British Drama

The Deadly Affair

Alec Guinness so inhabited the role of John le Carré’s master spy George Smiley that even the author said he could no longer think of one without the other. But Guinness was not the only fine actor to essay the role. James Mason also had his turn, even though for copyright reasons the character was renamed Charles Dobbs. The resulting 1967 film has been almost completely forgotten, but it more than merits a revival: The Deadly Affair.

The plot: Put-upon and dutiful spook Charles Dobbs is given an assignment that seems a doddle. An anonymous letter has accused a recently promoted Foreign Office official named Samuel Fennan (Robert Flemyng) of being a security risk, based on his long ago flirtation with Communism as a university student. Dobbs’ discussion with Fennan raises no concerns and even seems enjoyable to both men. But Dobbs learns through his “Adviser” (Max Adrian) that Fennan apparently went home and shot himself! When Dobbs interviews Fennan’s widow (Simone Signoret), something strange happens that raises suspicions that things are not so simple, so Dobbs digs deeper with the aid of an aged but reliable copper (Harry Andrews). Meanwhile, on the home front, Dobbs tries to endure the many affairs of his wife Ann (Harriett Andersson), including one with an undercover operative he used to run that he still considers a friend (Maximilian Schell).

As you can gather from the above, there’s a great deal of talent in front of the camera here (And I didn’t even mention Roy Kinnear, who shines here as an underworld figure in a performance with superb physicality). Mason gives more fiery frustration to Smiley than did Guinness, both in his work and in his failing marriage. I also love his artful interactions with Signoret (as good here as I ever seen her) as he steadfastly uncovers the truth. Andrews, a gay man who ironically spent much of his career playing dead butch British military officers and other authority figures, is also terrific in support as a police officer in the twilight of his career but still retaining intelligence and toughness. Because his is probably the most relatable character in the story and his performance of it so assured, the audience is likely to end up caring about him more than anyone else.

The team behind the camera is equally impressive. The superb director Sidney Lumet loved actors and knew what to do with them. The script is by Paul Dehn, who won an Oscar co-writing another of my recommendations, Seven Days to Noon. Dehn made some plot simplifications in adapting le Carre’s novel Call for the Dead, which I imagine makes the film more comprehensible to viewers who haven’t read the novel. Dehn also added in subplots about Ann that make her a much more prominent part of the movie than the book. I thought this worked fairly well but le Carré purists may disagree. The other major virtue of the movie is Freddie Young’s cinematography, which used pre-exposed film to create the drab colors and shadowy streets that reinforce the emotional tone of le Carré’s world.

The only thing about this movie I actively disliked was, surprisingly, the score by the great Quincy Jones. Purely as music, its jazzy and memorable, but as a soundtrack, it simply doesn’t match the downbeat story and meditative visuals. Indeed, the disjunction at times is so jarring that it takes the viewer out of the story.

The Deadly Affair is not in the same league as my other two le Carré based adaptations, The Spy Who Came In From The Cold and Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. But those are two of the best spy films ever made, and a movie doesn’t need to ascend to such Olympian heights to be watchable and engrossing. The Deadly Affair definitely clears that bar as a grim, effective, translation of the work of a legendary espionage novel writer and a portrayal of his most famous character.

Action/Adventure Drama

The Gunfighter

Westerns became darker after the war, in some cases translating aspects of the urban film noir mood and style to the wide-open spaces. The signature westerns of this type were the eight that director Anthony Mann made starring Jimmy Stewart, including my recommendations Bend of the River and the Naked Spur. But other filmmakers also made major contributions to the rise of the moody oater, including the talented team behind the 1950 classic The Gunfighter.

Written by William Bowers and William Sellers based on a story by the noir-experienced director Andre de Toth, the plot centers on world-weary gunhand Jimmy Ringo (Gregory Peck). He’s lived a life of violence that he can’t seem to escape. Every town he visits seems to include either a young “squirt” who wants to become the man who outdraws the legendary Jimmy Ringo, or, a vengeful relative of one of the many men he’s killed. But what Ringo wants is to retreat into a peaceful, domestic world by reuniting with his ex-lover Peggy Walsh (Helen Wescott) and their young son (B.G. Morgan). Ringo travels to a small town to reunite with his estranged family, where he camps out at a bar watched over by two other figures from his past, a chatty bartender who seems enchanted by Ringo’s exploits (Karl Malden) and an old running buddy who has gone straight and become a Marshall (Millard Mitchell). As Ringo waits and waits on Peggy’s decision, a crowd grows outside the bar, observing him like a circus animal. And as ever, men with guns are on his trail.

