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Douglas Pratt

By Douglas Pratt

The DVD Geek: The Sweet Smell of Success

Two sorts of viewers enjoy watching DVDs and Blu-rays.  One sort just wants something to do.  Maybe they’ve got a Blu-ray player and a couple of effects-heavy blockbusters in the format, but they mostly rent their movies and if they have much of a collection at all, it is largely made up of Christmas gifts and such that have only been viewed once or twice.  As soon as a soup-to-nuts Internet download mechanism with a single, set monthly payment is in place, and it is almost there, now (the ability to link large TV screens to routers is still in its adolescence), the DVDs will start gathering cobwebs.  The degradation in image and sound quality will hardly be a noticeable tradeoff for the convenience of access. 

The other kind of viewer, however, will be more discerning, because that kind of viewer truly loves movies, not for the distraction they offer from life, but for the embellishment to life the aesthetics of film enable.  What these viewers want most of all is to replicate the experience of seeing a movie in a movie theater.  With Blu-ray and a very large screen, the ability to replicate this experience is achievable.  It doesn’t happen very often, but it does happen.  There are many outstanding Blu-rays in the marketplace, and not a few of them have been released by the Criterion Collection, but every once in a while you come across a Blu-ray that is even better than outstanding, one that has an extra sort of subliminal something that crystallizes its perfection of delivery and transports the viewer to the illusion of a genuine theatrical experience.  Criterion’s The Third Man Blu-ray, now sadly out of print, was one such achievement, and Criterion’s new Sweet Smell of Success Blu-ray is another.

With its vivid black-and-white on-the-streets cinematography, which doesn’t so much capture a documentary view of New York City as it does use, spectacularly, that city and its nightlife as a soundstage, and with a jazz-based musical score, conceived primarily by Elmer Bernstein and, separately, Chico Hamilton, that matches the frenetic bustle of urban life with a swirling competition of melodies and harmonies that climb over one another in a Darwinian struggle to reach a pinnacle of musical expression—and can do so because the drama is so powerful that no amount of music can come close to overwhelming it—Sweet Smell of Success is a film that succeeds in a great part because its images and sounds are so sublimely designed and delivered, and so it is that Criterion’s meticulously and unrestrainedly produced Blu-ray creates a rapturous experience of movie watching, one that can forever be re-experienced and re-explored.

Directed by Alexander Mackendrick, Burt Lancaster is a manipulative gossip columnist whose absolute power has begun to instill sedentary flaws, and Tony Curtis is a desperately ambitious press agent whose energy exacerbates those flaws.  The 1957 film is specifically a portrait of its time, from the real streets where it was shot and the near-cutting edge music that paces its excitement to its barely veiled intention of exposing the now almost forgotten columnist, Walter Winchell, and his predilections.  Yet as time-centric as its nightlife milieu and fear mongering political insinuations are, the dynamics of its melodrama are readily recognizable in any age and are deftly moderated by its invigorating dialog, its magnetic performances and its taxi cab ride editing.  The film may have been a boxoffice failure in its day, particularly disappointing the pony-tailed teens who were reportedly squealing whenever they caught sight of Curtis on the streets, but the film cannot be understated for the acting creds it gave him within the eyes of the industry, resetting his career for a full decade as an ‘A list’ player.  His character, however, is only a youthful measure less venal than Lancaster’s, and it is this unholy contrast between the skyscraper beauty of the film’s artistry and the alleyway scummyness of the characters that gives Sweet Smell of Success its divinity.

The picture is windowboxed with an aspect ratio of about 1.66:1.  The monophonic sound is solid, and thrilling.  There are English subtitles.  Film historian James Naremore, who has written a book about the movie, shares everything he knows on a commentary track, including reeling off more than a dozen different endings to the film that were considered until the one that was used was worked out.  He talks about the film’s creators, including Lancaster’s production company and how its dynamics were a significant force in conceiving the film, and he identifies the references screenwriters Clifford Odets and Ernest Lehman had included to real gossip columnists and publicity agents (who, Naremore explains, hovered around Winchell like, “pilot fish around a shark”).  He analyzes the music and the cinematography and explains what was shot on the streets and what was shot in the studio.  He discusses the skills not just of the primary cast members, but of the many supporting players, and he provides a comprehensive analysis of the story.

Along with a trailer, there is a very good 1986 profile of Mackendrick that runs 44 minutes, along with an equally enlightening 25-minute testimonial by director James Mangold, who was one of Mackendrick’s students during a second career as a film professor.  A nifty 1973 profile of cinematographer James Wong Howe, who got his start in silent pictures, runs 22 minutes and includes an extensive demonstration by Howe of lighting techniques.  Finally, there is a rewarding 29-minute reflection on Winchell by biographer Neal Gabler, although Gabler fails to mention one significant aspect of Winchell’s writing, that the ellipsis blurbs that often ran by scores in his columns resemble quite pointedly today’s Twitter gossip.

The MGM/UA Home Entertainment release of the film on DVD did not have 16:9 enhancement and, with a much weaker transfer, is now about as useful as yesterday’s sports pages.  Criterion has also released a two-platter, moving all of the special features except the trailer onto the second platter.  The transfer is the same as the one used for the BD, and it is great if that’s your only option, but the excitement that the crispness of the BD’s image and the power its audio track instills just isn’t there.

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The Ultimate DVD Geek

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It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon