I WALK ALONE

I MET SPARTACUS!

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Yep, I actually met Kirk Douglas. My friend Chip Duckett was getting memorabilia autographed for a giant AIDS ball being held in Vienna he helps brings talent to. He invited me along to Barnes & Noble with him for a Kirk Douglas book signing. ( “Let’s Face It: 90 Years of Living, Loving, and Learning.” ) Chip was going to get some Kirk memorabilia autographed. I wasn’t going to buy the book just go along for the ride. The seriousness of WHO I was actually going to meet struck me when we were taken to the bookstore’s “green room” ~ a storage room of books ~ to actually meet him, thanks to one of Chip’s connections at the store. We were going to meet him before the formal book signing began. Just before the B&N guy knocked on the door, Chip gave me one of his Kirk memorabilia items to have something in my hand. Wha’? The door opened and  there was Kirk Douglas sitting at a table. I knew I was going to see him, but I didnt know I was actually going to MEET him.

He looked old and small. I hung back while Chip introduced himself and chatted with him briefly while he got his memorabilia signed. After Chip was done, he introduced me to Kirk Douglas. Yo, you can be all nonchalant meeting a legend if you want, but I’m telling you straight up…I am a fangirl.

Mr. Douglas started to stand to greet me. The full import of who he was was hitting me dead in the face as he rose up. What the hell happened to that old and small man, because all of a sudden, in those few moments he didn’t seem as old and small as I initially thought. As he was standing up I said “Sir, please sit. You don’t have to stand for me.” And he said “Of course I do. I always stand for ladies.” ( Thats me guys…a lady!! L0L! ) We shook hands and I gave him Chip’s memorabilia, stammered innocuously and then stepped back.

I attended the book~signing ~ ( yeah, I bought the book a little later ) ~ met him again in that book signing factory line sort of way that handlers handle it. He smiled at me with recognition. Don’t worry, I didnt linger. I kept it moving.

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He was a major star my entire lifetime. When I met him, of course I had seen so many of his films already. When I saw SHADOWS and SATIN was throwing a birthday blogathon for Kirk’s 100th, well, how could I not…

You’re going to see a lot of great films covered in this blogathon. I’m going to look at an early-in-his-career-Kirk Douglas-film, before his teeth were clenched in stone. So far he’d done The Strange Love of Martha Ivers Out of the Past” “Mourning Becomes Electra.” I will cover his fourth film, 1948s I WALK ALONE.”

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With  “I Walk Alone” comes Kirk Douglas’ first of seven screen pairings with fellow newcomer BURT LANCASTER ( this being his fifth movie ). RIght from the beginning, their chemistry was dynamite; I find them to be as evenly matched as any two stars were. ( Well maybe with the exception of Owen Wilson and Vince Vaughn ). They’re 

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more closely associated with each other ( their pairings also include: “The List of Adrian Messenger” [ 1963 ] and “Victory at Entebbe” [ 1976 ] ) than they are with their leading ladies ( though who can argue Burt with Ava and Deborah Kerr or Kirk with Lana and Kim and Jean Simmons ). If they ever were to really get into a fist fight, I don’t know who’d win…but I do know they’d each give as good as they got.

“I Walk Alone” is the story of a man released from prison after fourteen years, expecting to become half owner of a successful night club he invested in ( before going to the slammer ) with his old rum-running buddy.

He is in for a rude awakening.

i-walk-alone-kirkKIRK DOUGLAS is the old pal, Noll ( nicknamed ‘Dink’ ) and Douglas plays him as far from scared little Walter O’Neill as you or Martha Ivers could get. Noll is mucho suave-aaaay. He can talk his way out of, or smooth over anything. He’ll use the night club’s chanteuse to pump Frankie for info, while continuing to string her along in their romance. He’ll hook up with an ice queen socialite to further his business and social standing. He’s not above blackmailing an old friend. Noll will do or say whatever it takes. He is ambitious. He is a smooth operator.