There are some action sequences in this film, but the energy here comes mainly from the excruciation of waiting, much like in another classic western of the period, 3:10 to Yuma (The original, not the disappointing 2007 remake). As Ringo’s penitent wait goes on and danger closes in, the viewer is increasingly, nervously, riveted. And like many of the best noirs, the movie dangles hope for redemption in front of the audience while undermining it with a cynical undercurrent of inevitable doom. The Gunfighter is about the isolating effects of living a violent life, which Arthur C. Miller, one of the most garlanded cinematographers of the period, conveys artfully through deep focus shots in interior settings (like the one at the top of this post) and shadowy wide screen shots in the desolate outdoors.

Director Henry King never quite ascended into the pantheon of all-time great directors, but he was a very good one for a very long time. King was an effective storyteller in multiple genres. And he particularly knew how to make the best use of Peck, whom he directed half a dozen times. As for the star himself, this is one of his greatest performances. He is cold and tough at one moment, vulnerable and warm the next, without making the transitions seem affected. And he makes the audience root for a man who is, let’s face it, a serial killer, even if he never shoots an unarmed man. Peck is well-supported by the rest of the cast, particularly Mitchell and Wescott in the biggest supporting roles (credit to King here too).

This remarkable film includes a few light moments, but an air of sadness prevails. As desperately as Jimmy Ringo wants to escape the life his choices have created, a line of other men desperately want it for themselves. Sometimes we can’t make good our mistakes and are equally helpless at stopping other people from making the same ones. That bleak view of human existence was central to film noir, and gives this noirish western enormous psychic weight

p.s. Intriguing historical note: different sources says that John Wayne either turned down the lead role and regretted it, or was denied the role and resented it. In any event, late in his life he visited quite similar dramatic territory in The Shootist.

p.p.s. William Bowers later wrote a hilarious spoof of the Western genre, which I recommend: Support Your Local Sheriff.

Action/Adventure Comedy

Support Your Local Sheriff

As you may have gathered from my hearty endorsement of Airplane! I enjoy movies that make fun of movies, particularly when they star people who are staples of the genre being mocked. If Airplane! is the king of disaster movie parodies, its western sibling is director Burt Kennedy’s 1969 laughfest Support Your Local Sheriff.

As is appropriate for a parody, especially one written by a man (William Bowers) who received an Oscar nomination for co-writing The Gunfighter (my recommendation here) the plot is recycled from a thousand other oaters. A lawless gold rush town is afflicted with vice and violence until a handsome stranger named James McCullough (James Garner) rides in and shows some facility with firearms. Mayor Perkins (Harry Morgan) sees a man crazy, er, brave enough to become the town sheriff, including facing down the patriarch of the powerful Danby family (Walter Brennan). And would you believe Perkins has a strong-willed Calamity Jane-esque daughter (Joan Hackett) who takes a shine to our hero? Skewering of every trope of the genre ensues.

James Garner’s easygoing charm is an enormous asset here. Watching him you realize (as he did) that he was so much more made for this kind of role than dead serious westerns like Hour of the Gun (which I don’t recommend) Garner’s tough enough to bring the action scenes across and romantic enough to make his scenes with Hackett endearing. But most importantly, his resolute unwillingness to take himself entire seriously makes this movie really funny. He gets superb comic support from the usually intense Bruce Dern as one of the dull-witted Danby clan (as the father befuddled by his many disappointing offspring, Brennan is also a joy).

