A Malignant Odor: SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS (United Artists 1957)

Watching SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS is like taking a slog through a sludge-filled, rat infested sewer. It’s “a cookie full of arsenic”, with two of the most repellant characters to ever worm their way across the silver screen. It’s also a brilliant film, with superb performances from stars Burt Lancaster and Tony Curtis, wonderfully quotable dialog by Clifford Odets and Ernest Lehman, tense direction by Alexander Mackendrick, and stunning black and white photography by James Wong Howe . It’s a movie that demands repeated viewings; just make sure to take a shower after each one!

Powerful Broadway columnist J.J. Hunsecker is dead set on destroying the relationship between his kid sister Susie and up-and-coming jazz guitarist Steve Dallas. To achieve this goal, he uses his toady, press agent Sidney Falco. Sidney, forever trying to curry favor with the great Hunsecker, pimps out cigarette girl Rita to rival columnist Otis Elwell, in exchange for Elwell printing a blind item linking Dallas with marijuana use, not to mention being a card-carrying Commie! Of course, none of it’s true, and Dallas confronts Hunsecker and Falco. For daring to stand up to him, Hunsecker goes for the jugular, and gets Falco to plant some weed on the musician, siccing his psycho-cop friend Kello on him. Falco’s reward will be to take over Hunsecker’s column while he and Susie take an ocean cruise. But as in any good film noir, the best laid plans of rats and men go horribly awry…

Burt Lancaster made his name in 40’s film noir (THE KILLERS,  BRUTE FORCE CRISS CROSS ), but nothing tops his turn as the malicious J.J. Hunsecker. He’s got ice water in his veins and a razor-sharp tongue (when Falco first fails to breakup the romance, Hunsecker tells him: “You’re dead, son. Go get yourself buried”). Cold, cruel, and callous, J.J will do anything to save his twisted relationship with his sister. Wrapping himself in the American flag and wound tighter than a coiled spring, Lancaster’s J.J. Hunsecker is said to be based on famed columnist Walter Winchell.  Whether this is completely true or not, J.J. Hunsecker stands tall in the noir pantheon of heels.

Good as Lancaster is, Tony Curtis runs away with the film as the self-loathing publicist Sidney Falco. Sidney will do whatever it takes to get in J.J.’s good graces (and get his clients in J.J.’s column). Sid’s a real shit, a sniveling sycophant with the morals of… no, below an alley cat. The duplicitous, brownnosing Falco is a far cry from Curtis’ 50’s good-guy roles, and his best screen performance by far. Though nominated for an Oscar the next year in THE DEFIANT ONES, Tony Curtis should’ve won for this (Red Buttons took supporting honors that year for SAYONARA). The film wasn’t even nominated; apparently, even Oscar was repulsed by these characters!

“Match me, Sidney”

Clifford Odets and Ernest Lehman’s screenplay is dense and filled with some quotable poison-pen dialog. Besides the famous “cookie laced with arsenic” line, here are a few venomous samples:

Sidney to J.J. about Dallas: “The cat’s in the bag and the bag’s in the river”

Sidney to Elwell after hooking him up with Rita: “Don’t do anything I wouldn’t do. That leaves a lot of leeway”

Rita, upon finding out Sidney’s set her up: “What am I, a bowl of fruit? A tangerine that peels in a minute?”

J.J., on New York City: “I love this dirty little town”

Barbara Nichols as Rita

The supporting cast is equally good. SWET SMELL OF SUCCESS is also Martin Milner’s  finest hour on the big screen as earnest young Steve Dallas; he of course went on to smell success with TV’s ROUTE 66 and ADAM-12. Susan Harrison (Susie) didn’t; she’s best remembered as the ballerina in the TWILGHT ZONE episode “Five Characters in Search of an Exit”. Barbara Nichols shines as not-so-naïve Rita, a small but standout role. Barbara’s other credits include THE KING & 4 QUEENS, PAL JOEY, WHERE THE BOYS ARE, and the cult sci-fi flick THE HUMAN DUPLICATORS. Another small part cast David White as the lascivious Elwell; he’s known to TV viewers as BEWITCHED’s Larry Tate. Other Familiar Faces among the denizens of this dirty little town are Sam Levene , Edith Atwater, Jeff Donnell, Lawrence Dobkin, John Fiedler, Bess Flowers Emile Meyer , Queenie Smith, Lurene Tuttle, and Phillip Van Zandt . Jazz drummer Chico Hamilton plays himself, and vaudeville veteran Joe Frisco plays a comedian.

“I love this dirty little town”

The choice of director was an unusual one. This was Alexander Mackendrick’s first American film, after helming such Ealing Studios comedies as THE MAN IN THE WHTE SUIT and THE LADYKILLERS. It turned out to be a good one; the British director, aided and abetted by the great James Wong Howe as DP, perfectly capture the grittiness of Times Square nightlife in the 50’s, making the area a character itself. Elmer Bernstein’s powerful score (along with some  Chico Hamilton Quintet bebop numbers) add to the flavor of the film. SWEET SMALL OF SUCCESS did not do well at the box office upon release, as audiences were undoubtably turned off by it’s repulsive main characters. Only later has it become a classic, one of the best in the noir canon, certainly one of the decade’s best movies. Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to take a shower!

Halloween Havoc!: Bela Lugosi in CHANDU THE MAGICIAN (Fox 1932)

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Thrills! Chills! Romance! Action! CHANDU THE MAGICIAN plays like a Saturday matinée serial aimed directly at the kiddie crowd. Based on a popular radio series, the film is pretty antiquated seen today, its saving graces being the special effects wizardry of co-director William Cameron Menzies and the deliciously evil Bela Lugosi as the megalomaniacal villain Roxor.

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The movie kicks off with the banging of a gong and an offscreen narrator ominously intoning “Chan-du the Magician”. A hand is used to wipe the screen credits, the first of Menzies’ many filmic tricks. We’re taken inside a temple where Frank Chandler, aka Chandu, has spent three years learning the ancient secrets of the mystic arts (move over, Dr. Strange!). He’s a yogi now, master of the hypnotic eye and astral projection, and demonstrates his prowess by performing the old Indian rope trick and walking through fire. His mentor bids him to “go forth in thy youth and strength, and conquer the evil that threatens mankind”.

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That evil is in the form of Roxor, “last of an ancient family that lived in Alexandria”. Roxor has kidnapped Chandu’s brother-in-law Robert Regent, who has invented a “death ray” Roxor plans on using to conquer the world through chaos and disorder. Chandu senses his sister Dorothy and her two (whiny, annoying) teenage kids are in danger, so he goes to them just in time to rescue them from Roxor’s minions. Chandu’s long-lost love Princess Nadji shows up, as does Chandu’s former Army orderly Miggles, another annoying character, who’s fondness for booze is countered by one of Chandu’s spells, making a mini-clone of Miggles appear every time the souse tries to drink.

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Roxor’s flunky Sheik Abdulah (played by Clark Gable look-and-sound alike Weldon Heyburn, who’s about as much of a sheik as I am!) kidnaps the princess to lure Chandu into the madman’s clutches. He rescues her, but then niece Betty Lou is kidnapped, and Roxor threatens to sell her into slavery unless Regent gives him the secret of the death ray. Once again, Chandu to the rescue, and Roxor is royally pissed! He figures out a way to capture the magician by using tear gas, nullifying the power of Chandu’s hypnotic eyes, and chains Chandu in a sarcophagus, dropping it to the bottom of the Nile.

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Roxor has trapped Regent’s family in a cell with a tilting floor, threatening to dump them in the Nile too, before Regent consents to activate the death ray. Chandu’s gone, Nadji is in the clutches of Abdulah, Miggles is useless, and it looks like the crazed Roxor will reign supreme! Here’s where Bela gets to do some of his patented ranting and raving, while visions of his plan for death and destruction play out onscreen:

“At last, I am king of all”, he bellows. “That lever is my scepter. London! New York! Imperial Rome! I can blast them all into a heap of smoking ruins! … All that live shall know me as their master… What will they think when they feel the power of Roxor!” But alas, Roxor has spoken too soon, as Chandu escapes his watery grave, rescues everyone, and Roxor and his minions are blown to smithereens by the death ray machine, which Regent rigged in order to stop the maniac. A happy ending is had by all. Except Roxor, of course.

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Edmond Lowe was a star of silent and early talkies best known for his role as Sgt. Quirt in WHAT PRICE GLORY?, a role he repeated more than once. He makes a dashing hero, but I was never convinced he was a master yogi. Irene Ware (Nadji) would again appear with Bela as the object of his desire in THE RAVEN . Herbert Mundin (Miggles) is extremely annoying here, but good as Much the Miller in THE ADVENTURES OF ROBIN HOOD . Henry B. Walthall (Regent) was also a silent star, going all the way back to BIRTH OF A NATION.

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Then there’s Bela Lugosi, once again stealing the show, going far over the top and laying it on thick as the evil Roxor. His strange pronunciations and inflections give his Roxor an exotic edge, and he chews the scenery like an overcooked steak. Believe it or not, two years later a serial was produced, THE RETURN OF CHANDU, with Lugosi switching sides to portray the master magician! It was a rare chance for Bela to act the hero, and though I haven’t seen it, its definatley on my bucket list!

Roxor’s lab is filled with weird, Strickfaden-like devices, and Menzies’ special effects were cutting edge for their time. Unfortunately, some of them don’t hold up very well today. The camerawork does though, with some wonderful imagery captured by the legendary James Wong Howe . CHANDU THE MAGICIAN does suffer from some wooden acting and stilted dialog, but as always Bela Lugosi shines like a diamond in the rough. Fans of the Hungarian star will want to savor his performance in this goulash, another delightfully demented villain to add to Bela’s Rogue’s Gallery of amazing madmen.

Gangsters On Horseback: James Cagney and Humphrey Bogart in THE OKLAHOMA KID (Warner Bros, 1939)

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James Cagney and Humphrey Bogart traded in their tommy guns for six-shooters in THE OKLAHOMA KID.  The film moves like a serial, going swiftly from one set-piece to the next. The plot’s your standard cowboy outing, but what makes THE OKLAHOMA KID so much fun is seeing the two great gangster stars going through their paces in a Western setting.

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When the Oklahoma land rush is opened, Whip McCall (Bogart) and his gang decide to rob the stagecoach carrying newly minted silver to pay the Cherokee Nation. The Oklahoma Kid (Cagney), a free-spirited rascal, beats them to the punch. The Kid enters a camp where he meets Judge Hardwick (Donald Crisp) and his pretty daughter Jane (Rosemary Lane). Jane’s beau, Ned Kincaid (Harvey Stephens), knows something about the Kid’s mysterious past. McCall then puts a “sooner” claim on a parcel of land that becomes Tulsa. The town is wide open thanks to McCall, now running the saloon and gambling joint. The concerned citizens decide to take on the racketeers, I mean outlaws, by running Ned’s dad John Kincaid (Hugh Southern) for mayor. McCall frames Kincaid for murder, then tricks Judge Hardwick into going to Kansas City, setting up his own corrupt judge to preside at the trial. Jane sends The Kid to fetch him back, but it’s too late. The hand-picked jury has found Kincaid guilty.

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The Kid decides he’s going to bust Kincaid out of jail, but the old man won’t go with him, preferring law and order over anarchy. McCall incites a lynch mob to grab Kincaid and they hang him high. The truth is now revealed: The Kid is Kincaid’s son! He tracks down and kills McCall’s gang except for Doolin (Edward Pawley), who confesses McCall gave the order for the frame-up and lynching. Meanwhile, Ned has been named U.S. Marshall and goes to arrest McCall. The villain gut-shoots Ned, then engages in a wild brawl with The Kid. McCall’s about to finish The Kid off when Ned, in a last desperate act, shoots the bad guy down, thus saving his wayward brother before he dies.

Cagney’s Oklahoma Kid is a smiling, swaggering maverick who has no use for “civilization” (and he explains why in a well-written, libertarian speech to Judge Hardwick). He’s a charming rogue of an outlaw, and his portrayal of The Kid is fun to watch. Cagney even gets to sing a tune (“I Don’t Want To Play In Your Yard”) during the course of the action. Bogart plays his usual slimy bad guy as McCall, dressed all in black and ordering around his minions. The cast is full of Western veterans (Ward Bond, George Chesebro, Bob Kortman, Al Bridge), and director Lloyd Bacon keeps things moving along. Max Steiner’s music helps set the mood, and the cinematography of legendary James Wong Howe adds greatly to the overall atmosphere. THE OKLAHOMA KID is a fun movie to watch, made even more fun by the presence of Cagney and Bogart out of their gangster element.

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