a great deal further than that. So please, stop by my place the evening of Wednesday, Sept. 10 to see my thoughts on Rear Window, and jog over to Newcritics at 9 pm to talk Hitchcock, New York, voyeurism, rear-window ethics and other things pertaining thereto.

(About the lobby card above: The tagline from an apparent re-release is great, but why on earth did they make Grace Kelly's celebrated Edith Head suit pink? Did Kelly even wear pink?)