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.


stennie said...

Couple of favorite lines:

"The cat's in the bag and the bag's in the river."

"I'd love to take a bite out of you. You're like a cookie full of arsenic."

DavidEhrenstein said...

"You're dead, son. Go get yourself buried."

In his collected lectures (puboished by Faber and Faber a few eyars back) Mackendrick examins the film in great detail, contrasting the differences between the script that Lehman wrote and the one that Odets improved upon. All the lines we lover are by Odets.

Susan Harrison's daughter, Darva Conger, was the one and only winner of "Who Wants To Marry a Multi-Millionaire" -- the worst "Reality" television show to date.

A musical version of Sweet Smell of Success played briefly on Broadway a few years back. John Lithgow played J.J.

While the film originally bombed, one of the gang in Barry Levinson's Diner memorized every line

DavidEhrenstein said...

"Cat's in the bag. . ."

The Siren said...

Stennie, I love those too.

David, what intrigued me more about Susan Harrison than the Darva connection was reading that she served a 90-day suspended sentence for child neglect in the 60s. Seems one of her sons, Daniel, fell from a high place, suffered serious head trauma and she "failed to get him urgently needed medical attention." I have been absolutely unable to track down anything else--what the circumstances were, whether Daniel was eventually okay, nothing. I can't say reading that did much for my opinion of the actress, however.

I hope you can both join us at 9 pm, your comments are always well worth hearing.

Karen said...

Damn. There's nothing to add to that beautiful, perfect post, Siren. All honey and fire. Thank you.

Peter Nellhaus said...

I found this great quote attributed to Mackendrick in IMDB: "Movies are an incidental byproduct of deals."

Whatever conflicts Mackendrick may have had, they apparently weren't with Tony Curtis. Hopefully Don't Make Waves will find its way to DVD.

The Siren said...

hey, Peter and Karen -- get over to newcritics!

Vanwall said...

As usual, a clear, biting essay by The Sirenesque One, and on a dark biting film, a perfect match. The bleak, teeth-clenched dialogue was like nothing else back then, I'd say, and the film scalded New York City to the bone. Ouch. Well done, thou good and faithful Siren.

mndean said...

One movie night for some friends, I paired this film with Blessed Event. One showing a young, brash Winchellesque scandalmonger learning the ropes and gaining the power and success he desperately wants. Lee Tracy makes the character smart, tough, not very moral, but still likably brash and a good guy underneath his ambition.

Then I ran Sweet Smell of Success, where the egomania and rot set in, showing Winchell/Hunsecker after he got what he wanted, and was so powerful he had no reason to actually work anymore, just type what the Falcos in town fed him and collect all the money and influence he wanted. Curtis' Falco shows how far those press agents will go to touch the hem of Hunsecker's garment. This is one of the few movies of the era to show what an intoxicant that sort of power is, and what degradations the addict will go through to get that drug.

The contrasting tones of the movies (one a cheerful, amoral depression-era comedy, the other a hard-bitten look at what lies under the success many of us crave) made for an interesting evening.

I could've guessed Odets wrote the best lines, they just didn't sound like Lehman. The sharp delivery, the great look and tight direction make it something to relish. The ugly underbelly probably turned people off in the optimistic '50s, where the comic travails of the executive adman was such popular fodder for theater audiences. Like Laughton (and Odets), Mackendrick may not have had any real luck directing in Hollywood, but he left a film that shames a lot of other films of the era.

Buttermilk Sky said...

"Adam-12"? Clearly the Siren is a lot younger than I am. I always picture Milner in a convertible on "Route 66."

I like to watch this with the HBO film "Winchell" starring Stanley Tucci. It's one possible version of how he turned into J.J.

"Here's your head, what's your hurry?"

X. Trapnel said...

Though hardly memorable as a stand-alone line, Barbara Nichols/Rita's "Don't tell Sidney" has got to be the most delectably cynical moment in the film.

I've often wondered about the adequacy/inadequacy of Marty Milner (my association with MM is a favorite Twilight Zone episode...)He certainly doesn't seem like a jazz musician ("I'm just a regular Joe"--a young John Cassavetes would be preferable), though it's likely that JJH would find jazz itself threatening, something from a world he can't control (as against the Ed Sullivan ambience so perfectly evoked here). On the other hand, a stronger character would have obviated the need for Sidney's intervention and dissipated the dramatic intensity of the central conflict beteween Sidney and Hunseker.

Perhaps I'm still thinking of Mrs. Thorwald, but has anyone ever noticed that a slip is the regulation outfit for a woman having a fit of temper or hysterics in 50s films?

X. Trapnel said...

Referring, of course, to SH's breakdown at toward the end of the film.

onlyanirishboy said...

Suzie is 19, and she's J.J.'s sister?
The relationship Winchell notoriously broke up, back when Lehman was a press agent in NYC, was that of his daughter Walda. I've never seen an explanation for why the filmmakers made Suzie a "kid sister", despite an apparent age difference of 30 years or so -- J.J. is, by his own admission, a contemporary of the white-haired Senator Harvey Walker. Even Lehman, although clearly disgusted by Lancaster ("She swallowed"), never indicated that the change was due to Lancaster's vanity

Iconista said...

When it comes to Walter Winchell, it should be noted that this film could only have been made after he'd been de-clawed by his involvement in McCarthyism, the advent of TV - a medium he never really understood - and by the darkening of mood in New York which rendered him an anachronism. In his day Walter Winchell had more power than we can imagine. Nowadays, celebrities "sell the stuff they once threatened to sue about" (Winchell) - there's been a change in the power balance. But Walter's power was sold to him by PAs who were as greedy as the clients they represented - he thrived by exploiting their hunger. Hunsecker isn't any better or worse than the world he inhabits, he's just more efficient at exploiting it.
Finally, a comment on Lancaster-Hill-Hecht. According to Neal Gabler, Lehman thought them a rapacious and immoral bunch. His introduction to Lancaster came when the actor came striding into the office zipping his fly and proudly declaring "She swallowed it".

