#152 Sweet Smell of Success

Watched: December 16 2017

Director: Alexander Mackendrick

Starring: Burt Lancaster, Tony Curtis, Susan Harrison, Martin Milner, Sam Levene, Barbara Nichols

Year: 1957

Runtime: 1h 36min

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Press agent Sidney Falco (Curtis) is miffed that columnist J.J. Hunsecker (Lancaster) is ignoring his clients, essentially withholding PR and success. Hunsecker’s reasoning is clear though: he asked Falco to break up his sister Susan (Harrison) and her jazz guitarist boyfriend Steve Dallas (Milner), and Falco failed to deliver.

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“I tried. I really did. But have you tried to make a girl fall out of love with a talented guitarist? It can’t be done, I tell you!”

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To get back on the good side of the powerful man, Falco agrees to try again, this time with feeling. He plants a story about the young musician being a dope-smoking communist and waits for the man to sabotage himself in his subsequent dealing with Hunsecker.

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“I just can’t believe it, Steve. You’ve been smoking dope this whole time and never once shared with me?”

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Sweet Smell of Success is horrible to watch, but in a brilliant way, with characters who are nightmare versions of real human beings. Tony Curtis’ Falco is entitled, sneaky, sleezy, and creepily ambitious – but ambitious in the sense that he feels the world owes him success rather than the sense that he will achieve it through hard work.

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“Listen sweetheart, I know I’m asking you to prostitute yourself to my friend, but it’s really for your own good. Trust me. You’ll love it!”

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Burt Lancaster’s Hunsecker is proud, manipulative, and controlling, with a very unhealthy relationship with his baby sister. Susan in turn is young and sweet, but with absolutely no backbone – she let’s her brother control everything and just withdraws when he tries to completely destroy her life. (OK, she tries a bit more than that, but it’s not really proactive as much as insanely passive-aggressive.)

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“Keep ruining my boyfriend’s life like that and I’ll… I’ll… I’ll lock myself in my room! Hah! Deal with that!”

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Seriously, both these guys make Ace in the Hole‘s Chuck Tatum look like a damn saint, particularly in their treatment of the women in their lives (although they don’t go easy on the men either). Despite the extremely unlikable characters, the film is amazing and at least as relevant today as it was in 1957, if not more. What a way to celebrate Christmas, peace on Earth and good will toward men.

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But get the fuck out of there, girl!

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What we learned: Women should expect to be attacked if they are dumb enough to find themselves alone in the company of a man. Also, people are scum.

Next time: The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957)

#91 Criss Cross

Watched: March 20 2017

Director: Robert Siodmak

Starring: Burt Lancaster, Yvonne De Carlo, Dan Duryea, Stephen McNally

Year: 1949

Runtime: 1h 28min

Criss Cross

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Steve Thompson (Lancaster) has returned to Los Angeles after a year’s absence, and he quickly reconnects with ex-wife Anna (De Carlo) – the main reason he left town a year earlier. While they seem to be ready to start their relationship again, Anna is also pursued by local gangster Slim Dundee (Duryea) and after a series of miscommunications with her ex-husband as well as pride on both their parts, she ends up marrying Dundee.

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Her new marriage leads to a lot of sneaking around dark parking lots with her ex. That’s what you get for marrying money instead of…whatever it is Steve is to her. Passion perhaps?

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When the lovers are caught in Steve’s house, he tries to cover up their affair by suggesting to Anna’s criminal husband that they join forces for a heist. As an armoured truck driver, Steve offers to be an inside man on a pay roll robbery as long as no one gets hurt in the process. What could possibly go wrong in this scenario?

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Alarm bells should have rung when everyone else showed up at the party in variations of this outfit

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Criss Cross explores a lot of the typical Noir tropes, such as the good guy whose fate is sealed through a mix of circumstances, bad decisions and, of course, the love for a Dame. In addition, there’s the usual: flashbacks, heists, double-crossings, chain-smoking, heavy drinking, gorgeous dresses, the protagonist’s voice-over, and a gradually darker and darker story line.

