11
Dec
14

The Sweet Smell of Success

sweet smell

When I made my 2014 New Year’s Resolution to watch one old movie (i.e. before 1960) I had no idea where it would take me. I’ve discovered so many terrific films due to this challenge and the limited, but good selection at my local DVD store.

A prime example is the 1957 The Sweet Smell of Success  starring Tony Curtis and Burt Lancaster. Curtis plays Sidney Falco, a struggling, opportunistic press agent who’s both manipulating and manipulated as he tries to get the powerful J.J. Hunsecher played by Burt Lancaster to write about his clients. It’s a career based on lies, begging and creating an icy cool image. J.J. is based on Walter Winchell, a columnist who pioneered the celebrity beat. Here J.J. gets Sidney to break up a romance between his sister and a jazz musician. No one would be good enough for J.J.’s sister Susie. There’s definitely a weird one way vibe between J.J. and Susie, who’s in love with clean cut Dallas.

Sidney has few scruples about setting up Dallas. The one time he objects to J.J.’s plan, he capitulates. Anything to further his career. Sidney lives on the edge in a corrupt world with edgy, witty dialog and high stakes. The few times his maneuvers don’t work, like when he tries to blackmail one of J.J.’s rivals, it backfires. Sidney never thought that someone in his field might prefer to come clean to his wife than to do his bidding. Sidney’s doomed as he’s neither as powerful as J.J. or honest like Dallas or the clean-when-forced-to-be columnist.

The Sweet Smell of Success is set in a kind of hell, a hell with witty reparteés, stylish women and men in sharp suits sipping martini’s. It’s fun to watch, but I wouldn’t want to come within a mile of any of the characters.

I’m now re-watching with the Criterion Collection commentary to eke all I can from the film.

A few quotes:

Screen Shot 2014-12-11 at 1.50.21 PM

10
Dec
14

Ugetsu Monogatari

What a powerful movie! I just bought it because I thought a geisha film might be interesting. I had no idea that this Mizoguchi (see Life of Oharu ) film would be so entralling.

A fusion of two Japanese ghost stories and a story Guy de Maupassant, Ugetsu Monogatari tells the story of two brothers with obsessions that bring their families to ruin. One brother, low class farmer, dreams of becoming a samari; the other, a potter, dreams of making a fortune and showering his wife with luxurious presents. Given their low social status and the hierarchy of the day, both dreams are ridiculous.

Set in a time of civil war, pursuing these dreams results in the families’ destruction, one wife’s murder and the other’s rape and eventual fall into prostitution. Both men are shown as foolish and obsessed and they fall prey to ghosts as they ignore the warnings they receive.

Mizoguchi’s cinematography is exquisite and the composer’s music alluring. Mizoguchi uses cameras as no director I’ve seen does. Viewers are taken to a dreamy sometimes crazy world as they follow the brothers’ obsessions. The story is haunting, and acting, especially the actresses’ performances is quiet and powerful.

ugetsy

I watched with the Criterion Collection commentary on, which helped me appreciate the story and production. I might not have realized that the princess was a ghost till the end as I lacked a knowledge of how Japanese ghosts operate. A Western ghost would not have been so subtly portrayed. This is definitely a movie I’d watch again.

03
Dec
14

The 39 Steps

39 steps

This week’s old movie was Hitchcock’s 39 Steps (1935), which reminded me a lot of Ministry of Fear and North by Northwest, another Hitchcock film. Still 39 Steps is compelling and moves quickly as it shows a man who mistakenly gets caught up in spy intrigue and is innocent of a murder for which the police suspect him. I’d never seen the leading man, Robert Donat, but liked him in the role of Mr. Hanney. Dona’s charming and attractive, but not an Adonis so he can come off as an everyman.

After a strange, beautiful woman asks to go back with him to his apartment. Once inside she hides in the shadows, fearful of being seen. Men are following her. She claims to be a spy who must protect military secrets. She’s a mercenary and her tale is hard to believe. Hanney really doesn’t put much faith into her story, but he doesn’t kick her out either. When she comes to him in the middle of the night with a map and a knife stuck in her back, Hanney’s convinced. Knowing he’ll be suspected of murder he flees all the while having to elude the men who killed the beautiful spy.