You will recognize almost all of the supporting players (certainly including Morgan) from other cowboy films. But the cast member with perhaps the most cred to make this movie is Jack Elam. Indeed, it would be a tough trivia challenge to name a TV western in which Elam never appeared (Gunsmoke!, Bonanza, The Virginian, High Chaparral, Wild Wild West, Temple Houston, Laramie, Cheyenne, Lawman, and Rawhide are among the many wrong answers available). Here, he turns his usually-menacing bug eyes and thick eyebrows into comic jewels in the well-worn role of “drunken wretch who redeems himself through law enforcement”. He mugs a bit, but like when Leslie Nielsen does it in the Airplane and Naked Gun films, it generally works.

The movie is not quite as funny as Airplane!, in part because the script isn’t as consistently hilarious and in part because of the passage of time. If you’ve never seen classic movies like My Darling Clementine, Rio Bravo, and Winchester ’73 (and sadly, most people these days haven’t) some of the jokes don’t land as well. But that won’t stop this film from being fun for western-naive viewers, because it’s just too good-naturedly silly not to like.

p.s. Most of the same people got together again to make another film in this vein with new characters (so strictly speaking, not a sequel), which is nearly as entertaining: Support Your Local Gunfighter.

Action/Adventure Romance

The Prisoner of Zenda

I am fond of the big budget adaptations of popular stories of adventure and romance that Hollywood made in the 1930s, like my recommendations Count of Monte Cristo, The Adventures of Robin Hood, and The Scarlet Pimpernel. Among my favorites is the 1937 adaptation of Anthony Hope’s novel Prisoner of Zenda. Hope’s work has been adapted many times before and since, but never in such thrilling, entertaining, and inspiring fashion.

The story is set in a small, obscure European country called Ruritania (Hope spawned so many imitators that there is now a recognized subgenre of literature called Ruritanian romance). An unpretentious, upright Englishman played by Ronald Colman meets the local prince and discovers he looks a lot like…Ronald Colman! Due to some “fishing in forbidden waters” by a shared ancestor, the two are distant cousins who could pass for identical twins. This comes in handy when the prince’s scheming brother Black Michael (Raymond Massey) and his henchman Rupert of Hentzau (Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.), drug and kidnap the prince in order to stop his coronation as king. But two of the prince’s loyal retainers (C. Aubrey Smith and David Niven) realize that ye olde switcheroo could save the day, provided the replacement doesn’t mind pretending to fall in love with the glamorous Princess Flavia (Madeleine Carroll)…which it turns out he can do very convincingly indeed. Meanwhile our heroes plot to rescue the prince, with the aid of a noble woman (Mary Astor) who just wants to settle down with Black Michael and be done with it. Palace intrigue, derring-do, star-crossed love, and gallantry ensue.

David O. Selznick was producer (United Artists distributed), and he wrote checks worthy of his contemporaries making costume dramas at MGM and Warner Brothers. The sets are lavish, the costumes are perfect, and the cast is a candy store. A handsome original score by Alfred Newman is also on offer, which netted him the first of his eye popping 45 Oscar nominations.

Colman had more of an acting challenge in his marvelous A Double Life, but the golden voiced actor does well here, taking the material seriously enough to sell it but with notes of humor that make it much more fun. It’s particularly enjoyable for fans of these sorts of movies to see him cross swords with that swashbuckling rogue son of a swashbuckling rogue, Douglas Fairbanks Jr. And Carroll, one of the highest paid actresses in the world at this time, shows why she deserved every penny. Not only is she achingly beautiful, but she also has substance, particularly in the scene where the film shows a highly moral unwillingness to value individual romantic feelings over public duty (shades of Casablanca here, except this time the woman has Rick Blaine’s part and the man has Ilsa Lund’s). The supporting players also sparkle under John Cromwell’s direction, further contributing to making The Prisoner of Zenda an all-time classic of Saturday matinee fare.

p.s. Massey and Niven, who also co-starred in another of my recommendations, A Matter of Life and Death also bowed out together, both passing away on July 29, 1983.

p.p.s. C. Aubrey Smith played the lead(s) of Prisoner of Zenda on stage four decades prior to this movie.


