Friday, October 1, 2010

Tony Curtis' Film Noir

Tony Curtis passed away yesterday. He was a fine leading man who either never got his truly big break or thought he never did. Hollywood can be a tough biz in that respect: Even at the stratospheric heights of marquee stardom (perhaps especially at that level) achieving a level of effortless fame is rare.

It was probably no coincidence then that MGM-HD screened The Sweet Smell of Success last night. I've never seen this film before, though I have the DVD (still in it's shrink-wrap).

An amazing film. It contains one of Tony Curtis' finest dramatic performances: Sidney Falco, a sycophantic, mendacious, grasping publicist. He's a thoroughly unlikable character, but all credit to Tony Curtis for finding small bits on the edges, a striving to success and a need for respect that is part of our common humanity, that audience can occasionally grab onto.

Sid the slimy PR flack carries the film, primarily because The Sweet Smell of Success is a film noir, a genre where having an unlikeable protagonist is a positive. It's an unusual noir piece because nobody gets killed in it. Beat up, yes, but not killed. I was strongly reminded of In a Lonely Place (d. Nicholas Ray, 1950) another noir set in the world of show business. The main character is a screenwriter (Humphrey Bogart) with a violent temper who is suspected of a murder.

What I found fascinating were the physical presences of the leads. Tony Curtis' Sidney Falco is a slight, thin pretty-boy (several male characters make note of his prettiness) who is always in motion, slipping in and out of scenes, hovering, scheming. In contrast, the heavy/prime mover of the piece is show-business columnist J. J. Hunsecker (Burt Lancaster). He enters scenes like a battleship, slow and overwhelming. Lancaster is a physically commanding presence, tall and broad-shouldered, his horn-rims the only clue his profession is a writer and not a Marine colonel or linebacker. It is likely unintentional (Orson Wells was originally considered for the role) but the effect is odd: Hunsecker is an acid-witted writer who can kill careers with the stroke of a typewriter key, but on screen he looks like he could murder anybody he can get his hands on. Double whammy.

The unlikeable protagonist aspect of noir seems to be the key factor in The Social Network, David Fincher's "Facebook movie" which releases today. To essay the prickly, standoffish Facebook creator Mark Zuckerberg they chose Jesse Eisenberg. This is brilliant, because he physically fills the bill: hawkfaced, thin, anxious-looking, with only one or two achievable facial expressions. Dana Stevens in Slate described him as "the black hole in the movie's center." This is exactly how I described Eisenberg's performance in Zombieland. And Adventureland. and The Squid and the Whale. Now that's good casting.

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