i-walk-alone-burtQuite the opposite personality is BURT LANCASTER as Frankie Madison. He’s been cooped up for fourteen years. ( “FOURTEEN YEARS!!!!” he says tightly…and with reason ). Oh, he doesn’t look any worse for the wear having been in prison. He’s tall, fills a suit nicely…a big strapping fella. ( I think it should be de rigueuer for Burt Lancaster to wear a t-shirt in every movie from 1946 – 1952! But I digress ). Lancaster’s Frankie, is a man of few words…very defensive, sensitive and coiled as tightly as a snake. Where Noll is cool as a cucumber, Frankie is a hothead. He’s a bit awkward socially, being out of practice for so long. Noll’s Socialite Gal Pal, Alexis Richardson. speaks to him:

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SOCIALITE: “You know, you’re quite an attractive man.”
FRANKIE:    “Keep going.”
SOCIALITE: “How far do you want me to go?”
FRANKIE:    “I’m at the plate. You’re doing the pitching.”

The socialite is played to an Alexis Smith-ish fare-thee-well by actress KRISTINE MILLER. But that interaction ends poorly with her wanting Frankie thrown out of the club:

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“You looked like a man who might have three or four interesting sentences to say. You’ve said them. Goodbye!!”

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Well…he was out of practice.

Frankie’s wined and dined by club chanteuse: Kay Lawrence played by LIZABETH SCOTT, whose been sent by Noll to wine and dine Frankie. Noll tells her:

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“That’s why men take women to dinner. So they’ll have someone to talk about themselves to.”

Kay goes along with it, but gets mangled in Noll’s machinations because of her love for him. And there’s the usual requisite tension between two women competing for the same man. Alexis wants to marry Noll:

“You’re so utterly no good I should marry you.”

…If you call that love.

( ASIDE: Kristine Miller shared screen~time with Lizabeth Scott in “Desert Fury” and “Too Late For Tears” ).

i-walk-alone-kirk-lizabethFrankie realizes the ruse to pump him for information and unjustly lambasts Kay. He trusts no one except the book~ keeper Dave. He lumps Kay in with all the snakes. She finally sees what a user Noll really is when he tells her he’s marrying the Socialite:

“You love me but you’re marrying her?”

[ Oy, #IFIHADADIME! ]

The jig is up for Noll and Kay when Frankie realizes hes been played like a cheap fiddle.

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“The oldest trick in the world. You want to pump a guy, use a woman. And I grabbed.”

I love Lizabeth’s display of pouty anger when she tells off Douglas’ slimy caddish character since she was not in on his scheme.

NOLL:   “You’re in Frankie’s league now.”
KAY:      “I couldn’t ask for better company.”

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She sides with Frankie ( when she finally gets him to trust her again ). Look, I know this romantic coupling is pretty quick and just a plot contrivance. But I say, in the scheme of 40’s films, relationships happen at the speed of a writer’s Underwood.

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I know things like this can make or break one’s enjoyment of a classic film. But I don’t mind the shorthand in these old movies. I know it doesn’t make psychological sense for the script, but it sure gets things moving a lot quicker. I like Lizabeth Scott in this film. Yes, she’s stiff and wooden, down to her walk and her hairstyle. I know the voice they dubbed was wrong for her and her singing stance was all stiff. But a better pal a guy couldn’t have in the 40’s ( depending on the film’s budget ) than Lizabeth Scott. ( Ella Raines is a different vibe…she’s not really The Victim ). So Scott is part of the triumvirate and Im fine with that. Kay and Frankie are now an “item.” She falls for the right wronged man.

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Poor Frankie. It’s like he is stuck in a time warp… when  handshakes were as bonding and binding as a contract. A Promise meant something before he went to prison. Well he’s going to make Noll live up to his promise of fourteen years ago, ( “FOURTEEN YEARS!” ) by using some muscle. He’s going to take what’s his. He speaks to his old pal Nick Palestro to help round up the gang. I thought it was a great casting choice to have MARC LAWRENCE play the gangster Nick Palestro. He was such a staple in 30’s movies when he played “The Gangster.” ( When I see Lawrence in “The Man With the Golden Gun” or Diamonds Are Forever ~ I smile at the nod ).