Like many Hitchcock films it’s the tale of an innocent man, wrongly accused. Roger Ebert told a film class I took with him that as a boy, Hitchcock’s father wrongly suspected the young genius of some childish misdemeanor and punished him by sending him to the local police where an officer locked him up saying, “This is what we do with naughty boys.” Hitchcock believed he was 4 or 5 at the time.

The 39 Steps moves briskly in part to keep the audience from pondering unexplained questions like how did the killers get into Hanney’s apartment so quietly and why didn’t they do something to Hanney since they saw the pair enter the building.  The film delights with wit and light comedy sprinkled in with the suspense and danger.

As usual, the Criterion Collection offers a trenchant essay on the film. Well worth reading.

29
Nov
14

The Story of a Cheat

guitry

The Story of a Cheat (1936) is a delightful comedy by Sacha Guitry, whom I’d never have discovered if it weren’t for my New Year’s resolution to watch old movies. In T he Story of a Cheat, Guitry plays a suave man who falls into one incident after another where he winds up stealing or conning someone. As a boy, he stole some money from his father’s shop. He got caught and was forbidden to eat the mushrooms served for dinner. As all his relations get poisoned, he lucked out and thus the confusion over whether honesty is the best policy ensues. No matter how bad things get, there’s always some silver lining and this hero winds up doing alright – as long as he’s dishonest. Whenever he’s honest, he gets in trouble.

boy cheat

It’s a fun, entertaining French film told almost entirely through flashback and voice over. Big no-no’s for movies, but this does work. The Criterion Collection provides a nice essay on Guitry’s career.

28
Nov
14

The Kid

charlie_chaplin_the_kid
I wasn’t prepared for the pathos of Charlie Chaplin’s The Kid. I didn’t expect the storyline either. In The Kid a single mother gets out of the charity hospital and doesn’t know what to do. Though it breaks her heart, she abandons her baby in an empty c ar in front of a wealthy home. It’s understandable since her love drops her photo in a fire and when he pulls it out, decides to toss it back to burn.

Yet comedy ensues and much as he doesn’t want the baby, Chaplin’s Tramp is stuck with it. The Tramp lives in a squalid apartment where just about every possession is broken or tattered. Yet he ingeniously manages to care for the baby. I loved how he rigged up a coffee pot to serve as a bottle.

Five years pass and the two are a family. They make money with a scam. The boy, who’s the epitome of a street urchin in looks, throws rocks through people’s windows. A couple minutes later the Tramp appears and he’s in the window glass business so he’ll repair the window right away. However, the local police are soon wise to them.

Meanwhile the boy’s mother has become a successful opera singer and his father, a famous artist. The two meet each other, but since the boy’s gone, there’s no reason for them to rekindle their love.

The story features so much clever slapstick and imaginative moments. It also plays on viewers heart strings big time, yet the film isn’t depressing. Chaplin and little Jackie Coogan are terrific and their story makes a commentary on how orphans and unwed mothers were treated.

Tidbits

  • There’s a 50 to 1 ratio between the footage Chaplin shot and what he used.
  • Chaplin discovered Jackie Coogan, when he saw Coogan on stage at a music hall with his father.
  • Chaplin had been suffering from writer’s block. Then his wife gave birth to a son, who died three days later. That incident sparked this story.
  • Chaplin himself spent time in an orphanage.
27
Nov
14

Price Check

price_check

I wanted to like Price Check starring Posey Parker, but it was just unwatchable. The plot revolves around a dull pricing department filled with people who slog through their lives getting a new vivacious department head with no common sense. She shakes up these folks,  particularly a man who’s content to just lay low in his life. This guy’s married with a young son and his home life seems fine. The film tries to be zany and stir people up so they “live it up!” I really felt it was a poor copy of Office Space or The Office with less heart, laughs and satire. I stopped watching after 25 minutes when Parker’s character invited herself to the man’s son’s Halloween party at school and took the stage. I knew that Parker is seen to be someone with trouble with boundaries, but I just felt “so what?”

Price Check will not endure the way Chaplin’s The Kid or Modern Times has.

26
Nov
14

Why Are Some Countries Poor?

What do you think? Do you agree with their thesis?




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