Phantom Lady

Some Hollywood films today make a painfully self-conscious effort to have a “strong woman” character. The screenwriter gives her some dialogue with the male lead in which she says something cringeworthy like “You don’t have to take care of me, I’m a strong woman!”, the actress mentions in her press interviews that she “was drawn to the chance to play a strong woman”, and the director avows at the awards ceremony that, “as a feminist and ally, I wanted to have a strong woman character for a change”. In film noir, in contrast, women characters were routinely tough, smart, ruthless, lusty, or violent not because anyone was trying to make a statement, break the mold, or virtue signal for critics, but because that’s just the way it was. A fine example of this principle, as well as all the other core elements of classic noir, is Robert Siodmak’s Phantom Lady.

Based on a Cornell Woolrich novel, this 1944 film tells the story of an innocent man named Scott Henderson (Alan Curtis) who is convicted of murder because his only alibi is a “phantom lady” (Fay Helm). He meets her at a bar, impulsively takes her to the theater, and parts with her afterwards, all of which interaction is witnessed by many people. Yet when Police Inspector Burgess (Thomas Gomez) investigates Henderson’s story, no one remembers her, and Henderson himself says that he never asked her name. Henderson looks guilty and perhaps out of his mind as well, but Carol Richman (Ella Raines) who loves him, believes his story and embarks on a perilous effort to find out the truth. She hits several very dead ends, but then Henderson’s mysterious old friend Jack Marlow (Franchot Tone) returns to town and pledges to help find the real killer.

Robert Siodmak's Phantom Lady (1944): Summer of Noir GIFs, Day 23 | Nitrate  Diva

Ella Raines owns this movie, outshining the male leads with presence and verve (Not to diminish the solid supporting work by Gomez, who was also in another film noir I recommend, Ride the Pink Horse, and by noir staple Elisha Cook Jr.). She’s credibly tough and smart, and in the justifiably famous drumming scene with Cook and a hot jazz combo, sexually potent as well. Raines had a terrific 1944, with five films in theaters, including another excellent Siodmak work (The Suspect with Charles Laughton). She was much in demand until not long after she made another of my recommendations, The Web, in 1947, at which point she transitioned to only occasional movie and TV work. I believe this was because she married and started a family, but from the purely selfish viewpoint of a film fan, it was a loss.

The other key presence here, unsurprisingly, is Siodmak, who with the possible exception of Anthony Mann did the most over his career to define the film noir genre. Siodmak is most remembered for Burt Lancaster’s legendary debut film The Killers, but he made many other excellent films, my favorites being this one and the noirish thriller The Spiral Staircase.

Shelf Life: Phantom Lady (Robert Siodmak, 1944) | Movie Mezzanine | Noir  movie, Old hollywood movies, Film noir

Siodmak’s German Expressionist artistic roots serve him well here, including in his compositions and lighting choices (e.g., of Tone’s hands). I also love his offbeat decision to show Henderson’s murder trial entirely through the reactions of the courtroom audience, with the participants being only off-screen voices.

Siodmak is aided immeasurably in his efforts by cinematographer Elwood “Woody” Bredell, who also worked with him on The Killers. Bredell is not well-known, but he was a key contributor to noir style. Credit for the memorable look of the film should go as well to the art directors (Robert Clatworthy, John B. Goodman) and set decorators (Russell A. Gausman, Leigh Smith), particularly for Marlow’s surrealistic sculpting studio.

Phantom Lady has a few implausible elements in its plot, but they are no match for the assured stylishness of Siodmak’s direction and Raines’ performance. Even in what was a powerhouse year for film noir, Phantom Lady stands out as a must-see of the genre.

Phantom Lady (1944) | Screenshots taken from the film Phanto… | Flickr

Drama Mystery/Noir

Scandal Sheet

The directors whose work I have praised repeatedly on this site are all household names except for Phil Karlson. He rarely got decent budgets and spent much of his career at studios and in positions that weren’t worthy of his talent. Yet he managed over the years to make some highly compelling movies that conveyed his bleak and brutal perspective on the human condition. I have recommended two of his collaborations with producer Edward Small that starred John Payne Kansas City Confidential and 99 River Street. Let me add to those a recommendation of another Karlson-Small collaboration, this one with a bigger budget and a bigger star than the director usually had to hand: The 1952 noir Scandal Sheet.

The plot: Circulation at the New York Express has been soaring since an editor named Mark Chapman (or is he???) converted it into a tabloid full of sensationalist stories, ruffling the feathers of the bluenoses on the board as well as idealistic features writer Julie Allison (Donna Reed). Said editor (Broderick Crawford) is aided in his work by ace newshound Steve McCleary (John Derek), who digs up dirt for his mentor while failing to successfully romance June. But Chapman’s world is upended when a woman from his past re-appears, and he embarks on a series of desperate, violent, actions that McCleary begins to investigate. Noirish themes of moral compromise and inevitable doom ensue.

This film echoes the summit of Crawford’s career, namely the 1949 Best Picture winner All The King’s Men. Again Crawford effectively portrays a domineering yet vulnerable man and again he has a father-son style relationship with a character played by John Derek, although in this case Derek is his mentee rather than literally his son, and the relationship is much warmer. Indeed, the art in Crawford’s performance is how he simultaneously conveys his rising panic that his secrets could come out and his admiration and pride that his protégé is so effectively hunting him down. The other echo of ATKM is the magnificent Burnett Guffey’s cinematography, which combines the look of urban realism (despite this being filmed on the Columbia back lot and using some stock shots of New York City) with a dash of film noir-style camerawork. The opening shot of this movie, as the camera moves over a cluster of fire escapes filled with onlookers and a murder witness, is a clinic by Karlson and Guffey on how to pull an audience in the particular world of a movie right from the first.

John Derek was irresistible to women, but was not a particularly good actor. The quality supporting work here comes instead from Reed, who shows she could do more than be the wholesome All-American mom who serves milk and cookies. Henry O’Neil is also affecting as an unemployed, alcoholic, Pulitzer Prize winning journalist looking for a way back.

Karlson’s serves up a bracing dose of cynicism leavened with glimmers of hope, and manages to maintain tension throughout the story despite the fact that under the conventions of noir, the ending is never really in doubt. The only person who didn’t like Karlson’s adaptation of the 1944 novel The Dark Page was Samuel Fuller, who wrote it. Perhaps it was just vanity that made Fuller resent anyone other than himself adapting his own work, but movie fans were the winner because it inspired him to start making his own films, including classics like Pickup on South Street (my recommendation here).

p.s. Sadly, Crawford’s alcohol addiction kept him from building on his cinematic successes of the late 1940s and early 1950s. But he did have a late-career revival on television, including starring on Highway Patrol and, bizarrely enough, hosting an early episode of Saturday Night Live.

Drama Horror/Suspense

The Man Who Laughs

Blu-ray Review: THE MAN WHO LAUGHS (1928) - cinematic randomness

A woman has seen my face, and yet may love me.

When people recall Universal Studio’s famous run of monster movies, they generally think of the fine films that began appearing in the 1930s (e.g., Dracula, Frankenstein, et al). But those talkies are actually the second generation of what producer Carl Laemmle began in the silent era. The opulent Lon Chaney classics The Hunchback of Notre Dame and The Phantom of the Opera did huge box office telling the stories of disfigured, lovestruck, scary, yet also sympathetic monsters. Laemmle wanted to return to the well one more time with a different Victor Hugo novel as source material. Chaney was tied up at MGM, so Laemmle recruited a German actor (Conrad Veidt) and director (Paul Leni) steeped in that nation’s expressionist film tradition to create a unique treasure of the genre: The Man Who Laughs.

The plot of this 1928 gem: When an English nobleman refuses to submit to the King, he is put to death and his only child, Gwynplaine, is turned over to a horrific gypsy clan (For which Victor Hugo created the term “Comprachicos”) that mutilates the young to turn them into profitable circus freaks. Gwynplaine’s face is carved into a permanent, ghastly, grin and he is abandoned. As he walks alone on a wintry night (This is my favorite expressionist shot in the movie, see below) he discovers a blind baby girl in the arms of her dead mother. Miraculously, the starving and half-frozen children are taken in by a kindly travelling entertainer named Ursus (Cesare Gravina). Grown to adulthood, the lovely, gentle, Dea (Mary Philbin) and Gwynplaine (Veidt) perform in Ursus’ plays, in which Gwynplaine becomes famous as “The Man Who Laughs”. The two also fall in love, but Gwynplaine cannot believe that Dea would want to marry him if she could see his bizarre visage. Meanwhile, a royal advisor (Brandon Hurst in a wonderfully wicked performance) finds out that Gwynplaine is the last surviving heir of a Lord, which presents threats and possibilities for court intrigue, particularly regarding a lustful, wayward Duchess (Olga Baclanova).

the man who laughs

This is a visually stunning film, because of the haunted camerawork of Gilbert Warrenton, the art direction of Charles Hall, Thomas O’Neill, and Joseph Wright, the impressionist sensibilities of Leni, Jack Pierce’s make-up wizardry, and Laemmle’s willingness to open the checkbook for sets, props, and a cast of thousands just as did on his Lon Chaney films. Released at the end of the silent era, this film could easily have been a talkie, except that with his prosthetic teeth and grin, Veidt could not speak clearly. The filmmakers compromised by adding a synched soundtrack with rich music, some sound effects, and a love song to accompany the visuals.

As in another of my recommendations, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, Conrad Veidt demonstrates that a great actor does not need words to convey a range of emotions. But that understates his achievement, because Veidt makes the audience feel Gwynplaine’s sadness, love, fear, and self-hatred despite having only half of his face available to him. Of many good performances in the film, many of them delivered by veterans of the Lon Chaney films, the other that stands out for me is Olga Baclanova’s. Her role as a sexually assertive aristo is a reminder that prior to the Hayes Code and the rise of domestic dramas after World War II, movies dealt with women’s sexuality far more candidly than they did for decades afterwards.

A couple of the plot developments aren’t motivated quite convincingly, but J. Grubb Alexander’s adaptation of Hugo’s novel more than makes up for it with its humanity. This is particularly true in a heartrending scene in which the circus performers go to extraordinary lengths to try to convince Dea that Gwyneplaine is still near her when in fact he is imprisoned.

I will close by sharing two other wonderful things to know about The Man Who Laughs. First, it has been beautifully restored. Second, it is in the public domain and you can watch it for free right here.

p.s. One person who took inspiration from this movie was Bob Kane, creator of Batman.

user uploaded image

p.p.s. I wonder if when this film was shown in Britain in 1928, the audience laughed at one character’s expressed outrage at the thought of the House of Lords admitting a clown.

Drama Mystery/Noir

Sweet Smell of Success

Many films deservedly flop at the box office because they simply aren’t any good. But a subset of gems meet the same fate because they are too far ahead of their time, violate audience expectations, or both. On the honorable list of the highest quality box office failures of all time, an unforgettable 1957 movie has a strong argument for top slot: Sweet Smell of Success.

The plot: J. J. Hunsecker (Burt Lancaster) is an all powerful, Walter Winchell-esque columnist who can make or destroy lives and careers at his whim. Every Big Apple press agent wants Hunsecker to boost their clients and spread their gossip, none moreso than the amoral, ambitious Sidney Falco (Tony Curtis). But J. J. refuses to carry Falco’s items unless he breaks up the romantic relationship between a clean cut musician (Martin Milner) and J.J.’s sheltered, brow-beaten, younger sister Susan (Susan Harrison). When the young lovers prove determined to stay together, J.J. and Sidney realize that even more ruthless actions will be needed. This comes naturally to both of them, though only Sidney has the self-knowledge to admit it to himself.

sweet-smell-of-success-movie-seven - Vague Visages

Alexander Mackendrick, known for classic Ealing Studio comedies like The Man in the White Suit seems on paper to have been a bizarre directorial choice. But he triumphed with this unfunny, un-British, material including persuading his tempestuous movie star-producer (Lancaster) that the film should end with a confrontation not between the male leads, but between J.J. and his sister Susan, the one person J.J. cared about enough to be damaged by. Mackendrick also cleverly smeared Vaseline on Lancaster’s glasses to prevent him from focusing, giving the actor a terrifying, wall-eyed stare. Lancaster was furious at Mackendrick for the film’s poor box office performance and refused to work with him again, which may have contributed to the rapid decline of the fine director’s career after Sweet Smell of Success. But at least Mackendrick went out on top with his work here.