It’s with Palestro we see that times, they are a-changing; that the old gang just ain’t what it used to be. Nick is a businessman now who owns a car lot. He’ll assemble some new boys, but things are not the same he tells Frankie. When Frankie and the boys meet Noll, Dave is asked to show Frankie “the books.” This was a sad scene to me on a couple of levels…time passing Frankie by, Noll’s lies, the book~keeper’s betrayal. That cut Frankie to the quick. The shame and humiliation Frankie suffers in front of EVERYone was tough to watch. I felt embarassed for him. He’s like a caged animal. The day of the old-time gangster in spats and Tommy gun is gone. The books are cooked and Frankie’s fight is with an amorphous enemy. He rails against The Corporation. Noll leaves him no dignity. It was sad to watch his powerless rage.

mazurski-chokes-walk-aloneCheck out the men who watch him ( especially that wiseass guy ). Think of those soldiers who came back from the war, having difficulty adjusting to Society. Cagney’s film The Roaring Twenties comes to mind. Frankie now wants to settle the score…but it seems he’s the only one living in the past. A relic. And now the ultimate indignity…getting a beatdown, by the one and only: Mike Mazurki.

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Who is this Dave, the book~keeper?  Well its WENDELL COREY. And this is his second movie ~ ( the first being “Desert Fury ). I was never really a big fan of his; his skeletal features and pale blue eyes kind of pushed me away. But…he did have a great speaking voice…and he really could handle Stanwyck in “The Furies.” Hmmm…let me think about this.

Okay!! I’ve settled it in my mind.

I am now totally coming around to Wendell Corey. ( Welcome to CineMaven’s Van Heflin Club, Mr. Corey. Step right up .) Now, maybe not with lust in my heart, ( I’ve got to see him in a t-shirt ) but with some hard core respect for this fine Actor, I’m coming around. With “I Walk Alone” I do think he was the heart and soul of the movie. My heart goes out to him, Corey’s Dave, the bookkeeper…and he’s really caught in the thick of things between these two old friends. Dave was torn between his heartfelt loyalty to Frankie…and the “hooks” Dink had into him: forgery. Corey plays Dave wonderfully. We see a beaten man, heavy with the weight of guilt and resentment. It is weighing him down. Frankie says,

“You’re two years older than me and I’ve been in jail. You look ten years older than me!!”

When the inevitable happens, ( and you’re a movie buff…so you know what will happen), it springs Frankie into action. It takes him OUTSIDE his Self to think about someone else. And goes to action he does. I think this is a testimony to how Wendell Corey plays Dave. ( Kent Smith would’ve played him differently and we might’ve cheered for his demise…but that’s for another thread ). 

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I really like “I Walk Alone.” Kirk Douglas is the son of a bitch you love to hate. Burt Lancaster is the hero you want to root for. And Lizabeth Scott ~ the girl you want to love. When the movie finished it felt like a satisfying meal. The film feels to me like the quintessential nineteen forties movie in style and dress and dialogue. It has all the archetypical characters you could want to have; all the characters that were perhaps already old hat by the late forties: The Big Lug, The Girl, The Smooth Operator, The Strong Arm, The Snot-Nosed Up & Comer, The Bored Socialite, The Erudite Servant/Restauranteur. Is this movie officially a film noir…I’ll leave that to wiser movie buffs to define.

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I think audiences knew they had a tiger by its tail with this intense young actor. Kirk Douglas would prove his star power time after time in film after film. Click on the blogathon’s banner to read accounts of others’ favorite Kirk Douglas films. Not many people live to be one hundred years old. Douglas is one of them. He’s tough and tenacious. I think he will give Father Time a real run for his money. Kirk Douglas is someone still with us, that is a connection to the golden age of Hollywood we love.

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You know, after I got my autographed book by Kirk Douglas, I couldn’t wait to go up to my parents house and show them the book. My father is more the movie buff. Maybe this was his reaction when I brought home from school, an ashtray I made of clay in the fourth grade…but I cant quite remember my father ever smiling so broadly and with awe before.

“Whaaaaaaat?!! You met Spartacus???”


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SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS (1957)

…what does success smell like?

