Sweet Smell of Success

Sweet Smell of Success

The best of everything is good enough for me.

I couldn’t resist having this be the last one of mine, what with the appropriate title and all. Good thing the film itself was also one of the best noirs I’ve seen in the longest time; it made my decision to save this for last all the more worth it. Sweet Smell of Success would seem to be a simple film going into it; a story about the dirty underworld of the press of New York as it goes about its business being the dirty underworld of New York. Now, sure, it doesn’t seem like the typical noir, with its lack of femme fatales and hard-nosed detectives, but one glance at this film and one finds a complete lack of a better word to describe it. This is a noir, dark and seedy, with characters the likes of which you’d gladly cross the street to avoid them so much as looking at you, and it couldn’t be more glorious to watch.

Burt Lancaster gives a powerhouse turn as J.J. Hunsecker, the biggest, meanest, hardest newsman-slash-gossip-columnist this side of Charles Foster Kane. One of his toadies is press agent Sidney Falco, played by Tony Curtis, who at the start of the film has been hard at work trying to break up the couple of Hunsecker’s younger sister Susan and an up-and-coming jazz guitarist named Steve Dallas, on Hunsecker’s orders. He eventually hatches a scheme to run a smear column on Dallas, which gets Dallas in front of Hunsecker himself, and after running his mouth at the man, the demure Susan sides with her brother and breaks it off to protect Steve. All would seem to be working out, except Hunsecker refuses to let the boy’s insults slide, and is determined to ruin the boy for good, a vendetta that, of course, threatens to drag everyone else down into the pit as well. Where The Long Goodbye was all about 1970s Los Angeles, this one is absolutely filled to the brim with 1950s New York City. Damn near every exterior shot has a massive amount of the hustle and bustle of the New York skyline and nightlife behind it, so much so you almost feel like you’re drowning in it. But the film is a lot more than just a huge production value; it has a sophistication about it that puts it years beyond its release date. Everything right down to the tiniest details of every shot is carefully measured and constructed, either by the director Alexander Mackendrick or by the script, which offers one of the sharpest noir thrillers in Hollywood history up to that point to just the right people who know how to bring the most out of it. Truly, the filmmaking team behind this one knew what the heck they were doing, and it shows in every frame of this picture.

Man, am I glad I did save this for last. This was by and far one of the best sendoffs I could’ve hoped the list would give me. Actually, amusingly enough, this was so good it had me hungry for more, and I might consider partaking in some more noirs I can find on YouTube or if they come around on TCM. That’s probably the best compliment I can give this film, along with a solid recommendation to see it if you ever get the chance. Everyone involved, in front of the camera or behind it, have never done better work than this film right here, and it shows in the best of ways. Whether you save this for last on your own quest, or otherwise watch it sooner rather than later, is up to you; I won’t begrudge either way you decide it, as long as you do eventually get to this one. It is really worth it.

Arbitrary Rating: 9/10

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Silver Lode

Silver Lode

It’s your wedding, Ballard. Or should I say, funeral.

My last remaining western, Silver Lode didn’t seem to offer much to me before I started it, and I was ready to file it away as just another western that made the list, as well as a disappointing finish to my exploration of the genre. Thankfully, the film itself is more than just another western, if only just, and only in ways that other films on the list have covered already. The Book makes a big deal about how this is a true Allan Dwan picture, and all the technical shots and compositions he uses to make it so, but I didn’t care about any of that. In Silver Lode’s case, I cared about the story, and it was a good one.

Dan Ballard is a resident the past 2 years of the small town of Silver Lode, currently getting ready for its 4th of July celebration, as well as ringing in Dan’s wedding day. That is, until U.S. Marshal McCarty rides in with a warrant for Dan’s arrest, along with the claim that Dan shot the marshal’s brother in the back and stole $20,000 from the man. The town is quick to rally behind him, but as the film goes on (largely in real time), opinions begin to sway in the other direction, as Dan tries to go about proving his innocence. If the plot sounds vaguely familiar, you’re not alone; it’s basically a combination of High Noon and The Ox-Bow Incident, a comparison not lost on pretty much every other review I’ve seen on this one. Whether or not such a combination is worth an additional slot on the list is a debate I’m certainly not going to be able to settle, but for what it’s worth, this was a surprisingly gripping picture. It’s all plot-driven, so thank the scriptwriter for making it a damn good plot, able to worm its way into you so that your allegiances and sympathies with Dan Ballard begin to shift ever so slightly toward the growing public opinion… and therein lies Silver Lode’s (and Ox-Bow Incident’s) moral lesson. One other reviewer put it absolutely perfectly; this is a film all about how one man’s life and the image of security can be thrown away at the drop of a hat all on one person’s lying word, and that’s a lesson we do need hammered into us now and again.