Mackendrick also had input into the wood-alcohol cocktail script, which was mainly the work of Ernest Lehman and Clifford Odets. It’s a endlessly quotable work of art in itself; even without the actors’ fine delivery the lines would be brutally effective. The plotting is equally so, most particularly the hard-to-watch scene in which Sidney pimps out a cocktail waitress who needs a favor and becomes an bargaining chip in his dirty game.

Josh Olson Presents SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS - American Cinematheque

Lancaster is effectively malicious here, both in his dealings with Curtis and also with Harrison as his cringing sister (if Sweet Smell of Success has a weakness, it’s that the relationship between Milner and Harrison is the least interesting one in the movie). But Curtis, viewed at the time as a lightweight pretty boy, is a revelation. In his walk, his physical deference to Lancaster, his furtive looks, his desperate patter, and his surface smoothness over underlying panic, he creates one of cinema’s indelible characters. Grasping ambition has rarely been so vividly captured by a movie performer. Lancaster said that Curtis deserved an Oscar for his performance, but the Academy didn’t even grant him a nomination. More fool them.

There is yet more to praise! Elmer Bernstein contributes an energetic jazz score and the Chico Hamilton Quintet not only sound fantastic in their scenes, but also effectively cover over the fact that Milner couldn’t play guitar at all. But even more than the superb music, this movie will always be remembered for its look.

Picking a favorite cinematographer is tough for any film buff, but for me it’s James Wong Howe, in significant part because New York City has never been shot with such luminous darkness as in Sweet Smell of Success. Howe’s shots crackle with the energy of bustling, anonymous, humanity and bring alive the combined menace and thrill that arrives when night falls on a great city. Howe’s photography here is a genius-level blend of the stylized look of film noir and the more realistic urban photography of such films as The Naked City. Howe and Mackendrick also uses camera positioning expertly to convey character and relationships, for example by using low shots to make the massive Lancaster look even more intimidating or coming in close at just the point when someone sells out morally so that you can see it on their face and right down into their soul (presuming they have one).

Sweet Smell of Success | The Soul of the Plot

Why did such a tremendous work of cinematic art not find an audience? After the financial success of the prior year’s Trapeze, which had Lancaster and Curtis swinging through the air in tights (and screen siren Gina Lollabrigida swinging between them), their fans were expecting a chance to swoon again at their gorgeous heroes. Instead, they got a couple of throughgoing bastards in suits in a dialogue-driven story. Tony Curtis’ female fans haunted the set hoping for a chance to glimpse their idol and can’t have been pleased to see him play a character who treats women like garbage. The unremitting cynicism of the movie may also have turned audiences off in 1957, coming a few years after the post-war film noir boom had faded. In the decades that followed, the magnificence of this movie — including the against-type performances of Lancaster and even moreso Curtis — became widely appreciated, including by inclusion in the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress.

Instead of the trailer, I will close by posting this “three reasons” promotional film put out by Criterion Collection when they wisely reissued a remastered edition of Sweet Smell of Success. Even at a single minute long, it makes clear why you simply must see this classic movie.

British Comedy

Passport to Pimlico

Ealing Studios produced a broad range of films in its first decade and a half of existence, including a number of respected documentaries as well as the classic horror film Dead of Night and the trendsetting “kitchen sink noir” It Always Rains on Sunday (my recommendation here). But it’s the marvelous comedies Ealing made in the decade after the war that everyone remembers best. In one of most insanely productive period in any studios’ history, in 1949, Ealing released three still-beloved comic films in the span of two months! I have already recommended the best of this troika — Kind Hearts and Coronets — and now wish to endorse the wonderful runner-up: Passport to Pimlico (No disrespect to Whisky Galore! which is a good fun, but comes in third against the stiffest possible competition).

Passport to Pimlico was scripted by T.E.B. Clarke, who later won an Oscar for writing another Ealing classic, The Lavender Hill Mob. Clarke’s agreeably ridiculous plot runs thus: In a London neighborhood still recovering from Hitler’s remodeling efforts, an unexploded bomb goes boom, revealing a hidden chamber stuffed with gold relics and an ancient royal charter establishing that Pimlico is in fact part of Burgundy! The locals are at first excited to realize that they are legally freed of the hated ration book system, but are soon overrun by spivs from all over London. Meanwhile, negotiations with this new foreign country are bounced between the Home Office and Foreign Office until everything breaks down and Pimlico/Burgundy is blockaded by Her Majesty’s Government. But the English Burgurdians are not about to back down, especially not when the descendant of the Duke of Burgundy shows up to claim his title and lead the resistance.