Thank goodness for the movies, ey? We can see how the other half lives withOUT literally jumping in the cesspool with them.

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I would program SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS on the same movie marquee withAce in the HoleandA Face in the Crowd.They have the same feeling, tone. ( Let me throw inNetwork as a bonus which was my choice for the 2015 version of 31 Days of Oscar Blogathon. ) I find these four movies absolutely timeless because their commentary, criticism and cynicism seems ripped from today’s headline. They shine klieg lights on politics and television and journalism. “Sweet Smell of Success” takes the cake. And to paraphrase J.J. Hunsecker, it’s a cake filled with arsenic. What a fantastic movie.

Venom never went down so smoothly.

31 DAYS OF OSCAR BLOGATHON ( 2016 )

I’ll have you know I tried. I searched and wracked my brains for something in a positive vein to write for 31 Days of Oscar – 2016, hosted by Aurora of Once Upon A Screen, Kellee of Outspoken and Freckled and Paula
of Paula’s Cinema Club. For all you Oscar-philes…this blogathon is the place to be. I wanted to be more positive this go round and cheer for the choices the Academy DID make. Yet here I am again, singing the praises of a movie that should have won an Academy Award on so many fronts: Best Actor (Burt Lancaster), Best Supporting Actor (Tony Curtis), Best Supporting Actress (Barbara Nichols ), Best Picture, Best Director
(Alexander Mackendrick) and Best Cinematography ( James Wong Howe. )

Here are the actual Academy Award winners for 1957. I know it’s all apples and oranges. And I’m not saying that some of these winners and nominees weren’t deserved. But I could swap out several of these oranges for my apples, which you can see ——>  here.

Did’ja see what I mean?

I’ll take this movie on in its totality. You may know this story already, and if you don’t…there will be spoilers. If you want, see the movie first and then come back to me. I’ll wait for you on the Couch.

Tony Curtis as Sidney Falco

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When we’re introduced to Sidney Falco, we see his name on the office door. Taped on. Straightaway….so tacky and so temporary. It says a lot about Mr. Falco. To see Sidney in action is truly a thing of destructive beauty. He’s like a runaway train careening towards a cliff. Sidney is like a shark searching for prey, ever-moving. I think of the great job Edmond OBrien did in “The Barefoot Contessa” as the sweaty and jittery agent. But our Sidney is played like one cool cat.

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I would put Sidney Falco on a double bill with Widmark’s Harry Fabian ( in “Night and the City” ) and call it: “CADS, WEASELS and FAST TALKERS.” Harry Fabian and Sidney Falco are both “ideas” guys; users and manipulators. But if I had to choose one I’d go with Tony Curtis. Sidney is awfullllly good-looking. I like the meta aspect of the film commenting on Sidney’s / Curtis’ good looks. Curtis also imbues Sidney with charm and boyishness. He’s a beautiful shark…a survivor who thinks quick on his feet in any situation. You can see his neurons popping and sparking as he rubs his thumb over his forehead or wrings his hands, or bites a fingernail.

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Sidney jumps into cabs like disposable limousines and breezes into 21 or Toots Shor like he’s going to the corner bodega for milk, yet he’s too cheap to check his coat. He knows everyone and everyone knows him. He knows the lingo ( he doesn’t say “Daddy-O” though) and it suits him. He lives in a ring-a-ding ding way ( a one-man Rat Pack ) and walks amidst the nightlife like a prince…of fools. He sucks up to whomever. He’s a sycophant.

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He…will…use…anyone. And does.

Burt Lancaster as J.J. Hunsecker

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His aphorisms. His veiled threats. His manufactured molehill so he could create a mountain in his confrontation with Steve Dallas ( Martin Milner ) the musician who likes J.J.’s sister. His veiled and not so veiled reminders to everyone that he has some dirt on ’em. His symbiotic relationship with Sidney…like a marriage gone bad, but he stays in because he likes to torture and dominate. When J.J. says “I love this dirty town,” it hearkens back ( for me ) to Robert Duvall saying “I love the smell of napalm in the morning” in “Apocalypse Now.” New York as a wasteland of war. Lancaster plays Hunsecker very still as opposed to the kinetic energy of Sidney. Theres much power in his stillness. He doesnt even have to break a sweat to get his cigarette lit.

