This week, I’m digging into some rivalries, one a kind of horrible symbiosis, and the other a bitter clash between magicians at the turn of the 20th century. This week’s films are:
Alexander Mackendrick – Sweet Smell of Success (1957)
Christopher Nolan – The Prestige (2006)
I had seen both of these films before, and had good memories of them, but I picked things up on the viewings that I never had before.
Let’s get into it.
Sweet Smell of Success (1957)
This film covers Sidney Falco, a publicist in New York, and his relationship with JJ Hunsecker, a powerful writer, who writes a gossip column and has a TV show. Hunsecker wants Falco to break up a relationship between his younger sister Susie, and a jazz guitarist named Steve. Falco sees the favor of Hunsecker as his ticket to the big time. How far will he go to please JJ, and how far will JJ ask him to go?
The film star Tony Curtis as Sidney Falco, and Burt Lancaster as JJ Hunsecker. Both are amazing in their parts. Falco is sly and conniving, always looking for an angle to play. Hunsecker is strong and assured, but right on the edge of control. He can go off at any moment. Both were in a lot of great movies, but I think this is my favorite performance from both of them.
The dialogue in this film is among the most unique put on film. Hunsecker and Falco speak in a dialect all their own. The dialogue is far to hip for the 50s, but not quite as mainstream as it would become in the 60s. The other interesting thing about this film is that it draws deeply on the film noir genre. The lighting, characters, and subject matter all fit into a noir sensibility
We see who Sidney Falco is from the opening of the film. He gets a newspaper to look at JJs column and doesn’t find what he’s looking for. When he gets to his office apartment, he’s dodging calls from clients, finally taking one, telling a tall tale about how he intentionally asked JJ to hold the item until the timing was right.
We see his evening as well, he visits clubs, looking for JJ. The film makes a note of Falco leaving his coat at home, so he won’t have to tip coat check counters. When he arrives at the club where JJ spends his evenings, he slyly calls JJ from inside the club.
We meet JJ at this point. He has a phone at his table, which he shares with a senator, a young starlet, and her agent. He gives no quarter to Falco for failing to break up his sister’s relationship, and cutting him off, telling him “You’re dead son, so get buried.”
But Falco isn’t giving up so easily. He goes to the table and sucks up to JJ, pretending they’re old friends. But JJ doesn’t care for pleasantries at all, shutting him down, even in front of important guests. He sees himself as in charge in every situation, no matter who is across the table from him. Anyone who comes to the table who he doesn’t want to talk to, he simply dismisses.
He takes the opportunity to humiliate Sidney, telling him to light his cigarette for him. Falco refuses in a way that doesn’t sound strong or assured, but as an abused man trying to hold on to the last of his dignity. As they exit the club, JJ takes a moment to insult the senator, noting that everyone knows the agent is there just so no one can be sure that the actress is there as the senator’s date.
We get a lot of world building and introduction in this early section, as they leave the club, JJ introduce Sidney to a police officer he knows who owes him some favors. Sidney also references a favor he did for JJ a year earlier that was the dirtiest thing he ever did. He asks JJ for one more chance to end the relationship between Susie and Steve, telling him he has a plan and it will be done by the next day.
The relationship between Susie and Steve is the one beautiful thing in the film. We see them early on, and they really love each other. Steve asks Susie to marry him, and she says she’ll be the best wife she can. The contrast here is astounding. When Sidney encounters them, Steve is immediately suspicious. He knows who Sidney is, and what he’s there for. Throughout the film, we see how ruthless Sidney and JJ are to keep them apart, and it is brutal to watch.
Complicating matters is that JJ wants to appear as if he supports the relationship. What we see here is the deeply unhealthy relationship that JJ has with his sister. This is incredibly dark for a film of this era. It’s all subtext, never spoken, but JJ doesn’t treat Susie as a sister. He treats her like a predator would treat prey. His interest in her isn’t familial. He wants her to love him as the only man in her life. A modern film would probably foreground this, and as I was watching, I had a memory of Susie turning on JJ with this information, but of course it never happened. This is too good a film to lay that out.
Meanwhile, Sidney puts his plan into motion. Earlier in the film he has heard from a cigarette girl he’s been seeing that she was harassed and almost raped by another publicist who lured her to his room. Instead of comforting her, and trying to get her help, Sidney decides to use this information to his advantage to blackmail the publicist to run a blind item about Steve. Unfortunately for him, the other publicist does have ethical standards, and even admits the affair with the cigarette girl to his wife rather than be held hostage by Sidney.
But Sidney isn’t done yet. He starts to run another game on a different publicist, offering him some time alone with a woman if he agrees to run the piece. The woman in question? The cigarette girl, Rita, who has come over to Sidney’s apartment/office, presumably because she feels safe there. When she sees the other man, she knows what he’s up to. She tries to leave, but Sidney once again turns it around on her, as if he’s the victim. He tells her that the other publicist will help her keep her job, which is in jeopardy because she refused the affections of the other publicist. He even invokes her son, trying to give her no choice. Eventually, she succumbs, as I’m sure many women of that era did, and Sidney leaves her alone with the other man. It’s the kind of scene that might be the worst thing that a character did in many movies, but Sidney has lower to sink.
The next morning, the publicist has been good to his word, posting an item that suggests Steve is both a pot smoker and a communist. Steve and his manager, who also happens to be Sidney’s uncle, are at his office. They know who is responsible. Again, Sidney plays the victim, shocked that he’s being accused of such a thing. This time, he calls JJ in front of them, telling him to help Steve get his job back. JJ tells everyone to meet him at the TV station before his show that evening.
At the TV station, Sidney is in full lackey mode. He hangs around JJ like a parrot on his shoulder, this time lighting his cigarette without even being asked, like a couple that finishes each other’s sentences. JJ manages to browbeat Steve into a fight, which he uses to strongarm Susie into agreeing to never see Steve again.
JJ has what he wants, and Sidney is triumphant, certain that his future is assured. But JJ isn’t finished. Demanding Sidney go even further, framing Steve for a crime and using his cop friend to get him arrested. Sidney is horrified. But after JJ agrees to let him write his column for a few months while JJ takes Susie on a vacation, he relents.
Of course, JJ and Sidney have gone too far, and everything begins to fall down around them. They betray each other, and both lose everything they’ve worked for.
This is an incredibly unique film for it’s era. The same year this film came out, we got Bridge on the River Kwai and Old Yeller. Both all about honor, and duty, and sacrifice. Sweet Smell of Success is about two men who care about nothing but themselves. It it can’t help them achieve their goals, then it truly doesn’t matter. Their friends, their family, they’re all just tokens for them to trade for value. Sidney literally sells a woman in this film so that he can further his own agenda.
It’s hard to do this film justice in text. I could list all the great lines, but the delivery from Lancaster and Curtis is exceptional.It makes this film a compelling watch, and while you can never root for JJ Hunsecker or Sidney Falco, you can’t help but get sucked into their story and madness.
The Prestige (2006)
The Prestige is the story of two magicians, Angier and Borden, who meet as apprentices for another magician. When an accident on stage leaves Angier’s wife dead, Borden is suspected of making the mistake the killed her. The two men become lifelong rivals, following each others careers and lives, and meddling in them when they can, trying to ruin the other man. But who will come out on top?
The film stars Hugh Jackman as Angier and Christian Bale as Borden, with Michael Caine as Cutter, a builder of magic tricks, and David Bowie as Nikola Tesla, the famous electric inventor. The film is directed by Christopher Nolan, just as he was becoming a well-known director. This film came just after Batman Begins in his filmography. I’m not sure if it’s a well-known film or not, but I don’t really see people talking about it much, so I have to assume that it has faded from the general consciousness. It’s a shame, because watching it again, I think it’s become my favorite Nolan film.
Nolan first gained some fame for Memento, the film that is told backwards, from the perspective of a character who has no short term memory. That film was fairly complex narratively, but this one is even more so. It begins at the end, with Borden being present for a show that Angier is performing. A trick goes wrong, and Borden is in the wrong place at the wrong time, witnessing Angier’s death. He is blamed by Cutter for the death, and taken to prison. While there, he is offered the chance to sell his magic tricks, in exchange, his daughter will be cared for. As incentive, he is given a journal that Angier has written. As Borden reads it, we are taken back to the time Angier was writing it. In those scenes, Angier is reading a journal that Borden wrote, and as he reads, we’re taken back to that time.
So the film is cutting between the present, the recent past, and the distant past. Some films might change the visual quality of the image, or heavily alter the costuming to make this make sense to the audience, but this film barely does any of that. It expects us to pick up on the few clues that it does give us, and somehow it all works.
Borden reads of Angier’s journey to America, attempting to discover the secret to Borden’s most famous trick. He believes Nikola Tesla has built Borden a machine that enables the trick, and hopes he can get Tesla to build one for him too.
As the film goes on, we learn of the dark past of these two characters, how in love Angier and his wife were, how reckless Borden was on stage, tying an unsafe knot that might have prevented Angier’s wife from escaping from a tank of water before drowning. We see Borden’s early attempts at his own magic career, performing a bullet catch trick. We also see Angier sabotaging the trick and shooting off two of Borden’s fingers.
Borden meets a girl, courting her, eventually having a daughter with her. Angier finds a new assistant for his act, Olivia, played by Scarlett Johansson. He works up a new act with her and Cutter, and at their opening night performance, Borden sneaks on stage as the audience volunteer and ruins the trick, injuring the other volunteer, and ruining Angier’s new act.
The rivalry continues as Angier goes to see Borden’s new act, and is stunned by a new trick called “The Transported Man”, in which Borden tosses a ball from one door, and catches it from another door, on the opposite side of the stage. Cutter insists he’s using a body double. But Angier doesn’t believe it. He develops his own version of the trick, using a body double, and it’s a huge hit. That is of course until Borden sabotages it again, injuring Angier in the process.
The relationship between the two is never anything but antagonistic. The two men hate each other, bordering on obsession. Borden thinks Angier is a hack who steals his tricks, and Angier believes Borden is responsible for the death of his wife, and doesn’t deserve the happy family life he has now.
As the two men read, Angier hopes to get closer to discovering Borden’s secret, while Borden simply wishes to understand Angier. As time moves closer to the present, all the story threads begin to come together, and the secrets of the two men are all revealed.
This is a tough film to write about. Not because there’s nothing to say, but because there’s so much to say. I want to say so much more about it, but doing so would ruin the experience of watching the movie, which everyone should do immediately. You might figure out the secrets of the film before the end, but if you don’t you’ll be treated to some of the best reveals of the last 20 years.
I also highly recommend that after you watch it, take a week, and then watch it a second time. On my second viewing here, I was picking up on so much foreshadowing the movie does that would have no way of recognizing on an initial viewing. Almost every scene in the first half of the movie references something that happens in the second half of the movie.
The entire film plays like a long magic trick. Showing us one set of facts, then changing them. We begin to trust those facts, and then the film pulls the rug out from under us again. We’re told early on that a magic trick has three stages. The Pledge, where the magician shows us something ordinary, the Turn, where the magician makes something ordinary seem strange. Then comes the Prestige, where the magician brings whatever he disappeared back. Nolan is doing his own magic trick with this film.
Nolan has a history of playing with the conventions of film, and this one definitely fits into a sort of trilogy with Memento and Inception.
I would love to write out every single interesting thing about this movie, but it’s one where I just can’t. Everyone should take a look at this one.
The Double Feature
This was an interesting set of films to watch together. Both are about two men who will go to any lengths for what they want. However, JJ and Falco both depend on each other to reach their goals, while all that Angier and Borden want is to destroy the other. Nothing else will make them happy.
Both duos do horrible things to achieve their goals. But the main victims of the rivalry between Angier and Borden are each other. JJ and Falco only hurt others until the end of the film when their schemes catch up to them.
Both films are also incredibly well made. The acting, writing, and directing in all of them are among the best of any films I’ve looked at on this blog. Overall, a very solid pair.
It’s that time of the semester when things start piling up, and the stress starts getting real. October is always like that for me, ever since I started grad school. I think it’s like that for a lot of people. The summer vacation has worn off, and the end of semester deadlines are starting to look real. I’ve had some rough days with low motivation the last couple of weeks. But I think I’m in a good place. I went in to work on Saturday, which got me ahead of things a little bit, and I’m still on track. I don’t feel incredibly stressed out, really, and I still feel on top of things. I’m taking time for myself when I need to, and I’m taking better care of myself.
So what about next week’s films? It’s October, and for some reason, I hadn’t thought about horror films at all. I should have been doing them all month! I’ve thought a lot about which to do. In reality, I’d love to do 4 films of a single series all together, but that’s a little much. So I’m going to do the following films:
Steve Miner – Friday the 13th Part 2 (1981)
Sam Raimi – The Evil Dead (1981)
Why do part 2 of the Friday the 13th series but part 1 of the Evil Dead series? I have my reasons, and we’ll talk about it next week.
See you then.