Sunday, November 19, 2023

The Sweet Smell of Success: The Cat's in the Bag and the Bag's in the River

 My local library is kind enough to indulge my desire to share my passion for classic film by allowing me to show a classic film once a month. And once in a while, a few film fans wander in and share the enjoyment. 

November's Film: 

The Sweet Smell of Success

1957's "The Sweet Smell of Success" is a glamorous black and white vision of the seedy New York gossip world of the 1950s. Before TMZ and the internet's instant update on the rich and infamous, there was the gossip columnist. While Hedda Hopper and Louella Parsons were well known on the west coast, New York City had Walter Winchell, a columnist who wielded his power to make or break people with an iron and vicious typewriter. In "The Sweet Smell of Success," Burt Lancaster is J.J. Hunsecker, a thinly disguised version of Winchell. While he cloaks himself in a cynical suit of respectability, his is a world devoid of morals  and filled with sleaze. His chief officer in charge of sleaze is struggling publicist Sidney Falco, played by Tony Curtis in a dynamic performance. Hunsecker's downfall is his shall we say "unusual" attachment to his sister, Susie. Isn't that always the way? Anyhow, to watch J.J. and Sidney weave a spider's web of malice only to be caught in it is a joy to behold.

Aside from the two stars at the top of their game and dialogue that snaps and crackles, New York City, backed by a great jazzy Elmer Bernstein score, is the third star of the film. The film captures the city in the last glittering days of nightclubs, cocktails and fur coats. It's fun to spot the long gone stores you knew in the street scenes and to see legendary nightspots like The 21 Club and Toots Schor's in all their glory. 

A couple of special mentions: Barbara Nichols tugs at your heart as a cigarette girl (remember them?) who is badly used by the men she knows. 

It's also a chance to get a glimpse of the great vaudeville artist Joe Frisco playing a nightclub comedian. It's a small part, but just the thought that he was cast is a bit of a bow to New York's entertainment past.

Sunday, November 5, 2023

Leave Her to Heaven: When Beauty Disguises the Beast

This is my contribution to the Classic Movie Blog Association's Blogathon and the Beast event. Click here for more beastly good reads.

Leave Her to Heaven: 

When Beauty Disguises the Beast

In the eternal cinematic battle between good and evil, virtue must always contend with the beast. Now, when the beast looks like these guys, he's not so hard to resist.

But, when the beast looks like this, well, it certainly complicates things. And that's what makes "Leave her to Heaven" so much twisted fun.

As with the serpent of old, the beast in Ellen Berent (the impossibly gorgeous Gene Tierney) reveals itself slowly. It takes time for poison to settle in and work to its full potency, even in the host.

Our beauty is a predator, and the beast in Ellen is a maniacal, possessive jealousy that causes her to destroy anyone who threatens her prey's singular fascination with and devotion to her. 

strangers on a train
The prey in this story is author Richard Harland (a totally interchangeable-with-any-leading man Cornel Wilde). They meet cute on train in New Mexico. Ellen is just getting over the death of her father to whom she was VERY devoted and who, it appears, was very devoted to her. What to do with all of that singular and obsessive devotion? Why, transfer it all on to Richard, who reminds Ellen of her dad. Naturally.

off to a happy start....

As with all doomed love stories (movie-wise), things get off to a great start. Richard meets the family. It's all so lovely, but there are warning signs. Mother Berent seems resigned to have been the third wheel in her dead husband’s and Ellen’s relationship. Cousin Ruth (a virtuous Jeanne Crain) keeps mom company and kind of fills the emotional space where daughter Ellen should be.

Ellen coolly ditches her attorney newly ex-beau Russell Quinton (Vincent Price) in favor of Richard and announces that she and Richard are to be married. That’s news to Richard, but Ellen’s power is too alluring to overcome. They wed. Ellen’s little paradise seems to be working – she is completely adored by her new husband. But is she?

It's the word “completely” that causes the beast to rear its ugly head. Richard has other loves – a disabled younger brother and his career. This makes the beast unhappy and you can hear the gears clicking in Ellen’s brain – how can she destroy them?

Richard loves his home, called Back of the Moon, in Deer Island, Maine. The remote location is perfect for him to write. Ellen hates the place.

Ellen "helps" Danny with his swimming regimen 
The tense situation only gets worse when Danny comes to visit. Taking the boy out for a swim, the unthinkable occurs and Ellen watches the boy helplessly drown before her eyes. A truly unforgettable scene of detached and compassionless evil.

and then watches him drown
From there, things go from worse to worser (I know, not really a useable word, but what’s worse than worse?). Cousin Ruth offers Richard a sympathetic ear. While Ellen may have driven Richard to Ruth, Ellen's jealousy Spidey sense here was not off base.

Cousin Ruth: a pretty shoulder to cry on
Eventually the beast begins to consume its host. Faced with an unwanted pregnancy, Ellen goes full beast. In fact, she refers to her unborn child as "the little beast." Unless a Rosemary’s Baby is cooking in the oven, she is fingering the wrong beast.

before the fall...getting it just right
She is a clever cookie, though. Why not kills 2 birds with one stone? Ellen manages the old fall down the stairs to terminate the pregnancy move. When she confesses her actions to Richard to prove the depth of her singular devotion, Richard leaves her. To add insult to injury, he dedicates his next book to Ruth. At this point Ellen is fairly glowing green.

Poison comes so naturally to Ellen
The last act of this beautiful beast is to take poison and try and frame Ruth. While this proves a bit of a headache (which involves some over the top theatrics from Vincent Price’s attorney) and some jail time, the beast is dead and Ruth and Richard are free to live happily ever after.

Old flame Russell Quinton grills Ruth.
Ellen is dead, but her spirit is in a courtroom painted green with envy
It wasn't that Ellen loved too much, as her mother told Richard, it was that she smothered (and drowned) anyone who her beloved dared to love or admire besides her. Face it, the girl just couldn't stand to share.

The beauty of the film is not only Ellen. The costumes, the color, the settings, all contribute to a feast for the sense that leaves you rather full like a dinner where you've had too much to eat. It is all too tasty, all too uncomfortable and all too deliciously much in a most discomforting yet satisfying way. 

As mentioned, Gene Tierney's costumes (designed by her husband Oleg Cassini ) and the various homes featured in the film are simply to die for. Here's a sampling:

The Costumes

notice her initials?

The Homes

1. The New Mexico Home (my favorite)

2. Back of the Moon (Deer Lake, Maine)

3. The Bar Harbor Maine House