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Im still stuck on Sidney. I want to watch him think; watch him maneuver, connive, flatter and dump. Its a little tough for me to take my mind off of Tony Curtis performance.

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Edith Atwater as  Mary, J.J. Hunsecker’s Secretary 

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Sidney tries to get a sneak peak at J.J.’s next column. But she won’t let him. After she turns down his playfully bribing dinner invitation, he tells her:

“Now why should I bribe the woman that holds most of my heart.”

Her response to Sidney describes him best. Her delivery as she berates him is in such a pitch perfect, matter-of-fact way. ( Love her. )

“You’re a real rascal Sidney. Amusing boy, but you haven’t got a drop of respect in you for anything alive. You’re so immersed in the theology of making a fast buck. Not that I don’t sometimes feel you yearn for something better. Oh I don’t mind you looking at the column in advance so long as J.J. doesn’t know. But don’t do it like a little boy stealing money from a gum machine.”

Look at Sidney’s reaction. He’s not upset. He’s not insulted. ( Hell, you cant even INSULT the guy ). He just wants what he wants. Are ya gonna be mad at a two-year old for whining? And don’t tell me THAT scene doesn’t remind you of James Bond and Miss Moneypenny. Shes just as confident as J.J.

Jeff Donnell as Mary, Sidney’s Secretary

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A bit of a sad sack, maternal, caring, very efficient. Sweet lay. Whys she still with him? Oh, because you know…Sidney. ( Check out Donnell’s performance in “In A Lonely Place. Very different, right? ) She tries to be his conscience but thats a losing battle. I want better for her.

Barbara Nichols as Rita, The Cigarette Girl

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Your 50s blonde bombshell. A smart girl just a little dumb around the edges. Shes been used, but she knows the score. She wants Sidney. And that is her misfortune. Barbara Nichols brings a sadness and pathos to the cigarette girl. I think she longs to escape but knows she can’t.  The movie treats her with sympathy. She may be that proverbial ‘dumb blonde’ but I don’t think the movie treats her that way. She has feelings. I think Barbara Nichols did a lot with this small role. Youre telling me they couldnt have swapped out the virginal good girl Diane Varsi for a good-time girl with a heart of gold for a nomination? Tsk! Tsk!

Lurene Tuttle as Loretta, The Columnist’s Wife

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Smart, cynical, astute. She plays the horses and takes a nip or three as compensation for whats NOT happening at home. Shes a pragmatist. The great character actress Lurene Tuttle takes on this small part. See, shes so much more than her cute turn in Psycho. In SSS she turns on a dime. Playing cynical at first, look how she turns on a dime after her characters husband comes clean and confesses to playing footsie with a cigarette girl. I believe his sincerity… he takes all the power away from the blackmailing Sidney. You should see Sidneys face.

I love the gravitas Tuttle lends the scene when she says to her husband:

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Thats the cleanest thing Ive seen you do in years.

Thrilling to watch. Its a gift to be able to do drama and comedy convincingly. Lurene nails it. ( Don’t get me started on Thelma Ritter in Pick-Up On South Street. Grrr! )

Susan Harrison as Susie Hunsecker

SWEET SMELL ( IV )

J.J.’s SISTER…is Snow White in this monstrous fairy tale. And the big bad wolf is her own brother. What big eyes he has… for her. She walks a tightrope of being the damsel in distress…without being all fey and cloying. She was scared of her big brother. Scared of his feelings towards her. ( Can you say Scarface”? ) She had to find a way to break away

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from him. This role and could have gone horribly wrong if played by the wrong actress. I’m not saying Sarah Berhardt should be afraid of Harrison, but she’s fine in this part. You dont want someone as gentle and breakable as Yvette Mimieux. I dont see the tremulous Sandy Dennis. Maybe Shirley Knight could have done it though I dont see a blonde. In any event Harrison does a good job as Susie found her power. Do you remember when Susie finally leaves? She has a raging, impotent raging bull stand in her way; but he couldn’t even hold the door against her as she pulls it slowly open. She could practically brush past J.J. with a feather and he would crumble.

