Le Banc de la désolation: MOMA, August 19, 2007
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The two films seem to fight with each other because they have different agendas for Huxley, who is a complete nincompoop in the genre-play movie, and a plausible, if displaced, Hawksian hero in the character-based one. One feels the pull even in the presentation of supporting characters: for every Catlett or Ruggles who underlines the screwiness of the film's premise, there's a Hawksian delivery boy murmuring "Don't let it throw you" as he makes his exit.
I don't think this conceptual conflict is a particular virtue. But the film is simply dazzling in the scope of its comic inspiration. Hawks' repertoire of comic modes seems unlimited: he gets laughs with shock cuts and by holding on to master shots, with classical cutting and by withholding the classical cut, with well-staged physical humor and with offscreen sound gags. The film seems improvised to a large extent, but not quite in the style of other improvised films: it's as if Hawks shot and cut the film to enhance the actors' efficiency and mental quickness. Hepburn in particular riffs with Robin Williams-like density.
As is his wont, Hawks pushes the project's comic concept to logical extremes, and Susan's feminine energy leads inevitably to apocalypse in the final scene. (It could be noted in passing that Hawks was happy to build his next comedy, His Girl Friday, around runaway masculinity.) The exaggeration of the movie's chaotic tendencies could be seen as another aspect of genre play, but I prefer to see it as Hawks creating a suitably existential setting for the rather poignant dilemma of his displaced hero.
One could think of many of these effects as being related to various "realist" influences that were operating at the time. For instance, the increased presence of newsreel footage might have something to do with the acceptability of natural sound, or of technical "imperfections" like lights shining at the camera; neorealist films from Italy may have suggested the more general use of long shots; the deep-focus photography associated with Toland seems to be influencing Cukor's decor decisions. If Cukor is indeed borrowing realist style elements, though, he is determined to make them look very nice. No jittery newsreel-style camera or hurried compositions will be found in his films - all the effects I mention are aestheticized and pleasing to the eye.Because one tends to think of Cukor as an actor-centered director, it's interesting to contemplate this shift in his style toward a greater exploitation of the spatial properties of the image. His work in the 30s was not at all visually clumsy, but my impression is that he was principally interested at that time in varying shot length for dramatic purposes, to shift our attention between a theater-like sense of ensemble and the interior state of individual performers. But his visuals in the late 40s and early 50s become more evocative of space and time, even as he retains his primary interest in emotional revelation.
And still, Mackendrick's personality is rather ethereal here, like a watermark on paper that can be seen only by holding it up to the light.
The screenwriters' presence is not ethereal. The crazy, inspired stunt dialogue, the quotable lines, nearly all go to Curtis and Lancaster, the villains who rule the film and create and control its melodramatic plot. The embodiments of decent living, especially young lovers Martin Milner and Susan Harrison, seem quite bland in comparison: probably no one watches the film for them. And yet the script's sincere preaching against the evil of unrestrained conservative power and amoral opportunism comes out of the mouths of these non-entities. One concludes that the film is governed by a fascination with the evil that it is condemning, and does not realize that it is bored by the kind of world that it advocates.
This is not a quality I associate with Mackendrick's other films. Yet neither do I detect that Mackendrick is trying to undermine this quality. He knows full well the nature of the project, and he executes it with enthusiasm.
And so I consider Sweet Smell of Success a very interesting failure....