Saturday, May 17, 2008

Movies: The Big Knife and The Sweet Smell of Success

I believe that procrastination is rooted in terror. Not George W. Bush terror, but that deep-seated, fear-and-loathing terror. I made a place-marker post on April 17th to write about The Big Knife and The Sweet Smell of Success, but have put off writing anything about these two movies, which I saw as a double feature on an inadvertent date, until today, a month later. I've been afraid to relive the experience of watching these two movies, knowing all along said distasteful date was somewhere out in cyberspace, delectating each word.

Procrastination turns out to be rather germane; in The Big Knife, movie star Charlie Castle (Jack Palance, of whom I grow fonder with each film of his I see) puts off signing his new contract with the studio, afraid of and disgusted by what his career has turned him into, and hoping, by refusing to sign, to win back his wife, son, and sanity. For all the putting off, though, there is something supremely satisfying about doing the deed at last (for Castle, that deed is the ultimate refusal to sign, quickly followed by a wet and bloody suicide with a knife in the running shower). After all, we have watched his agent, his trainer, his producer, his producer's assistant, his estranged wife, his friend (who is also openly his wife's lover), his PR manager, and a hapless starlet swirl around him, drinking and shouting and threatening and accusing and hitting and making up, in the very compressed space of his Hollywood home's open entertaining area: the front door, (entrance, stage left) and its catwalk into a living room with wet bar, sliding glass doors out to the patio (exit, stage right) and a spiral staircase (upstage), leading to the private space upstairs, intimating the diegetic sex and suicide, but protecting us from it.

We find ourselves, then, in the pressure-cooker of a stage play, a domestic melodrama of the glitterati, where a dark secret (a year prior, Castle was the driver in a hit-and-run accident that caused the death of a child; that aforementioned hapless starlet, with whom he had been having a negligible affair, was his passenger) and its cover-up (someone else from the studio, more expendable, took the blame and went to prison, and the starlet was given a few walk-on roles to keep her quiet) is the rock, and the threat of divorce is the hard place; not signing means the studio publicizes the whole ugly truth, and Castle gets sent to jail, while signing means that Castle loses his wife and son. And everybody, Castle included, is just plain mean and ugly (with the exception of Castle's trainer, who, untroubled, acts more like a faithful dog than a man). And so the deed, however painful, is a relief, for Castle, for his compatriots, and for the audience.

Next to this elegant potboiler, The Sweet Smell of Success feels a bit naive, though it too investigates the media's darker underbrush. Falco (Tony Curtis), a struggling PR agent whose flexible ethics may or may not be stretched by his need for a buck (the type is that of today's New York City rental broker), has been maligned by Hunsecker (Burt Lancaster), the all-powerful writer of the city's preĆ«minent gossip column (a pale, echoing moon to Waldo Lydecker's sun in Laura), and now must go beyond brown nosing into slander and conspiracy to win back the writer's good graces. The victim is a jazz guitarist who is dating Hunsecker's younger sister Susan (theirs is possibly the least healthy sibling relationship you've seen onscreen, and she wears a fur coat as a not-too-unpleasant symbol of her shackles—tough life, being emotionally controlled and manipulated by a silver spoon). But, after a few plot twists and turns, the victim becomes Falco—Susan discovers Falco's responsibility for the frame-up, and then frames him in front of her brother for attempted rape (when Falco thought he was actually rescuing her from attempted suicide); in his defense, Falco blurts out that Hunsecker had put him up to the initial frame-up, and Susan finally gathers up the gumption to leave her brother's custody. Again, everybody is plain old mean and ugly, but this time they at least rather witty, so much so, in the case of Hunsecker, that we almost feel sorry when he loses his sister, even if he deserved it. Of course, in this film, procrastination is far less germane, as everyone is in a constant hurry to act Now!, it being New York, life being hand-to-mouth, and newspapers being a deadline-oriented business.

Blogs, though, less so.

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