Last week, from Sunday to Wednesday, I saw four movies at Film Forum in their ongoing program, “The City: Real and Imagined.” This series has over 60 films set in New York City and runs from May 12 to June 8. It was a deep pleasure to see four great films on four consecutive days. Here are my thoughts on those films.
Easy Living (Mitchell Leisen, director. Preston Sturges, writer. 1937) Of the four films, this is the only one I hadn’t seen before. I can blather on incessantly about film noir or classic horror movies, but I’m not as conversant when it comes to screwball comedies. I’ve seen It Happened One Night (1934), Bringing Up Baby (1938), The Lady Eve (1941), and Sullivan’s Travels (1941) among others, but I seldom seek them out. Interestingly, the last two were written and directed by Preston Sturges, who wrote Easy Living. Sturges throws a long shadow.
I hadn’t intended on seeing Easy Living. I was geared to see some of the more obvious titles, such as The French Connection and Serpico (and still will). But my wife was doing something with her sister that day, so I had a window, and this is what fit. As it turned out, I’m really glad I did. Easy Living is great! I loved it. Wall Street millionaire Edward Arnold throws his wife’s new sable fur coat out the window from their penthouse where it falls onto office clerk Jean Arthur, riding by in an open-air bus below. The writing is great, the plotting complex and head-spinning, the pace seldom lets up. As Samuel Wigley on the BFI website puts it, “…misunderstanding is piled on misunderstanding like an ever-more precarious house of cards.”
Here is a scene between Edward Arnold and a clueless Jean Arthur after he’s discovered that she has the sable coat.
Ray Milland, as Edward Arnold’s son, is trying to make it on his own. He’s working at an Automat, where a very hungry Jean Arthur shows up, hoping to have enough coins to buy some food. The sequence that ensues is, for me, a high point of the film as it turns into a hilarious food riot. Here’s the scene. It runs just over eight minutes and takes a little while for things to go crazy, but stay with it. Believe me, it’s worth it.
I hadn’t realized until after seeing Easy Living that Jean Arthur is in one of my all-time favorite films, George Stevens’ Shane (1953), a truly great movie.
The only source I can find for streaming Easy Living is on YouTube. This is the complete feature. The image quality is excellent, which surprised me a bit. Check it out when you’ve got the time. It runs just under 90 minutes.
The Naked City (Jules Dassin, director, 1948) Another great film by a great director. What stands out is that it was shot entirely on location in New York City, exteriors and interiors, all of it. This lends a documentary aspect, especially for the street scenes, which provides a look back at the city at that time. The significance of the location shooting in this film can’t be overestimated. As with the location work in Sweet Smell of Success, it lends a sense of reality that is felt as well as seen.
I’ve seen The Naked City numerous times, but this time it seemed even better to me than it had before. It all fits together, every element. This film is as nearly perfect as you’re likely to get. But I remember the first time I saw it, I didn’t like the voice-over narration by producer Mark Hellinger that opens the film and punctuates it throughout. His narration has a folksy, conversational style that seemed out of place for this film. Then I got used to it, and now it’s one more thing that sets this film apart. Here’s the opening, which will give you a sense of it.
The Naked City is a police procedural that takes us step by step through the investigation of the murder that opens the film. Barry Fitzgerald plays Lt. Dan Muldoon, a homicide detective with something of a leprechaun in his manner, though he’s all business when he has to be, which is most of the time. His partner is Jimmy Halloran, a cop with far less experience, well played by Don Taylor. They make a good team. There’s humor in the film, along with a lot of pain.
The shot below shows Don Taylor, with pistol, tie blowing, and Barry Fitzgerald in the passenger seat of the cop car. They’re in hot pursuit of the killer. The end is near.
Below is a clip of the climax, a final foot chase and shootout on the Williamsburg Bridge. Mark Hellinger can be heard making very excited comments on the narration track. **SPOILER ALERT** for anyone who hasn’t seen the film and doesn’t want to see the ending. It’s a knockout, but I understand.
The Naked City is available for streaming on Amazon Prime and Max (previously HBO Max).
Click here for an interview with Film Forum repertory programmer Bruce Goldstein on Jules Dassin and The Naked City. This is a deep dive, especially as concerns the location shooting.
Rosemary’s Baby (Roman Polanski, director & writer, 1968) I didn’t enjoy seeing Rosemary’s Baby last week in the same way I did the other three films in this post. I felt angry and irritated at how Mia Farrow’s character was being manipulated by those around her, that there was no way out for this woman as the film closed in around her. The only action left to her at the end is to rock the cradle holding Satan’s son. I’d seen it before, so I knew what was coming. I think my visceral response was a sign of the film’s effectiveness.
Film rights to Ira Levin’s novel were acquired by Robert Evans at Paramount even before the book was published in April 1967. Evans had read galley proofs and saw the commercial potential of a film version. Roman Polanski was hired to write as well as direct the film. They would work together again six years later with Chinatown, Polanski directing and Evans producing.
Exteriors for Rosemary’s Baby were shot in New York City, notably the iconic Dakota apartment on 72nd Street and Central Park West, which became the Bramford in the film. The bulk of principal photography was on sets in Los Angeles.