Exiled in NJ said...

Not to be as cynical as these characters, Siren, but I suspect that if you asked New Yorkers during that period, they would tell you the 30's or the 20's were the Golden Age. Isn't there a quote by Dostoyevsky about man longing for that Golden Age?

The Siren said...

Vanwall, thanks, and thanks for coming over to Newcritics. The thread is still open if anyone else wants to pipe up.

MNDean, one of my favorite parlor games is Bizarre Fantasy Double Features and yours sounds like a pip. As David says, it seems that most of the best lines belonged to Odets, which is funny to me because I pretty much hate his plays. Stolid stuff.

Buttermilk Sky, I hadn't heard about the Winchell film and now I want to see it.

Last night I couldn't remember whether Marty Milner was supposed to be IN the Chico Hamilton quartet and this morning comes Darcy Argue to remind me that indeed he was. Which is a mental stretch, as X Trapnel says. Neither Milner nor Harrison are particularly strong but they're perfectly adequate.

As for Susie's age relative to Hunsecker--well, it strains the brain, like a lot of movie genealogy. I suppose if JJ's mother were a teenager it is just barely possible that Susie is his full sister, born of a late-life last hurrah. She could also be his half-sister which works a bit better. The people I know with half-siblings usually don't bother explaining the half- bit. I assume making her a teenager was supposed to emphasize her dewy innocence.

Iconista, to an extent I do think the movie wants us to see Hunsecker as some sort of pinnacle of corruption. There are a few honest fellows but they have to swim in the muck around Hunsecker. To me Winchell was a character who, like Citizen Kane and indeed Hearst himself, became more sympathetic as the times moved on past him.

The Siren said...

Exiled, the 20s, really? But the booze was lousy. :D And the 30s breadlines! But you may be right, especially if it were a certain sheltered type of New Yorker.

Sometimes I think about doing a post about the rash of 1940s movies set in the Gay 90s era in NY. There seems to have been some feeling that THAT was a Golden Age for the city. If you think about it, they were at the same remove from the 1890s as we are from the 1950s, although the changes in NY were even more marked from the turn of the century to WW II.

DavidEhrenstein said...

Luchinoc Visconti called Lancaster "The most mysteriousmman I have ever known." And when Visconti thinks you're "mysterious"....!

Barbara Nichols is indeed heartbreaking in her scenes. I can't think of another actress who could have played that part so perfectly.

Winchell is gone but in the world of journalism NOTHING has changed.

Matt Drudge is the new Winchell. But he doesn't have a daughter or a sister. He is, however, a raging closet queen, whos has recently disovered the writings of Paul Bowles and has been musing darkly over Bowles' WAY Beyond Jaded vision of the world. I would imagine "Pages From Cold Point" is the bowles story that left the biggest impression on the immoral slug.

The Siren said...

Drudge was the one modern comparison who came up last night, too. I think he still doesn't quite approach Winchell's heights but he must be close. Drudge is still in the closet? Why does he bother? Even my sainted Aunt Doris in Alabama knows he's gay.

On second thought don't answer that. :)

DavidEhrenstein said...

Here's How Kurtz, "Media Critic" for Pravda, on Drudge.

Howie, for those of you NOT in the know, is married to a major Republican operative -- Sherri Annis. Sherri's biggest coup was getting Arnold Schwarznegger into the Clifornia governor's chair via "recall election."

These people are lower than pond scum.

The Siren said...

Easy D., I have GOP readers too! Although Kurtz is no more a favorite of mine than Drudge. Kurtz is right though when he says Drudge's influence is more on journalists and the "conversation" than direct to the people. Drudge courts the Winchell comparisons with his fedoras and such, and 3 million hits a day is huge, but for 30 years Winchell was read by FIFTY million. I also have to say that Winchell was a better prose stylist by far. I don't think Drudge has introduced much in the way of American vernacular.

X. Trapnel said...

Yes, Siren, please!, a post on NY in the 1890s! And starting with Strawberry Blonde! Walsh is thought of mainly as a great action director (which he was, of course) but he had a wonderful way with domesticity and purely conversational scenes. The nineties was (were?) indeed a culturally and socially volcanic decade in NY, the creative atmosphere so dense you could cut off pieces sturdy enough to be mailed anywhere in the continental U.S.

The Siren said...

What I'd want to look at is, why was the 1940s so fascinated with the 1890s? One way to look at an era is to find out what THOSE people were nostalgic for. Was it war-induced melancholy, or a simple desire to use the old songs and whatever novelty numbers the studio songwriters had cooked up? I do love The Strawberry Blonde, it deserves its own post but I would want to rewatch it (and where the HELL is that DVD?).

Rita Hayworth played several Gay Nineties heroines--My Gal Sal, half of Cover Girl, Tonight and Every Night--and it still strikes me as rather an odd way of de-sexualizing one of Hollywood's sexiest women. Esther Williams did several Nineties movies, and one of the few Bob Hope movies where he was allowed to give a real performance was Beau James, the story of Jimmie Walker, which I think is pretty good. Fred Astaire had some too--The Belle of New York, Easter Parade.

And of course the greatest of these is The Magnificent Ambersons--although not set in New York.

The Siren said...

Just checked -- Beau James came out the same year as Sweet Smell of Success. And also flopped, I believe. Paths of Glory did only so-so business. Definitely not the year to turn a profit on a story about moral rot.

DavidEhrenstein said...

I think it had to do with the audience. There were adult moviegoers who recalled that period from their chiildhoods. Also it could be presented by Hollywood as a "simpler more innocent time" and refuge from the horrors of WWII, which was in full force when these films were made.

Ambersons , however, had the bad luck to arrive just as the war broke out, and it's vision of the past was far from reassuring. Hence it was cut and released as a double feauture with Mexican Spitfire Sees a Ghost.

The Siren said...

Another great one, where New York plays the villain, if there is any: Meet Me in St. Louis.

D., I had missed the Mexican Spitfire double-feature horror. There are no words. Don't get me started on Ambersons, I stand fully revealed as a hard-core Welles partisan.

X. Trapnel said...

Siren, don't hold back on Ambersons. Even in its mutilated form it is, I believe, the greatest and most beautiful of American films, even allowing for the totemic status of Citizen Kane. I keep hoping a complete print (a gold star to Selznick for urging MOMA to acquire one) will turn up in the airshaft of an abandoned paper clip factory in Greenland. With Welles anything is possible.

The Siren said...

It was my late father's favorite movie. When Robert Wise died, despite my having liked a number of his movies I couldn't bring myself to write a tribute because of Ambersons. I'd see him in interviews late in life, still defending the whole mess, and I'd want to scream "YOU COULD HAVE AT LEAST SAVED THE GODDAMN FOOTAGE!" I know, I know, it was really RKO, but that's how big a Welles partisan I am.

We have come a long way from JJ and Sid but that's why I like my comments section. :)

X. Trapnel said...

Wise is said to have directed the death of Major Amberson scene (so haunting, so moving) that, The Set-Up and Odds Against Tomorrow may be expiation enough.

Vanwall said...

Speaking of "Magnificent Ambersons", I was always fascinated by Tim Holt's appearence in this film - he didn't do many 'A' pictures, but he pops up in some iconic ones, like "Stagecoach", Stella Dallas", "My Darling Clementine", and of course, "Treasure of the Sierra Madre", and even a couple of curiosities, "History is made at Night" and "His Kind of Woman" - - these few practically sum up his non-B Western career, where he was one of the best horseman alive, curiously. He's my favorite "invisible man" - what a strange arc for such an earnestly pleasant fellow - his absolute obtuseness made MA fun to watch, tho, and his interplay with Anne Baxter is so perversely real.

No amount of expiation erases certain sins, tho. There is a circle of Hell reserved for such.

X. Trapnel said...

It's a crowded circle, Vanwall, that's for sure.

Tim Holt is sometimes thought to be the weak link in Ambersons, not quite able to convey George Minafer's combination of weakness and power (power as against strength--this could bring us back to JJ Hunsecker). I'm not sure wheather he ever gets beyond petulance. Would Welles himself have been too much in the role?

The Siren said...

I like Tim Holt in the part, but I think it's no coincidence that he plays much better in the Welles-directed Ambersons sequences. When I see a good Holt performance, like Sierra Madre, it's always in a movie with a strong director.

X. Trapnel said...

He's certainly good in my favorite scene, stuffing down that strawberry shortcake in the kitchen with Agnes Moorehead (the best performance--if an Eakins portrait could speak...) and the thrice-great Ray Collins. Here he's fully their equal.

DavidEhrenstein said...

Tim Holt is beyond brilliant in both Ambersons and Treasure of the Sierra Madre He is the most grievously underrated of all American actors.

Karen said...

Ooooooohhhhh, Siren. Your new banner photo just gave me an attack of the vapors. Someone fetch me my smelling salts!!

mndean said...

I'm not sure I'd call Winchell post-McCarthy any more sympathetic. He lost a lot of his power because of his involvement, but it was later, after the relentless beat down he received from Jack Paar, that he became something of a pathetic figure of nostalgia. Around the same time as Sweet Smell of Success, I think.

Iconista said...

Paar would never dared attack Winchell if he wasn't already well beaten down by 58. Paar's first volley came after Walter's sponsor, Revlon, had announced it was cancelling Winchell's show and Wincell was having trouble landing another radio program. But I don't know whether NY had lost its spark or Winchell

D Cairns said...

Great post.

Mackendrick has one other terrific movie post-Sweet Smell: Sammy Going South, known in the USA as A Boy Ten Feet Tall.

Unfortunately, Mackendrick was working for his old boss from Ealing, Michael Balcon, who saw the movie as a straight adventure story, and cut out some of the darker parts.

In fact, it's an almost unbearably powerful study of a damaged child (his parents are killed in a bombing raid) healing himself by walking across Africa.

The shoot was troubled: Edward G Robinson suffered a massive heart attack, and the only reason the movie wasn't cancelled is that Mrs Robinson told the production that it'd kill her husband if he couldn't work. He completed the film and several others. But this meant that most of Robinson's scenes with the kid are faked with stand-ins. Mackendrick being an extremely skilled metteur-en-scene, this is never apparent, but it certainly made life tough.

The movie suffers from some British arrogance towards non-Brit characters (augmented by Balcon's unwise tampering) but remains another great study in "lethal innocence" as the kid brings disaster on anyone who approaches him with any kind of agenda. Those who accept him as just a kid walking across Africa get along fine.

Exiled in NJ said...

And in 1957, the 14 year old me saw Success, Beau James and another corrosive failure, Ritt's No Down Payment, in this third run movie house where it cost 9 cents to get in during the day.

Tim Holt, like Jack Lemmon, had a certain tone of hysteria in his voice, so that he often sounded like the teenage boy who did not get his way, perfect Georgie Miniver.

The Siren said...

Thanks Karen, it was Kay night on TCM again so I had a craving.

Mndean and Iconista--I guess I am a softy. No, in fact I know I am a softy. But the tragic fate of all three of Winchell's children, plus the way he ended, so terribly alone--yeah, it makes him sympathetic to me. Ruthless he was, but not worthless. As McCarthyite as he became later, he was anti-Nazi when it counted.

David C I am fascinated by this movie you describe, which I had barely heard of. Longtime readers know I worship Robinson, who probably could have played a moving scene opposite a baobab tree. Naturally it doesn't appear to be on DVD or even VHS (sigh) but apparently it's in the TCM library so I will ask to be alerted if it's shown.

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

Terrific post, and as usual, some great thought-provoking comments by your readers.

"Marty Milner, whom the Siren cannot look at without hearing a dispatcher calling for Adam-12."