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DIRECTION & CINEMATOGRAPHY

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I know. Is it really fair of me to compare these two aspects of “Sweet Smell of Success” when I haven’t seen all of the Best Picture nominees? ( I’ve not seen “Sayonara.” ) Yeah, whaddya gonna do about it? I’m writin’ here! “Witness for the Prosecution” is pretty pedestrian looking. Lumet’s “12 Angry Men” is good and tense, but it’s twelve guys in a room sweating in white shirts. Everything looks matte and flat. The scale of “Bridge on the River Kwai” is massive, epic and they filmed on location. To be honest, I’m not really taking anything away from any of the nominees. All the films took effort and creativity. But the look and the feel of “Sweet Smell…” is just beyond beyond, for me. Alexander MacKendrick

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puts us in a petri dish with his direction and James Wong Howe lights the dish. How fluidly Mackendrick moves that camera like a modern-day director. Remember the scene with J.J. and the Senator and his mistress? As for location…what better location than New York City. MacKendrick throws his cast right into the heart of the City that never Sleeps. And at night, to boot.

And who better to capture the night than the master…the great James Wong Howe. Puhleeze! His fellow nominees that year were:

Jack Hildyard ………….  “The Bridge on the River Kwai
William C. Mellor ……… “Peyton Place
Ray June ……………….  “Funny Face
Milton Krasner ………… “An Affair to Remember
Ellsworth Fredericks … “Sayonara

???

Really? Was there any contest that year? He uses deep focus, his palette of black and white and fifty shades of grey reads like sterling silver nitrate dripping from the screen like Mercury. Oooh, I want to drown in those black and whites. He paints the pictures the director sees in his head. I think they were an unbeatable team that year.

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A few years ago I suggested to my friend Lindsey to run, don’t walk, to her local video store and take out Sweet Smell of Success to watch with her mother. ( Yeah, this was a while ago when videostores existed! ) She had never seen the movie before. She texted me her reaction:

“Yes, I did get ‘Sweet Smell of Success.’ Great movie for sure! Although ‘Network’ to me is STILL cutting edge, the dialogue in ‘Success’ is priceless and irreplaceable. Can’t touch the banter between Lancaster and Curtis with a barbwire pole. Lancaster is absolutely steely and stoic with very little compromise, while Curtis is a pretty oil slick just waiting to happen. Still trying to get the residue off my eyes…”

Now folks….if thats not a ringing, unsolicited endorsement for an Academy Award, then I don’t know WHAT is.

Sidney and J.J. are intrinsically locked together. I don’t know which came first the chicken Hunsecker or the egg Falco. The see-saw of loyalties swings like a pendulum do. Definitely J.J. holds out a carrot of success for Sidney who chases it down for all its worth, just out of reach. This movie’s so incisive you can smell the rotting carrot. Hunsecker is willing to put his sister in a mental institution. It’s not that she’s crazy but if he can’t have her NO ONE will. Sidney will continue to feed off J.J.’s scraps, and wheel and deal his way through showbiz like Eve Harrington. Sidney will be there when he falls and Hunsecker is bound to fall. His sister leaving him surely will do him in. He stands on the balcony watching her walk out into the clean cold light of day, as powerless as Andy Griffith screams into the night at the end “A Face in the Crowd.”

I can very well understand why the Academy didn’t even NOMINATE “Sweet Smell of Success.” The moral compass of the movie is very skewed and no institution would reward shining that harsh a light on itself if it wasn’t going to come out smelling like roses. 

BLOGATHON ( 31 DAYS OF OSCAR ) IIThere’s more Oscar talk where THIS comes from. Once Upon A Screen handles the Actors, Outspoken and Freckled features the Snubs. And Paula’s Cinema Club will show the Crafts of moviemaking. There will be a big wind up for Motion Pictures and Directors by both Kellee and Aurora. You’re in the thick of it now, folks. Thanks for reading my leg of the journey.

Here are three reasons to watch “Sweet Smell of Success.” WHY? Because Criterion says so:

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