If this film isn’t getting any higher a rating from me, it’s basically because of its redundancy; you really can watch High Noon and The Ox-Bow Incident, combine the two in your head, and you no longer have any reason or need to see Silver Lode. Even its credentials as a western are the bare minimum at best, with no overarching shots of the landscape and only the essentials of western films included basically so that the film fits into the genre. Still, this was pretty good, for pretty much any reason any oldie Hollywood film can be considered pretty good.

Arbitrary Rating: 7/10

Bigger Than Life

Bigger than Life

I’m all right now…

Bigger than Life was another one that seemed to be a rather unassuming entry on the list. It had Nicholas Ray as a director, and James Mason as star and producer, but that was about it. Well, after watching it now, damn am I glad they put this one on the list. This was fantastic, a maddening portrayal of the harrowing effects of drug misuse in an era where such a topic could scarcely be touched upon in America, making this film all the more remarkable as a result. Sure, we’ve had films like this before in The Lost Weekend, and in the Book’s still-newly added The Man with the Golden Arm, but what repetition may have discounted in the film, it more than makes up for with quality filmmaking and a hell of an effective product.

Mason is Ed Avery, a schoolteacher that has recently had fits of stomach pain, which at the beginning of the film has progressed to blackouts. At the hospital, he is given a near-terminal diagnosis, save for one out: a new wonder drug treatment for his disease called cortisone. After he’s on the treatment for a few days, and feels magnitudes better because of it, it’s only a matter of time before he begins to take one pill too many, and he, along with his wife and son who are dragged along for the ride, begins to spiral down a path inexorably leading to destruction. The first thing I should mention in regards to this film is the cinematography, which was in CinemaScope color and knew how to use every ounce of it. There was a brightness to the color scheme and lighting in the beginning that was quite welcoming, only for the film to grow darker and darker as Ed began his inevitable descent, until the end of the film is all film noir shadows and darkness. Not only that, there were several shots that highly emphasized the mood of the film at that given point. For example, there was a shot a little more than two-thirds into the film where Ed is trying to school his son Richie in his own home, with Ed leaning over Richie next to a lamp, casting a looming shadow of Ed’s figure over the entire room. It was a wonderful shot, and it got me to take notice of other such great shots that the film utilized. I will say, I was a little taken back by the overly melodramatic music, until I looked up Ray and remembered he was also behind Johnny Guitar, and it suddenly made sense, adding that extra dimension of dramatic effect to the proceedings already bolstered by James Mason and his powerhouse performance.

I was left somewhat wondering why the editors of the list saw fit to add The Man with the Golden Arm when this film seemed to already cover much of the same ground. But, even with the new redundancy, I’m still for this one’s inclusion on the list, and I’m glad they didn’t replace this with the former film; this absolutely deserves to be on there. I haven’t been this bowled over by a surprise find on the list since probably The Servant, and I’m thrilled that the list still has even a scant few such surprises left for me. This is definitely one I would recommend to just about anyone; the audiences of the 1950s didn’t know what they were getting with this, but it holds up even better in today’s modern day and age.

Arbitrary Rating: 9/10

Sansho the Bailiff (Sansho dayu)

Sansho the Bailiff

Everyone is entitled to their happiness.

While I have a general opinion on early Japanese filmmakers Kon Ichikawa and Yasujiro Ozu (and, of course, a profound love for Akira Kurosawa), I don’t have enough experience with Kenji Mizoguchi to really get a handle on him as a filmmaker, especially going into this one having only seen two other films of his, one of which was so early in Japanese cinema that it basically doesn’t count when one judges it with the early 1950s explosion of Japanese filmmakers onto the world stage. That’s a really roundabout way of saying I didn’t know what to expect from Sansho the Bailiff. It’s been a while since I was really entrenched in early cinema; of the films remaining for me on the list, this is the earliest, and one of the very few remaining black-and-white films I had left. Still, even with me being less accustomed to these attributes as I was in the past, there was an awful lot to appreciate about Sansho the Bailiff.

Zushio and Anju are two children living with their mother in feudal Japan. Their father ends up banished to a far-off land, and the three of them journey to meet up with him some years later, but are tricked into being sold into slavery, where they are separated from their mother. The children end up in the employ of Sansho, the titular bailiff (or steward), who is as cruel and unrelenting a master as they could’ve gotten, as well as Taro, Sansho’s son and second-in-command, who is much more kind and understanding of the children’s plight. It is Taro that, knowing they are still too young to attempt to escape successfully, suggests that they weather the storm of being in Sansho’s employ as best as they can for as long as they can, until they are old enough to be able to make it to the town where their mother was sold to. This is a film definitely more concerned with its plot than with anything else, which is a good thing, especially since the plot is rife with conflict and overcoming adversity, which keeps it nice and full through the whole length of the film. Even with the plot being the focus, however, the production value of this one was quite exceptional, replicating the feudal era of Japan so completely that I’d be amazed if virtually all of the work and construction had been done by the production team. It was that that lent itself well enough to the technicals, rather than the cinematography, which was decent but a little too one-shaded, as I’ve found early Asian cinema to roughly be. I will, however, make special mention of the numerous long takes used throughout the film, which somehow added a feeling of intimacy and empathy with the two main characters that would have otherwise been lacking.