Thought I was the only one.

The Siren said...

Exiled, Filmbrain wrote an excellent piece about No Down Payment a while back. That's one I need to see. Interesting that there was this rash of dark movies about America and American values (Bigger Than Life was just the year before, as was Written on the Wind) right when we were seemingly doing so well.

DavidEhrenstein said...

The notion that the 50's was an era rife with conformity and 'quiet" is a load of crap. Father Knows Best was indeed egregious. But The Adventures of Ozzie and harriet and Leave It To Beaver are brilliant an innovative shows.

Meanwhile at the mvies things were anything but quiet what with On the Waterfront, East of Eden, A Face in the Crowd, Bigger Than Life, Rebel Without a Cause et. al.

Iconista said...

campaspe - I'd hate for you to think I dislike Walter. I have great warmth for him, despite his obvious flaws - you're right, he was anti-Nazi when it counted and he represented the voice of the underdog, because that's how he saw himself. Most importantly, and unlike Hunsecker, he was never coldblooded. Sure, he behaved like a monster, but like most of the cruellest bullies he was driven, not by a dark and evil heart, but by fear. Winchell had peered into the abyss early in his life, and like all who have, never forgot it was there, waiting to suck him in if he should ever slow down, or stumble or stop running from it for a minute. His bullying, his cruelty, his obsession with success and money and power was simply his way of trying to feel safe. And the irony is that I don't think he ever did feel safe.

The Siren said...

David, oh yeah--there was a lot going on in the arts that was anything but conforming and quiet. The fact that some of the most challenging movies tanked says something too--but that's been true of other eras, I suppose. As a little girl I loved Father Knows Best in reruns, I have to say. (Also Leave It to Beaver--Ozzie and Harriet never appealed, no idea why.) Father Knows Best had some very tender episodes. I'd compare it to some of the MGM movies under LB Mayer, giving us an idyllic version of American life. I make room for that vision too, I can't take anomie all the time.

Iconista, I did perceive your sympathy for Winchell. Seems to me he was as much like Citizen Kane in his ruined potential for greatness as he was like Hunsecker in his cruelty and spite.

Jacqueline, that's another series I used to watch in reruns. Old TV series aren't rerun like they were when I was growing up. After school if I finished homework I could flop down and watch all kinds of things, from Andy Griffith to Emergency! I don't remember specific episodes of Adam-12 but I remember the credits with complete clarity.

Vanwall said...

I'm afraid, regardless of the suburban child that I was, that my view of the world was for its times somewhat perverse, at least for our large desert city. I detested the happy family sitcoms, and Beaver Cleaver coulda been run over by a truck for all I cared. I dreamed of a comet smashing "My Three Sons" into smithereens. The relentless pounding on one's head from the TV fake family sitcoms of the late 1950s and early 1960s and their relentless re-runs was hard to connect with for me, something I had an unpleasant redux with regarding the T&A period of the 80s, BTW. And don't get me started on the TV westerns from back then - the stake was a long time in pounding thru that heart, or lack of one. Kid's movies weren't much to write home about either, so I consider that a dead period for me personally, and may be why I read books an awful lot.

When TV began opening up the old movie cans and broadcasting in a scattergun approach in the 1960s, it was a Pandora's Box that went a long way to changing TV's appeal for me, but also gave me glimpses of what had effectively been suppressed - Pre-Codes, Film Noirs, whacky comedies, Silents, even foreign films began showing up, and sometimes once shown, never again, sadly. When color TV became the norm, tho, most of these were thrown out the window until the advent of VCR renting, cable TV, and DVDs. I think the programmers were just punching buttons back then, because a Saturday afternoon showing of "Sweet Smell of Success" doesn't seem like family fare - I still remember Lancaster's glasses from that day and Emil Meyer's ominous presence - Siren, you're right, he's pretty damn frightening - and if this was one of my early introductions to NYC, well that's my NYC Of The Mind moment, for good or ill. It was on rather frequently, so I guess any old movie was regarded as more harmless than the more adult stuff that was beginning to squirm out from under the rug on the big screen - thank the stars for that, or I would've been even more deprived. I kinda miss those days - as an example, Kay Francis was on more than now, and didn't require a retrospective to hear her special 'r's.

Exiled in NJ said...

"And the 30s breadlines! But you may be right, especially if it were a certain sheltered type of New Yorker."

I could see the retired Nick and Nora, living on Park Avenue in the late 1950s, remembering the golden days twenty years before, Nicky solving the Wyant case, or maybe Godfrey's crowd.

I was watching French Connection, where the question asked Frederic de Pasquale (Is Mayor Lindsay the handsomest man in the world?) can bring back another Golden Age to some....and to this native of Philly, other memories.

The Siren said...

Exiled, I once read an interview with Ginger Rogers where she breezily remembered the Depression as the greatest time of her life. She wasn't trying to be callous, she said she knew times were hard for most, but she was rolling in dough and Hollywood was hoppin' and she was loving every minute. People in my family did not remember the era that fondly at all but I'm sure there were more Gingers out there, maybe not as honest.

Vanwall, nowadays I would never put up with a pan-and-scan 12-inch commercial-interrupted version of a great movie (unless there was no other way to see it) but I have to admit there was a magic to seeing things on TV that renting a DVD doesn't duplicate. You had to schedule, sit down, refuse to pick up the phone, stay up late if need be, maybe even sneak down after the folks are in bed. And despite having seen the movies in such an adulterated fashion, a lot of the scenes are imprinted in my memory on tiny black-and-white screens. I just flip the dial and call them back up.

HenryFTP said...

Posted over at New Critics too late, so forgive me for double-posting here:

Sorry to be so late to this party, but "I love this dirty town", too, and having first glimpsed New York as a wide-eyed seven year-old in 1962, this film preserves a nocturnal Manhattan that my parents knew but that was largely gone by the time I was an adult. Curtis really makes the film, better I think than even Brando or Clift could have done, as I don't think they could have brought across the desperate striving that was obviously a part of the makeup of the real Bernie Schwartz from the Bronx.