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As pictured here, Criss Cross also features the typical Noir trope The Decorative Lampshade. Classic!

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The Dame here is fairly innocent and nice compared to a few others we’ve encountered so far, although looks can be as deceiving as a Dame. Anna almost seems another victim – of men in her case, who treat her fairly crappily and might be to blame for her Dameyness (totally a word!), though some of the responsibility might lie with her (her alternative may have been to end up like the barfly in the Round Up). Her descent into victimization may be just a side effect of her learning that her new husband is not as easy to manipulate and control as her ex, but it may also be that Steve (and the audience) are given a glimpse into why she is who she is.

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Bruises are an easy way to evoke sympathy in both exes and audiences (which does not mean the sympathy isn’t justified, by the way).

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Likewise, Steve is not as much of an anti-hero as many other Noir characters – apart from his obsession with Anna (and his tendency to fight with her), he seems to be a fairly ordinary man with a normal family and a steady, average job.

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Until he starts planning heists, that is. As far as we know, that’s not completely normal. Well, perhaps planning them is, but going through with them is another story!

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All in all, we thought this was another wonderful and suspenseful Noir from Robert Siodmak, a master of the genre. Great movie – great rhumba music, courtesy of Esy Morales and his Rhumba Band. Good times!

What we learned: When you Double-Cross a Double-Crosser… It’s a Criss-Cross! Also, organizing a heist to cover up an affair may not be the best idea…

Next time: Jour de FĂȘte (1949)

#78 The Killers

Watched: January 22 2017

Director: Robert Siodmak

Starring: Burt Lancaster, Ava Gardner, Edmond O’Brien

Year: 1946

Runtime: 1h 37min

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Two shady characters enter a diner, accompanied by a dramatic opening score. After intimidating the owner, the cook, and the lone guest, they set up for a hit on regular customer Swede (Lancaster). Who fails to show. Rude.

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They also start a time honoured tradition of people in films who order food in diners and proceed not to eat it. Seems very wasteful.

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When it becomes clear that their target won’t show up, the hitmen leave to track him down, and the diner guest, Nick, runs to warn the Swede, hopping fences on the way like an old-timey Simon Pegg. However, when he reaches the soon-to-be victim, the Swede refuses to do anything, stating he deserves his fate because he “once did something wrong”. Nick leaves and soon the hitmen finish their business. True to his word, the Swede does not defend himself. But why not? It is up to insurance investigator Jim Reardon (O’Brien) to figure everything out.

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Guess what? A Dame is involved!

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Reardon starts interviewing old friends and accomplices of Swede and the story of his life is told through flashbacks (naturally, as Lancaster would have ridiculously high billing if he had been killed in the first five minutes, never to be seen again). His first stop is the beneficiary of the Swede’s life insurance policy, an old lady running a hotel in which he once stayed. While she has no idea why he would leave her money, she does remember witnessing some erratic and self-destructive behaviour during his time in the hotel, as well as ramblings about a woman who is gone.

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It becomes clear that the man had some anger issues

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What Reardon finds is an ex-boxer who, when out on a date with another girl, falls in love with a Dame called Kitty Collins (Gardner). Kitty is involved in some shady business, and Swede takes the fall for one transgression, landing him in jail for three years. When released, he gets into even shadier stuff, leading him on a path of crime and destruction, much to the chagrin of his childhood friend who became a police officer.

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The police equivalent of a clown car. We love it!

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The Killers has more investigating and less action than some of the noir films we’ve watched, but it is intriguing and suspenseful. Ava Gardner is great as the double-crossing Dame, and the fact that this was Lancaster’s first film role is very impressive. As is common in film-noir, there’s great use of light and shadow, and the mood throughout the film is bleak and menacing. It’s a great watch for a lazy Sunday afternoon.

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We’re going to leave you with this awesome image.

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What we learned: Don’t hit on other girls while you’re on a date. It’s just not classy. Also, there’s no honour among thieves. And Kitty’s got claws!

Next time: Black Narcissus (1947)