All the Ealing trademarks are here: Mocking British institutions but loving British people, celebrating those who fight back against toffs, nosy parkers, and The Establishment, throwing a warm glow on small groups of people who bond through common endeavour, and most of all providing laughter, laughter, and more laughter.

As in many other British productions of this period, an ensemble of largely stage-trained actors sparkle here in parts large and small: Stanley Holloway, Dame Margaret Rutherford, Paul DuPuis, Sir Michael Hordern, Basil Radford (who was also in Whisky Galore!), Naunton Wayne and more. I hate to pick out any one performance for praise among such a stellar group, but Hermione Baddelly as a brassy seamstress with ambition in her veins absolutely kills it here. Under the fine direction of Henry Cornelius, the cast delivers a warm, funny and uplifting movie that helped cement Ealing as the kings of post-war British comedy.

p.s. Do everything you can to watch the restored version rather than a battered old print.

British Comedy

Kind Hearts and Coronets

It is so difficult to make a neat job of killing people with whom one is not on friendly terms.

Black comedy is the only genre of film that rivals my affection for film noir, which helps explain why my favorite of the thousands of movies I’ve seen is Dr. Strangelove. But if I had to choose a British black comedy as my most beloved, it would be Kind Hearts and Coronets.

This Edwardian tale begins with an imprisoned man facing hanging with aplomb. The cultured, impeccably dressed Duke Louis D’Ascoyne Mazzini (Dennis Price in his role of a lifetime) devotes his final night to writing his memoirs, thereby telling the audience in flashback of his extraordinary rise and impending doom. His mother was a member of the wealthy, aristrocratic D’Ascoyne family, but was cast out after she married a man who was not only a commoner, but Italian to boot (Imagine that — an Ealing Comedy about social class…). Raised in modest circumstances, Louis desired nothing more than to restore his mother — and of course himself — to the lofty social position which he is sure they deserve. The only problem is that a small army of D’Acoynes (Alec Guinness. Yes, just Alec Guinness) stand in the way of the maternal line of succession to the family’s hereditary title. But if a chap is clever and ruthless enough, surely there’s some path he might cut to the top?

I’ve praised Robert Hamer in several other recommendations (It Always Rains on Sunday and School for Scoundrels) but he probably never rose to a greater height than in this 1949 gem. As director and co-screenwriter (with John Dighton), he creates one of the drollest, driest, and delightful movies about social climbing by the two sexes (and how they get sex along the way too). In the process, he proves that movie characters do not have to be likable, only interesting. After all, about a third of the way through we are rooting for a serial killer to wipe out a perfectly gentle fellow, and are later pleased when our hero (?) begins courting the grieving widow.

The movie is also famous for Alec Guinness’ legendary turn playing seven male and one female member of the same, relentlessly slaughtered, family. Of course we know it’s him each time, but with alterations in voice and movement, as well as some makeup and limited use of closeups, Sir Alec makes us glad to go along for the ride. Price is just as effective as Louis Mazzini, and while Valerie Hobson gets higher billing, Joan Greenwood as Mazzini’s lifelong friend and secret lover makes the stronger impression playing a woman who is just at committed to raising her station in life by any means necessary.

The film is brilliantly comic in its spree of absurd murders, juxtaposition of violent and sexual impulses with quintessentially British manners, and quotably humorous lines (I suspect we owe Hamer and Dighton for most of those, but I can’t say for sure because I haven’t read the Roy Horniman novel upon which the script is loosely based). The combined result is arguably one of the best films in British history, and is certainly the summit of black comedy cinema.

p.s. There is only one thing I would change in this film if I could, which is the reference made to the children’s rhyme, “Eeeny meeny miney moe”, which in the era included a racial slur.

p.p.s. Sadly, both Hamer and Price were addicted to alcohol, which led their careers go into premature decline before they died in their early 50s.