The original failure of the film at the box office still mystifies me -- the 50s weren't entirely saccharine sweet. Curtis's character in Trapeze may be something of an ingenue, but the Lancaster and Lollabrigida characters are anything but sweet. The #2 and #8 top grossing films in 1957 were Peyton Place and Pal Joey, again hardly populated with sympathetic characters. I was surprised to see that The Searchers did rather well in its original release in 1956 (#13, with John Wayne in his darkest role). In 1958, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Vertigo and Some Came Running were all top ten (##3, 8 and 10). It is perhaps not coincidental, however, that all of the films I've cited were shot in color, while both SSoS and A Face in the Crowd both did relatively poorly, notwithstanding Sweet Smell's breathtaking cinematography and memorable score. I think it's easy for us to forget nowadays how television had changed moviegoing habits -- very few of the top 20 grossing films in 1956-58 were shot in black and white.

A few B&W films still managed to break through afterwards: Some Like It Hot (#3, 1959), Psycho (#2, 1960), The Apartment (#8, 1960), La Dolce Vita (#7, 1961), To Kill a Mockingbird (#7, 1962) and, surprisingly, The Manchurian Candidate (#15, 1962 -- I'd always heard this classic failed in initial release).

John Frankenheimer and Billy Wilder kept shooting in black & white until they were forced to change (and Frankenheimer keeps his palette very limited in Ronin to great effect), but wouldn't Woody Allen's Manhattan be more ordinary if Gordon Willis hadn't shot it in black and white?

Karen said...

Siren, Jacqueline, and Vanwall: add me to the list of after-school and weekend TV watchers, of movies and of series both rerun and first run. I can still hum the "Million Dollar Movie" theme song, and recall fondly my sister and I taking over the couch for a movie viewing. If it was scary--the Bela Lugosi Dracula is a good example--we would have to grab a throw pillow to clutch during the tense parts.

I was not a fan of a lot of the sappy family stuff--I hated Father Knows Best because Kitten was too saccharine and the older sister was a priss. I did like Leave It to Beaver, but I was very young when it was on first run. I, too, have a hard time seeing Marty Milner as anything but a straight-arrow cop, and discovering him, years later, as Elizabeth Taylor's love interest in Life with Father was almost too much for me to bear.

We tended to like the slightly subversive shows in my house. My father and I would curl up on the couch when I was 8 or 9 and watch Bewitched or, especially, F Troop and giggle endlessly.

But it was the movies that really roped me in. Man, they showed EVERYTHING back then--it was all just throwaway time for the local networks. Watching old movies with endless commercial interruptions just seemed like the natural order of things--we didn't know any other kind of viewing in the early '70s--although it's horrifying for me to think of it now. They were probably all cut to shreds, too. But that was when I fell in love with Cagney and Gable and Astaire, so how can I fault the networks? What a blessing!

There was also a tiresome white-haired man who dressed up as a sea captain and showed Popeye cartoons ("Six bells--3 o'clock! Time for Popeye!"). At the time, I only knew that I hated the color ones and loved the black-and-whites: it would be a few decades before I understood the Fleischer Brothers siren call, and started to realize that I had developed a very 1930s sensibility...

Vanwall said...

My mother was driven crazy by my mark-ups - I would grab the TV Guide and go thru it looking for specific movies, or ones I hadn't heard of but looked interesting - and the occasional sitcom, like "My World and Welcome to It", as subversive a TV product as ever was - and carefully mark those I wanted to see, and damn it was a lot sometimes, I guess. Some days and nights my parents would literally drag me away thinking that it couldn't be good for me, but I wasn't watching TV shows, the pabulum for small minds, I was getting an education, and a priceless one at that. BTW, Don't ever ask my wife about all the little paper slips sticking up out of all the volumes of the old Encyclopedia Britannica in our library, she'd give me hell even now about that if reminded.

Yeah, it was all about scheduling, and I had to be pretty sneaky to see some of them - not that they were seen as adult, it was only 60s broadcast TV fer crissakes, but they were on at times I wasn't supposed to be awake and stealing my Mom's leftover homemade tacos to compliment my viewing pleasure at 2:00 AM with, before the last sign-off. Security at Castle Carver wasn't perfect thank, God.

Perhaps the illicit air of some of it cemented into my head those films I saw then with more than the usual permanence - I still have affections for a bunch of somewhat silly films, and I can't for the life of me defend some, but they were part of the curriculum, like placebos to compare the real good ones to. I don't pass one of 'em up, tho. :-)

Part of my fascination was with the Big City kind of films, not the bright Los Angelised ones that seemed to puke out like endless streams of...well, you know what, and many B&W films had that NYC connection - dark, narrow, linear canyons, often with wet streets, and lives upon lives stacked on to of each other looking across one of those canyons at other lives stacked on lives. I hardly knew that stairs had so much up-ness and down-ness - I was lucky to climb more than one flight once a month, if at all, and elevators were not common where I lived - so the vertical necessity of NYC was another facet of interest, like an alien land where people lived in a more three-dimensional world, or at least had the view tipped sideways: from my ranch-style roof, I could see about as far flatland as, say, a girl on the 20th floor in a NYC high-rise could see down a main street, but her view was 90 degrees to mine.

This is what I looked for in "Sweet Smell of Success" - that linear, dark-canyon-running look in Falco's eyes, and J.J.'s calm, never-ending hunting gaze, knowing the cross-streets were the way to catch prey, as long as you kept them running. This was really a film about the territorial imperative - who pissed on the ground last marked it as his own.

I suppose it's all gone now, that kind of NYC, but then again, I haven't had to sneak quietly over and sit practically right next to the speaker of an old Sylvania, listening to the Conelrad test just before the sign-off - something also gone, but what better way to get close to those black NYC visions?

