Sweet Smell of Success (1957)

January 15, 2009

As snappy as the clicked fingers on the hip jazz soundtrack, this film peels away the layers to reveal the seedy side of the glamorous New York scene.  It looks fantastic, moves like a great Billy Wilder film, has a heart and conscience and wit, great dialogue and a neatly complete storyline.

There is a saying that ‘power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely’ and that runs to the heart of this film.  Both lead characters are slimy, Machiavellian and unprincipled but only the one with authority appears irredeemable.  I’ve said before that I usually don’t like Burt Lancaster and in this film, there are and aren’t reasons why: his delivery of dialogue is horrible, a mish-mash of abrupt glottal stops and lingering esses at the end of sentences and this can render some snappy lines as rehearsed and implausible.  On the other hand his brooding, muscular, arrogant-yet-insecure screen presence is perfect for the part of J. J. Hunsecker.

The star, though, is Tony Curtis- again an actor I’ve little time for, other than his tongue-in-cheek cameo in ‘Paris When It Sizzles’- but here he really comes into his own as the aspirational press agent who is prepared to use his charm, good lucks and even to pimp out his sometime girlfriend to get to where he wants to be.  The restaurant scene where he stands up to Hunsecker and then relents when a juicier carrot is dangled is the key scene in the movie with both men at their best.

I loved the New York at night skyline and the razor-sharp black and white cinematography that made this film-noir at its best (in spirit if not necessarily structure) too.  All in all an impressive film from Alexander Mackendrick 8/10.


Judgement at Nuremburg (1961)

January 5, 2009

There are some films where the worthy subject-matter allows me to ignore the poorer aspects of what I’m seeing.  It’s the opposite of admiring a Leni Riefenstahl film I suppose (I’ve deliberately never seen one for that very reason).

There are faults in this film.  Some of the performances are a bit stagey, the film’s pacing is uneven and the messages are rammed home with little subtlety and are overly preachy.  But the film is important and dramatic and features some magnificent performances (most importantly from Montgomery Clift, Spencer Tracy and Maximilian Schell but also- a pleasant surprise for me this- a subtler-than-usual Burt Lancaster).

For telling a complex, important and challenging story with clarity and impact- 7/10.


The Killers (1946)

December 30, 2008

I love the noir genre this first-time viewing has been a real treat.  A moodily monochrome tale of a simple guy led astray by a femme fatale told in flashback by an investigative insurance salesman.  That’s right, it’s Billy Wilder’s ‘Double Indemnity’- again.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s a very good movie.  It zips along with a series of well-drawn and interesting characters providing strong support for the lead actors (a young Burt Lancaster looking for all the world like he’s just stepped out of an eighties Levis’ ad as the sap, Ava Gardner as the girl, Albert Dekker as the lead crook and Sam Levine- looking very much like Dexy’s Midnight Runners genius Kevin Rowland does these days- as the cop).

The real stars, however, are the cinematographer Woody Bredell- the heist itself and the tracking shot with Nick Adams exiting the diner and running to warn Lancaster are spectacular- and Miklos Rozsa’s string-heavy score.  This is exactly how noir thrillers are meant to look and sound.

The first ten minutes or so are the best part by far with William Conrad and Charles McGraw as two seriously intimidating hit-men holding up a diner as they await their target.  It is sensational stuff.  If the rest of the film matched the standard of the opening scene, we’re talking 10/10 but as it is the film gets a very strong 8/10 and a hearty recommendation.