film

Old School Review: "Sweet Smell of Success" (1957)

Written by Ernest Lehman and Clifford Odets and directed by Alexander Mackendrick, “Sweet Smell of Success” is a noir thriller that focuses on the cutthroat world of New York City Columnists and the Press Agents that supply them with articles designed to praise or attack their subjects to the whim of those in power. This is the third film of Mackendrick’s that I’ve seen thus far and while he may not have been the auteur “personality” filmmaker of his day, he was a damn good filmmaker that got the job done with efficiency and skill, and I admire that. This film, is a different caliber of quality than “The Ladykillers” or “The Man in The White Suit” however, it’s got an edge to it that his previous films lacked. There’s an urgency about our protagonist Sidney Falco (Tony Curtis), a press agent whose voracious appetite for power and status propels the film’s momentum along swimingly. However it isn’t Falco alone that holds our interests, for Falco is but one half of one of the more interesting symbiotic relationships in film history. That other half is J.J. Hunsecker (Burt Lancaster), the most powerful columnist in Broadway whose ability to crush or knight stars, musicians, and performers alike keeps him atop the throne.

The crux of the conflict in “Sweet Smell of Success” is a fascinating evolution between both Falco and Hunsecker who both admire and despise each other. Sidney starts the film trying to recapture J.J.’s favor- as he’s failed to disrupt the relationship of the powerful J.J.’s younger sister Susan (Susan Harrison) and a local Jazz Musician Steve Dallas (Martin Milner). Renewed with fresh tenacity Sidney gets to work from his apartment/office by biting at leads and brainstorming a way back into Hunsecker’s column, if he can’t get his clients work into Hunsecker’s column, his bills don’t get paid. Eventually Sidney gets creative and blackmails J.J.’s rival to publish a character assassination on Dallas by claiming that he’s a marijuana user and a commie, but Sidney goes one step further and plants a joint in Dallas’ jacket to further complicate the young lovers’ predictament. Once J.J. hears of Sidney’s plan, the two work together with their slimy aggression in the third act and it’s almost scary how efficient and ruthless the two men are when they have shared goals. In the end though both men lose, with Sidney getting a beatdown in the streets for his sins and J.J. losing the only connection to his family left when his sister utterly rejects him. Sidney’s “Dog-Eat-Dog” mantra comes full circle by the time the film’s final scene ends, quite fitting for world established in the film.

What really stood out to me with this film wasn’t just the stellar direction choices (everything feels highly analytical but yet authentic for the later 1950s), but rather the characterization paired with the writing. These characters aren’t only memorable, they’re realistic. Burt Lancaster’s J.J. Hunsecker is only a Column organizer on Broadway- but the way he’s depicted and how he manuvers through his world makes him feel as threatening as a mob boss or a calculating killer. Not to mention Sidney Falco, Tony Curtis’ acting choices and snappy, snarling, nature make him feel both charming and yet as dangerous as a sniper in war. You may not see him from his point of attack, but his accuracy is deadly. I also have to take the time to mention Mackendrick’s particularly sharp blocking choices. Even when he’s got Falco darting through his office like a shark as he’s working the phones, he has Falco’s secretary working as the foil character, asking him all of the questions any audience perspective character might be asking- but Falco barely acknowledges her questions as he works, giving only half answers and nods. It’s like Mackendrick’s telling the audience, “Don’t worry, I know you’ve got questions but just trust me”.

If you’re after another classic American film and haven’t caught this one yet, I highly recommend it. As with most of my older film watching habits, I caught this one through the Criterion Collection’s streaming service as they had a recent collection of Burt Lancaster films, and I again must endorse the Criterion Channel and their many offerings. It’s an especially fun film to throw in the mix if you’re going through a Noir phase. Check it out!

Final Score: 1 Press Agent, 1 Columnist

film

Old School Review: “Sanjuro” (1962)

Written by Ryuzo Kikushima, Hideo Oguni, and Akira Kurosawa and directed by Kurosawa, “Sanjuro” is the sequel to Kurosawa’s earlier Samurai Ronin feature “Yojimbo” also starring Toshiro Mifune in the lead role. After “Yojimbo”‘s success Kurosawa’s producers pushed him to craft a sequel to the wandering Samurai’s debut. “Sanjuro” is a lighter affair than the first film, often playing off of well established expectations within the sub-genre so often associated with the Kurosawa ‘Western‘ Samurai flick. When asked for a name, the Ronin simply observes his surroundings and gives a random title (Sanjuro) just as he did in “Yojimbo”, seemingly only to appease whoever asked.

We’re quickly introduced to a group of young Samurai in a clan trying to rescue their uncle (Yûnosuke Itô) from the corrupt Superintendent of the clan. Luckily for them they stumble upon the disheveled and aloof Sanjuro who overhears their opening assessment of the clan’s situation, he chooses to interject, and tell them how wrong he thinks they are about the facts of the matter. “Sanjuro” has an excellent balance that keeps the film’s tension intact, and the scenes investing, even though the base story is fairly simple overall. As the nine young Samurai keep switching back and forth from trusting Sanjuro to being skeptical of his intent throughout the film, the dynamism of the large cast keeps the momentum high throughout the film. There’s also the fact that at any given moment Mifune can overshadow an entire screen filled with dozens of people and then disappear into the background within seconds if needed.

With the deft hand of Kurosawa behind the camera the simplicity of the story bleeds into the background of consciousness. Every cut, every use of movement onscreen, and every choice regarding spatial design keeps the seams of the theater curtain from tearing and revealing the secrets behind the illusion of film-making. For having a core cast of ten characters, solely regarding the protagonists, Kurosawa layers the space with them masterfully. He knows how to fill the field visually and uses the geometry of blocking to great effect in every scene, not to mention the ingenious camera movements that clue the audience in on story elements with ease. Most of the film takes place with Sanjuro and the rebel Samurais planning out how they will rescue their uncle and his wife (Takako Irie) and daughter (Reiko Dan). When Sanjuro’s clever conniving fails due to the rebel Samaurais’ incompetence, he finally resorts to the sword. It’s a thing of beauty to watch Sanjuro take stock when he is strategically cornered and plainly frees his fellow Samurai in a room full of guards and then proceeds to slaughter the dozen or so opponents single-handedly.

If you’re looking for a fun Samurai flick but don’t necessarily want the self-seriousness ingrained within the genre, then “Sanjuro” is for you. The sequel is actually pretty funny, and there’s no greater on-screen Ronin than Toshiro Mifune! You can’t go wrong with this one, plus, the very end scene has one of the very best Samurai stand-offs in cinema history.

Final Score: 1 Ronin