Operator_99 said...

A wonderful film and of course, post. What stands out for me on this one is your comment on "likable". Methinks likable is highly overrated. Unlikable done well, without compromise pays dividends, probably not in box office receipts, but on the screen.

VP81955 said...

My parents, both native Brooklynites, had moved upstate to Syracuse five years before "Sweet Smell Of Success" was released; when this came out in late July 1957, I was nearing my second birthday. But I love this film because it gives me a feel for the New York they knew, one I never experienced firsthand. Hunzicker is no more purely Winchell than Kane was purely Hearst -- and as anti-Communist as Winchell became in his later years, he never descended to the sourness of a Westbrook Pagler (who's been back in the news lately, thanks to Sarah Palin).

Of old movies on TV: When I was about eight or nine years old, one of the TV stations in Syracuse showed "If I Had A Million," which I watched because it featured W.C. Fields. As it turned out, the station received the uncut version of this pre-Code film, so my young eyes saw the segment in which Wynne Gibson, playing a lady of the evening who receives one of the million-dollar checks, uses her money to go into a luxury hotel to sleep...alone. And I got to see Ms. Gibson strip down to her underwear, sit on the side of the bed and remove her stockings -- something you never saw on TV in 1964, and something little boys my age weren't supposed to see. So my mother hurriedly went to the set and changed the channel. I'm sure the station got plenty of calls from mothers that night...and I'm sure for quite a boys in central New York, Wynne Gibson's stockinged legs provoked the same response that Jayne Mansfield's mighty bustline did for that boy when she walked down the street in "The Girl Can't Help It."

mndean said...

I thought that my pairing of films was my point about Winchell. He was virtuous in his own way, but let his ego get the better of him. He may have thought he was doing right (and for a time, he was), but after the cheerleading of the destruction of lives in the postwar witch hunts (which included a large number of fellow Jews) that he lost his power. If things had swung even more McCarthy's way (if he'd been wilier and less crazy), history may have been quite different, and Winchell may have become a real monster like Hunsecker. So I see him as someone who chose sides, and when he chose wrong, he was tainted and forever tarnished. The sadness of his life after getting bounced from the Stork Club, etc. was the bill that lay due. Paar was just the coup de grace that finished him off as a man of any authority.

The tragedy of his children's lives were the tragedies that all with children dread to face, but face them we do, and while sad, I guess I'm a little harder than most. Life is never what we wish. Except maybe in the movies :)

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

"But it was the movies that really roped me in. Man, they showed EVERYTHING back then--it was all just throwaway time for the local networks. Watching old movies with endless commercial interruptions just seemed like the natural order of things--we didn't know any other kind of viewing in the early '70s--although it's horrifying for me to think of it now."

Karen, I can remember a local channel showing "The Best Years of Our Lives" in two parts on two different days after school because this long movie, made even longer by all the commercials, did not fit into their two-hour time slot.

I confess, sometimes even today when watching a DVD, I subconsciously expect a commercial when a scene fades to black.

DavidEhrenstein said...

Ah yes, Emile Meyer. Come here Sidney, I want to chastise you." is another favorite line.

I never found Leave it To Beaver idyllic. The enture series pivos on Beaver's anxiety that he will never measure up to his big brother Wally. And then there's the genuinely evil Eddie Haskell in the mix.

"Ward, I'm worried abotu the Beaver," is the line everyone remembers -- and with good reason.

When they were younger Wally and the Beaver probably had an old/younger brother relationship of the sort Ozu featured in almost all his movies. Now with the onset pf puberty storm clouds have gathered.

As for Ozzie and Harriet they're even MORE Ozu-like. About a year ago on Dennis Cooper's blog there was a tribute to Ozzie's zen-like mastery.

The Siren said...

Karen and Vanwall, I'm taking away from all this is that the child psychologists are right, and early childhood viewing marks you, but it doesn't seem to have been for ill in our cases, despite all the warnings I get drummed into me these days as a parent. Children have a pretty good radar for the phony, and surprisingly more taste than we give them credit for, too. I suppose that's encouraging. It does make me sad that broadcast TV has abandoned old movies, though. As an evangelist for classic film I worry that having so much on TCM, incredible resource though it is, marginalizes the old stuff in a sense. Are there small kids across America sneaking downstairs to watch Robert Osborne? I certainly hope so.

Like Jacqueline, I still find myself waiting for commercial breaks during scene blackouts. The one I really can't view without mental commercials is The Wizard of Oz. To this day after the Lion dives through the window I expect something about floor polish or cereal to come on.

Mndean, you're right--I didn't read carefully enough to see the point about Blessed Event, which I'd like to see. Winchell's life, pace Fitzgerald, seems to have not two but three acts, a lively and absorbing first act and then two of increasing darkness and finally tragedy. He was an intelligent man but I do not know (not having read Gabler's bio, for example) how given he was to introspection. Did he look at his efforts to break up Walda's young romance and wonder if he'd sown the seeds of her later instability? Well, if he had been a better person he wouldn't have been as fascinating. Certainly he wouldn't seem to capsulize so much of the American century, good and bad.

VP, the history of pre-codes on TV is interesting. People on here saw all sorts of things on small local stations that were supposed to be unavailable. I'd like to know more about the mechanics of how those small stations got things to show. I suspect whoever put up If I Had a Million had never bothered to screen it first and figured, quite wrongly, that such an old movie must be entirely innocuous.

Operator99, the trouble with "likable" is that it not only does it have little to do with what's interesting, it doesn't encompass "identifiable." We recognize ourselves in all sorts of unsavory characters, even if we've led a largely blameless existence. Perhaps that was indeed the problem with SSOS.

Vertigo's Psycho said...

You want the "jazzy" atmosphere of1950's New York Nightlife- this is it. It's the perfect movie to watch on those 2:00 a.m. in the morning, can't get to sleep nights.