It seems everyone who’s seen this has proclaimed it to be an absolute masterpiece. I, however, merely found it very good; it very much tries to grasp at true greatness, but for me it didn’t quite get there. Reading other reviews for this, it might be because of the fact that this is technically a fable, and thus the story was intentionally simplistic in order to cover for moral lessons and themes, and I, for whatever reason, glossed over that aspect of the film and opted to watch it mainly for the story itself. This is one that I think will really differ from person to person on its worth and merit, but generally, I believe a great number of those will find something here. It’s well made, with great production value and a story worth seeing to the very end, which is more than I can say for a good number of films that are similar to this one, so that’s definitely a thumbs-up. I don’t know if I prefer this one or Mizoguchi’s Ugetsu, but I can certainly see why both were added to the list.

Arbitrary Rating: 8/10

The Wanton Countess (Senso)

Senso

Viva Italia!

When I looked up Senso and saw that it was not only directed by Luchino Visconti, but was a melodrama to boot, I could feel myself groaning with displeasure at having to watch this one. Indeed, even as I started it, during the film’s opening, which takes place during an opera, I knew exactly where this film was going to be headed. A film about as far removed from Visconti’s earlier neorealist work as can be, Senso is a lavish affair filled with romance, and more than a touch of schadenfreude. I gathered from the first few minutes that this would be a film that I wouldn’t care for, and I ended up more right than even I wanted to be.

Alida Valli is Countess Serpieri, who, at the aforementioned opera that starts the film, ends up meeting Lieutenant Mahler, played by Farley Granger, and garners an immediate attraction to him. She begins an affair with the man, even despite the relationship evolving to where Mahler begins looking for other women and using the countess for her position and wealth. This is where I have a bit of a problem with Senso, because of where the plot goes from here. Without spoiling too much, Countess Serpieri falls blindly in love with Mahler, to the point that she eventually will do literally anything and everything for the chance to be with him, including absolutely blindsiding her cousin Roberto by basically stealing the money he intended to use to fund the Italian efforts in a war with Austria, causing a whole regiment of Italians to be wiped out in the war effort due to their lack of funding. The film’s plot was already losing me by that point, but that was really where I checked out entirely and opted to watch the remainder merely for the very nice use of color and production design, which the film does have, made even more appreciable by the fact that this was Visconti’s first color film. Needless to say, though, the plot continued in the same fashion, until the inevitable ending for both characters. I guess I can’t fault the film for telling the story it did, but I certainly couldn’t empathize with such a willfully blissful idiot, who basically gives away, as the Book puts it, her life, husband, and even her country for someone who is so obviously using her. It was basically the same problem I had with Le Gamin au Velo, and it was not a welcome one to have.

Apparently this was truncated pretty heavily for an English-language version, where it was given the title The Wanton Countess, which I found quite apropos. Regardless, no matter which version you see, I’m pretty sure the plot stays the same, so if the plot doesn’t sound particularly appetizing to you, then this one is probably not worth your time. Even the pluses, the production value and use of color, aren’t anything that can’t be found in other films, by Visconti or otherwise, so this ended up being pretty much a superfluous watch for me. Checked it off the list, done and done; no need to see it again.

Arbitrary Rating: 6/10

Carmen Jones

Carmen Jones

If I love you, dat’s the end of you!

Looking through the genre index in the back of the Book, I only have two musicals left on the list. I guess that means my expectations for the two remaining couldn’t be higher, even though they’re only the last two out of pure chance. Still, if the last one for me is even a modicum better than Carmen Jones ended up being, then I suppose I can say that I ended the genre on a high note. Carmen Jones is an adaptation of the famous opera, Carmen, which I haven’t seen, so I can’t pass judgment on whether this is a good adaptation or not. But one thing’s for sure: I can pass judgment on whether this is a good film or not, so here you go: it’s not.