Rosemary’s Baby is a significant film. It’s part of our popular culture. For better or worse, it launched a wave of religion-based supernatural films such as The Exorcist (1973) and The Omen (1976). I doubt I’m the only one who remembers that great line of dialogue from The Exorcist: “Fuck me, I’m the Devil!” This is a bit of a digression, but the thing about all these films, including vampire movies (thanks to Bram Stoker), is that it’s a given that Christianity is the one true reality. This seems rather presumptuous to me. Just saying. But I’m always amused by the Jewish vampire in Polanski’s The Fearless Vampire Killers (1967) who’s unfazed by a cross.
The cast is excellent. Prior to Rosemary’s Baby, Mia Farrow had only appeared in two feature films, though she had done a fair amount of television work, most significantly appearing in 263 episodes of the series, Peyton Place, so she wasn’t exactly unknown. She’s really the heart of Rosemary’s Baby. John Cassavetes, who plays Rosemary’s husband, Guy, always has a sinister look to me, which makes for effective casting in this case. This was Charles Grodin’s first feature, in a small part as Rosemary’s first doctor. Ruth Gordon received an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress as Minnie Castevet, Rosemary’s Satan-worshipping next-door neighbor. She’s a trip. Here’s a clip of her entrance in the film.
I hadn’t seen this poster before. It’s an interesting, though not very subtle, variation on the more well-known poster design (seen at the top of this post).
Main title sequence.
Rosemary’s Baby is available for streaming on Amazon Prime.
Sweet Smell of Success (Alexander Mackendrick, director/co-writer; Ernest Lehman & Clifford Odets, co-writers, 1957) Despite making Time magazine’s and the New York Harald Tribune’s 10-best list for 1957, Sweet Smell of Success was a commercial flop on its initial release. Per Sam Kashner in a piece on the film in the April 2000 Vanity Fair, the movie was just too cynical for the times. A film executive said it seemed to have been made “almost in defiance of the box-office.” We all know better now. This is one of those films, like Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon (1975), that has only grown over time.
It is indeed cynical. There’s no one to like, really, excepting the Susan Harrison, Barbara Nichols, and Jeff Donnell characters, and even then it’s more like you just feel sorry for them. The two main characters are not very nice, to put it mildly. Burt Lancaster plays J. J. Hunsecker, a powerful newspaper columnist who inspires fear in most everyone around him. It’s a tightly controlled performance that radiates malevolence. Elmer Bernstein, the film’s composer, said this about Lancaster: “Burt was really scary. He was a dangerous guy. He had a short fuse. He was very physical. You thought you might get punched out.” Accurate or not, this quality certainly informs his performance.
Tony Curtis plays Sidney Falco, a press agent and weaselly suck-up who won’t do anything without first calculating what’s in it for him. His charm and charisma somewhat mitigate the fact that he’s a real louse. Sidney’s livelihood depends on having items about his clients appear in the city’s newspaper columns. The most important of these is J. J. Hunsecker’s. Sidney is a constant supplicant at the table in “21” from which J. J. dispenses insults and sometimes favors. No humiliation seems too great for Sidney to endure. Curtis is really great in this film. His performance here proved he could act beyond his looks.
Sweet Smell of Success was shot by James Wong Howe, a terrific cinematographer whose many credits, which go back to silent films, include The Thin Man (1934), Hud (1963), and Hombre (1967). Sweet Smell takes place almost entirely at night. His crisp black & white photography shows a noirish view of New York City, streets wet with rain, reflections and shadows. Sam Kashner in Vanity Fair writes that it would have been impossible to get the sort of shots Howe wanted filming inside the “21” club, so interiors were filmed in Hollywood — they spent $25,000 just recreating “21,” with movable “wild walls” to make way for Howe’s camera. He smeared the walls with oil so they would gleam. (I love this detail.)
One of the greatest things about this film for me is the music by Elmer Bernstein. Though his iconic score for The Magnificent Seven (1960) is probably the one most people know, just a few of his previous scores include The Ten Commandments (1956), The Man with the Golden Arm (1955), To Kill a Mockingbird (1962), and The Great Escape (1963). His work here is the epitome of big city noir. Check it out in this clip.
The dialogue is blistering. I think a lot of this had to do with Clifford Odets’ contribution. He came on after Ernest Lehman had left the picture. When director Alexander Mackendrick expressed concern about the dialogue, Odets says he told him, “You’re probably worried that the dialogue is exaggerated and may sound implausible. Don’t be. Play it real fast — and play the scenes not for the words but for the situation. Play them ‘on the run’ and they’ll work just fine.” That they did.
Sweet Smell of Success didn’t have a final script when they started shooting. Odets was working under great pressure, grinding out scenes at the last minute so they could be shot. Odets was put with his typewriter in a prop truck on the set to work. At about three or four one morning (lots of night shoots), Tony Curtis joined him in the truck. Odets suddenly looked up and said, “Come here, kid, I want to show you something. Look at what I’m writing.” Per Curtis: “I see he’s just typed out, ‘The cat’s in the bag, and the bag’s in the river.’ It took my breath away.” This is my favorite line in the film.
Sweet Smell of Success is available for streaming on Amazon Prime.
That’s all for now. See you next time. Stay safe. — Ted Hicks