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Sweet Smell of Success (1957)
Topic Started: Mar 4 2012, 08:36 AM (361 Views)
Laughing Gravy
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Tony Curtis is a two-bit press agent, hustling on behalf of minor talent on Broadway and sucking up to powerful gossip columnist Burt Lancaster, playing a character based on Walter Winchell. Burt has a little job for Tony: it seems Burt's teenage sister is dating a jazz musician, and her big brother wants the romance deep-sixed. He doesn't care how it's done, although the nastier the better. "The cat's in the bag and the bag's in the river."

Not entirely a successful picture, but truly lovely to look at (James Wong Howe filmed it) with some sizzling dialog by Clifford Odets, based on the novella and original screenplay by Ernest Lehman, who took sick (and got sick of working with Lancaster, who fought to make himself star of the preceedings over Curtis). Actually, it's still Curtis' picture, but Burt Lancaster is terrific. Curtis is a bit more problematic; I don't think much of him as an actor, but he throws everything he's got into the role. His lack of morals (which gets worse as the night wears on), manic energy, and innate sliminess are on display, but so are those pretty-boy looks of his. I don't know, I wasn't convinced.

The Criterion Blu-ray is impeccable and includes the two original Lehman short stories that introduced the characters. I also watched a half-hour documentary on Winchell included in the bonus features; man, did he crow when this film tanked at the box office.
"I'm glad that this question came up, because there are so many ways to answer it that one of them is bound to be right." - Robert Benchley
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Frank Hale
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One of those must-see films, I suppose, but I always felt there were casting issues: Burt doesn’t work for me as a decadent Broadway type because he’s so obviously athletic and healthy. Tony Curtis and Martin Milner do fine, but it just so happens I can’t stand either one of them (sort of a Jerry Lewis nails-on-blackboard thing).

Hats off to Lancaster et al. for daring to produce it. But not an easy film to warm up to, and not surprising that it flopped.
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Laughing Gravy
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Mr. H., I'm not sure if you're agreeing with me or you just said it better 'an I did and I'm agreeing with you, but you hit the nail on the head. Tony Curtis doesn't strike me one way or another, but I don't think he's great shakes as an actor. Marty Milner? Well, he's dull. I bear no rancor against him, certainly, and he was fine on his various TV shows, but as a big-screen actor, there's nothing there. I wonder... If we recast this film... Hmmm...
"I'm glad that this question came up, because there are so many ways to answer it that one of them is bound to be right." - Robert Benchley
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panzer the great & terrible
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Mouth Breather
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That idols-with-feet-of-clay Fifties genre seems old-fashioned now that we know celebrities can be and often are turds. Those were simpler days -- nobody knew why Judy Garland didn't live over the rainbow, and America was stunned when Godfrey fired one cast member after another. The public had accepted the show as one big happy family, then genial, folksy ol' Daddy morphed into a ruthless, punitive Tasmanian Devil.

I hope it doesn't rattle anybody's cage when I say that Sweet Smell of Success is known for direction and photography. The stars took a beating for playing against their images, though in fact it was one of the rare times Curtis was cast to type. He doesn't bother me. None of them do. Lancaster is, as Frank points out, uncannily healthy for a fishbelly type, but he radiates evil most satisfyingly without overacting. I wouldn't know who else should have done it at the time. Bogart would have turned it down, and after all Lancaster produced.

Who would you cast as Sydney? And who as J.J.? I might go see Downey and Kevin Spacey in the two parts -- but probably not.

And speaking of all that -- why isn't there a movie about the Charlie Sheen meltdown? What are they waiting for?
Life is just a bowl of cherries, it's too mysterious, don't take it serious...
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Frank Hale
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Since you guys are talking about jazzy scores on the Tremé thread, did any of you notice that Chico Hamilton passed away this week? He figured prominently, of course, in Sweet Smell of Success.

I wasn't particularly a fan, and it was painful to see Martin Milner channelling John Pisano in the film (according to the NYT obit), but it sure was 50's.
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JazzGuyy
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Yes, I heard about Hamilton yesterday. He had a long and distinguished career and a lot of great musicians passed through his various bands. The NY Times story left out quite a few. I don't remember them mentioning Jim Hall, for example (but maybe I missed it), who was the original guitarist in Hamilton's first group. My memories of Hamilton are most directed to his appearance in Jazz on a Summer's Day and a couple of his LPs, which are in my collection. His early groups especially are associated in my mind with what I call "chamber jazz", like the Modern Jazz Quartet and some other groups.
When in doubt, leave it out.
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