Carmen Jones is a sassy, fiery young woman working on an army base, when she catches sight of Joe, a rugged build of an army man and would-be pilot, who’s currently awaiting his leave so he can marry his sweetheart, Cindy Lou. Carmen, being the type of woman she is (more on this later), decides to go after Joe, and ends up getting into a bunch of trouble for herself and for him, and their lives together descend into chaos thanks to their mutual influence on each other. I went into the film not sure what to expect out of it, so it seemed to be somewhat unfortunate that I ended up figuring out what kind of film it was going to be so soon into the running time. Specifically, it was during the number “You Talk Just Like My Ma” that I knew this was going to be a musical that I would not care for. As soon as Joe started singing, in that airy and flighty voice that was entirely disconnected from his look and build, I knew every number was going to be similarly disconnected from the proceedings, and I was right on the money. Most of it was the fact that the actors didn’t sing the songs, but were dubbed over by actual singers, and the film was bleedingly obvious about it. Still, it was incidental compared to the actual characters themselves; the plot I could understand if not condone, but the characters were just horrendous. The character of Carmen was by far the most infuriating aspect of the whole film. That air, that attitude of “I’m right all of the time, and I’m just going to do whatever I want and get whatever I want because everything revolves around me”; it was 15-20 minutes into the film that I didn’t think I could take any more of her. Unfortunately, there was still well over an hour left, and aside from the ending, which wasn’t nearly as satisfying as it should have been for me, the whole film was an exercise in Carmen either getting what she wanted, or ending up destroying everything around her in her efforts to get what she wanted. And this is supposed to be our protagonist, the person we cheer for? Even if the film were a window into the soul of such a conceited character, which it is very much not, there was nothing about it that I could condone as pleasurable viewing.

I can see why Dorothy Dandridge became the first African-American woman to be Oscar nominated for Best Actress, but that would literally be the only good thing that I could find to say about this film. Everything else was par at best, and rage-inducing at worst. History aside, I can see no good, real reason for this to have made the list. It’s not even a good musical, so even genre fans won’t be too thrilled to give this one a try. I feel like there should be worse musicals that I have seen in the history of film, and there probably are, but I can’t think of too many. This was bad, plain and simple, and the only thing I need still say is to avoid this one, again, even if you’re a fan of musicals.

Arbitrary Rating: 5/10

Orpheus (Orphee)

Orpheus

I’m on the trail of the unknown.

Jean Cocteau didn’t delve into the medium of cinema too often, but when he did, it was with a purpose. If nothing else, Cocteau wanted to bring a poet’s mind to the art of film, transforming it into that ethereal space that defies description that the poet calls home. Having seen what he could do with the Beauty and the Beast fable, I was interested, to say the least, in what he could do with the timeless Greek myth of Orpheus. Granted, it’s a story that, thanks to the list, I’m already pretty familiar with, thanks to 1959’s Orfeu Negro, but to see Cocteau’s take on the story was still an enchanting one.

In case you don’t know your Greek tragedies or haven’t seen Orfeu Negro, the story of Orpheus deals with the titular man as he develops a relationship with Death itself, who later claims his love Eurydice, thus forcing Orpheus to enter the Underworld in order to reclaim her soul, lest he lose her forever. There’s a little more to Cocteau’s take on the tale than that; for one, he decides to frame the story in contemporary France, updating the material to a more modern setting. The film even takes the unusual step of regaling the audience with the legend of Orpheus right off the bat, telling the whole story, and then diving into Cocteau’s modern interpretation of it, which would seem to be selling the film short right at the beginning, if it weren’t for Cocteau’s poetic and dream-like storytelling and cinematography, which was just as much a highlight here as it had been in La Belle et la Bete. Cocteau frequently uses reverse footage to add a supernatural edge to the proceedings where he needs to, and frequent evocation of the symbolic image of mirrors is utilized as a literal gate to the Underworld, through which only poets have the ability to cross. The whole effect was quite enjoyable, and well made all around. It was also nice seeing Jean Marais in a more normal role; he certainly has the charisma for it. My favorite aspect, however, was the addition of the character of Death’s chauffeur, Heurtebise, who, while also adding an additional angle to the film’s central love triangle, was generally a much more interesting character to watch.

I had very few expectations with this one; even the entry in the Book was one I’d often skim over or skip, not paying it too much attention. Well, this ended up being an excellent surprise, though not an altogether unexpected one, having seen La Belle et la Bete a mere month ago. Even over that one, though, I would put Cocteau’s version of the Orpheus myth; with Belle, he had the room and the breadth of being in a fantasy setting to do whatever he wanted with basically no restrictions. Here, there are many parameters, as it takes place in a modern setting, but Cocteau still manages to evoke the right sense of oneiric imagery and mood, even with the more limited setting of the film, which I found all the more impressive. I was pretty pleased I watched this, and I’m glad Cocteau was given an extra slot on the list for it. As long as you have a mind for the more fantastical and poetic aspects of his storytelling, I think you’ll like it too.

Arbitrary Rating: 8/10