I love Nichols' big scene too- she deserves some prize just for playing that "I don't do this sort of thing!" line without giving the scene's "punchline" moment away, either to Sidney or to the audience. Rita's a sharper, shrewder cookie than she lets on, but there's no arsenic involved- in Nichols' rendering, Rita has an innate sweetness, even when the audience discovers she's not really the noble victim of Sidney's scheming Rita originally appears to be.

Tony Curtis' focus as an actor in Success is incredible- he is "on" and "in the moment" throughout the film. Too bad he, his costars, and the film didn't initially receive the hosannas they deserved at the time; however, I'm sure Curtis is happy to know that possibly his best work on film is highly regarded now.

The Siren said...

HenryFTP, thanks for coming over and your point about color vs. b&w is excellent. God I love black and white, but as JC Loophole is saying here (follow his link too), it's become such an esoteric taste. But even by 1957 shooting in black and white was starting to become what it would be by the early 60s, a low-budget marker, an aesthetic decision, or a way of hedging your financial bets with a riskier film.

I do think SSOS is considerably darker than the ones you mention, with the exception of Vertigo which I find considerably more depressing than Sid and J.J. But Vertigo is a Hitchcock, after all, and if you don't want to contemplate what he's really telling us about how men and women are doomed to torture one another, you can view it on the level of a mystery thriller about a shady dame and a nasty murder scheme.

Peyton Place (which I have great affection for) jettisoned most of the novel's biting social commentary and turned it into a far gentler coming-of-age story, even with lurid details like Selina Kyle's rape by her stepfather and miscarriage (an unambiguous abortion in the novel). Some Came Running has a tragic romantic angle to it and charismatic leads playing ultimately sympathetic characters. Pal Joey gives us a love triangle, Frank Sinatra, a happy ending and "Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered."

A Face in the Crowd and SSOS are after something else altogether, to make the audience ask themselves about their priorities, who is leading them and where they're being led. I'd rank both those black-and-white movies as not just darker, but nastier. If you were sitting in a theater in 1957 you were part of Winchell's target audience, and you were being told to see yourself in Lonesome Rhodes' "flock of sheep." I'd also say that with the exception of Vertigo, Bigger Than Life, A Face in the Crowd and SSOS are the ones that remain an uncomfortable viewing experience to this day. There was a thread about A Face in the Crowd recently on the blog Dirty Harry's Place, and it was amusing to see a number of commenters vigorously denying that there was anything truthful in Lonesome Rhodes' ascent. Obviously that film still stings.

But to get off my tangent and go back to your basic point, and David's earlier, there was an audience for more adult fare, somehow it just didn't find the Mackendrick or the Kazan, at least not in sufficient numbers. It's a mystery. (I wonder which critics really got the point? Would be nice to find out.) Perhaps the hep were all at the art houses, watching the glorious flood of foreign films. I did notice that Paths of Glory, as dark an antiwar film as ever came out of Hollywood, turned a modest profit rather than tanking altogether. There was an audience for hard truths. Or -- if I want to be as cynical as SSOS -- should I assume that people went to see it purely as a film about French perfidy? :D

The Siren said...

David -- Eddie evil? I dunno, been years since I caught up with the Beav, but as a kid he just struck me an entirely recognizable type, the suck-up troublemaker. I haven't seen enough Ozu (let alone enough of the Nelsons!) to appreciate your point there but now I have to dig up the Cooper post, definitely.

Kimberly Lindbergs said...

Great post about a terrific movie!

You've made me want to watch it again since I haven't seen it in 15 years. I can remember loving the soundtrack and it was shot beautifully but man oh man, the characters were nasty and hard to be with for 90 minutes.

Karen said...

Siren, I swear your comments are as good as if not better than your posts! It's what keeps me checking your site twice a day, even though I know you don't post that often.

I, too, remember seeing If I Had a Million on broadcast TV dog's years ago--again, with my sister. (She's 5 years older than I but our worldviews tended to be shared by the same things, because anything one of us discovered the other one needed to learn about.) I was probably around 12 or 13. What struck me about vp89155's comment is that it didn't occur to either my sister or me that we were seeing something forbidden or that ought to be cut, and we were truly moved by that particular episode of the film. (The other one that got us was the George Raft segment, where, penniless and unable to cash his million-dollar check, he trades it away for a bed in a flophouse.) And I don't think our mother would have had a problem with our watching it, either. Those movies came out at a time long before ratings, when kids would go and spend all day in the movie-house, watching whatever came on, week after week.

But, out of curiosity, I went to the American Film Institute Catalog and looked the film up. And it turns out that, even at release, there were censor boards that took issue with parts of the film--although I doubt it was solely because of children. Here's the salient bits:

According to correspondence in the MPAA/PCA files at the AMPAS library, scripts for each sequence were sent to the AMPP for approval and only minor changes were suggested; however, on 4 Nov 1932 after the final print was previewed by the AMPP, director Colonel Jason S. Joy wrote to Paramount producer Harold Hurley and registered New York censor Dr. James Wingate's disapproval of the prostitute sequence, known as "Violet," and noted that Wingate felt that the sequence should never have been shot as they had originally suggested. By 14 Nov 1932, as noted in a letter from Hurley to Joy, Paramount had made further eliminations in that scene and deleted "the first shot where Bennett runs into the girl soliciting on the street, the couple coming down the stairs where the man in pantomime tips his hat to the dame, the line 'The stairs are killing me,' and a few other bits of action." A scene commonly deleted by local censor boards was the one in which "Violet" gets into bed in the hotel room, then throws back the covers, removes her stockings and pulls the covers back over herself. Another scene deleted by many local censors was the execution of "John Wallace," especially the shots of the guards preparing him for execution and opening the door of the execution chamber. Sounds of sobs and screams were also eliminated. In England, the "razzberry" sound made by "Phineas V. Lambert" was changed to a "whistle."

And, Siren, as for child psychology--yeah, I'd say I was profoundly formed by the films and television I saw when I was young, but it was a 2-way street. I watched everything that came on, but it was the pre-war and war-time films which nestled into my brain and set up house. I don't think I even realized that I was drawn to a specific period at the time; I just knew that there were some films that drew me in more than others, and later I recognized that there was a common time period factor. I've seen all those films from the late-'40s and the 1950s, but there are only a few I've seen over and over (*cough* Hitchcock *cough* Billy Wilder *cough*) and am thus able to speak intelligently about. I appreciate them, but they don't necessarily stay with me.

Unlike, say, the signature two-finger salute that Gary Cooper used in so many films, and which I first saw in Love in the Afternoon (I KNOW, late-'50s, but it was one that made an impression--Billy Wilder!) and then Morocco, when I was maybe 13 or 14, and which I've been using ever since....

Vertigo's Psycho said...


Thanks for all the box office information. However, I believe the data you found for Vertigo and the Manchurian Candidate probably includes box office receipts from the films re-releases in the 1980's and 1990's, which would account for their high rankings on your list (I once had a Film Facts guide listing the top twenty box-office films (according to Variety) by year from the late 1940's through the 1970's, and only original receipts were included, giving a good indication of how well the films did the first time around (neither Vertigo or Candidate made it in the top twenty for their respected years). A few of the Disney films that place high now on lists of top films for a given year weren't originally blockbusters, either, but due to re-releases they also shot up the yearly lists.

Vanwall said...

Siren - Oh, I agree about one's psyche being somewhat marked by early viewing, tho I was lucky in a way - most of the movies shown when I was a kid weren't recent or even big hits, and the small local programmers supplied bunches of what were prolly thought of as fillers, and I guarantee they didn't know, or didn't care to know, what was on many of them before they broadcast, as in theory, the packagers screened notorious films out before offering them. Stuff would slip thru, but not much - truly salacious or just suggestive episodes were not on TV until much later on, altho I got a lifetime supply of gundowns. I'd certainly be more careful with what's on today's tube.

That said, I guess I didn't learn every lesson I shoulda - as much as I was a scamp for sneaking in viewing sessions, and later movie theater trips of a grindhouse sort in high school, I forgot how alluring this kind of thing was. I found my sons weren't very mindful themselves at following parental dictates regarding TV - they were pretty sneaky, and I was unaware how good they were at it. I usually kept a weather eye out for the boys when they were little and I was watching films that I felt were a little beyond their ability to judge the nuances there. I might've been right about that, but they were supreme at the basics - one day years later while one son was in film school, AFI had a list of top villains, and I made the remark that J.J. Hunsecker wasn't higher on the list, or Reverend Harry Powell from "Night of the Hunter" at the top. Son said, "Hunsecker? He was the one with glasses Lancaster played, right? I don't know about him - but Harry Powell scared the shit ought me as a kid!" I did a slow double take - "When did you see that film as a kid?" "Uh, I guess you weren't paying attention when you were watching it one day." Yeah, right. I knew how much he made fun of my "old plot-less B&Ws" back then, but he must've snuck around enough to watch plenty of them. It's a hereditary thing I guess.

DavidEhrenstein said...

Eddie has designs on Wally. Of course so did I -- and every other gay boy growing up in that period.

Pal Joey is a lovely movie, but it has nothign to do with Pal Joey -- which was about a gigolo. Gene Kelly played him on stage. it was the part that amde him a star, as Metro signed him because of it, and cast him as a heel in For Me and My Gal
I would love for someone to make a movie of the REAl Pal Joey

But until they do, here's the best rendition of "Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered" currently available.

mndean said...

I have the whole New Yorker collection, but still haven't gotten around to O'Hara's Pal Joey stories. There's just too much stuff to mine in the collection that I still haven't gotten past 1932. The only thing I knew was that the film was weak tea compared to the stories.

It's nice seeing you here after such a long time, and it's funny I saw you and Siren at the same place when away from your regular blogs. But then, is it really funny? Sadly, No!

DavidEhrenstein said...

I've been sort of overwhelmed by events of late. Been trying to keep up but no sooner do I get an an idea for my blog thena the story moves on. t the same time I've been trying to get some paying op-eds placed. But the 4th estate is in total disarray.

John O'Hara is a great example of a popular writer who was also taken very very seriously. Back when I was in high school "Appointment In Sammara" was taught in english class. And I recal when his "Ten North Frederick" and "Sermons and Soda Water" were big best-sellers.

But that was the early 60's.

Bring up O'Hara today and you're likely to get blank stares. Same with John Cheever (his heir in many ways.) Today all they've heard of is Salinger, Truman Capote and maybe Fitzgerald and Hemingway. And heard of is the operative term. They may have read Salinger, particularly his paen to anti-intellectual snobbishness, The Catcher in the Rye (required reading for stalker killers) but it's doubtful they'e even cracked the Cliff's Notes of the others.

Belvoir said...

Wonderful post as always, Siren.

The twit you attended, with the pop-star sister: it was Chris Ciccone, wasn't it?
Yes, he is a twit.

gmoke said...

Another nomination for the best film made in NY, from close to the same period, "The Wrong Man" by Hitchcock. In my memory, it focuses on the outer boroughs rather than Manhattan. What a double feature!

gmoke said...

John O'Hara - I went on an O'Hara kick over a decade ago. He is a fine writer with a very keen eye for social distinctions. His Gibbsville stories ring true like a clear note of a bell.

Even in his curmudgeonly, conservative end days he did good work. Well worth reading.

But then who reads these days? Philip Roth, reportedly, says there are about 120,000 people in the US who read books every evening. That's his audience. Maybe.

On a reality show, a young LA real estate agent is told he is like Dorian Gray. "Who's Dorian Gray?" he replies.


Kidknight said...

Great blog, I also rememebr seeing Sweet Smell of Success when it was out yearsss ago. Totally captures the classic feel of our "New York City Tours". We do a Mad Men tour for guests and will recommend this blog for a great read.