Here is a terrific Disney short from 1936 featuring caricatures of Hollywood’s biggest contemporary stars along side Mickey, Donald, Goofy and other Disney favourites.
Dir: Alexander MacKendrick
St: Tony Curtis (Sidney Falco), Burt Lancaster (J.J. Hunsecker), Susan Harrison (Susan Hunsecker), Martin Milner (Steve Dallas), Emile Meyer (Harry Kello)
With high reputation comes high expectations and few films of the late fifties have as high a reputation as ‘Sweet Smell of Success‘. Despite loving that era of American film more than any other, it had never really felt like the right time to watch it. When the first stage of my movie love was in full blossom at 16, it always felt too ‘adult’ and I was scared that I wouldn’t fully appreciate it. In the years that followed my movie watching tended to go in waves according to style, actor or director but I’d never set myself down for a (self-organised) season of film noir, Alexander Mackendrick, Tony Curtis or Burt Lancaster. However, as we approach the end of the year that Tony Curtis died, the time seemed right as I wanted to know once and for all if he was just a star or if he could act as well. No other film of his had ever truly answered this for me but ‘SSoS‘ gave me the definitive answer.
Lancaster is J.J. Hunsecker, a cold-hearted, obsessive, cynical columnist whose word can make or break man’s career. He is incredibly protective of his younger sister (Susan Harrison) so when she starts dating a musician (Martin Milner) he asks Sidney to dig up (or make up) some dirt on him so that the relationship will end.
Lancaster is excellent playing a complete bastard and his performance is so different to what we have come to think of as a ‘Burt Lancaster’ performance that it is quite startling. He delivers the snappy dialogue with zip, speed but also a rare clarity. His authoritative voice is all the more important as the character of Hunsecker is eerily inactive. His stillness next to the over-eager energy for Falco gives the film a unique visual style. The cinematography, direction and use of New York‘s crowded clubs and streets are all excellent and deserve special praise as the movie is often remembered only for its script. This is unfair as a great script does not make a great movie all on its own.
And let’s not leave any room for confusion – ‘SSoS’ has a great script, possibly one of the greatest ever. Written by Ernest Lehman and Clifford Odets, the movie contains some of the most brilliant ‘I-wish-I’d-said-that’ lines I’ve ever heard but the other key element of the script, the story, is engaging, fast-paced and doesn’t pursue anything that isn’t key to the film’s focus: Sidney’s willingness to do virtually anything to ingratiate himself with Hunsecker. All of which brings me back to Tony Curtis and the question of whether he was a good actor as well as a charismatic, good-looking screen personality.
Happily, for Curtis lovers, it was a resounding yes. Lancaster takes top billing but the film is all about Curtis’ Sidney Falco. He is in nearly every scene and it is the convoluted machinations of his design that drive the film’s plot. Curtis gives the best performance of his career which is extraordinary when you consider that this was his first truly challenging part and how hard he had to fight to get role. Seen as little more that a pretty face, Curtis had grown weary of the insipid parts that he had played up to this point. Unfortunately the film was not a success on release and (with a few notable exceptions) Curtis never took such a risk again. Whether this was due to the actor himself deciding that making money and staying popular was more important or whether studio executives, producers and directors thought the film’s commercial failure signified that he was unsuitable for such roles is a question that has to remain unanswered.