A Shot in the Dark: My Favorite Blake Edwards

Blake Edwards, director of Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Days of Wine and Roses, Victor Victoria, and the Pink Panther series, died at the age of 88.

A Shot in the Dark, the second installment in the Pink Panther series, has long been one of my favorite comedies. It was the first Pink Panther movie that I saw and no other screen appearance by Inspector Clouseau has made me laugh as much.

Below are some clips and a critical assessment of the film by A.O. Scott.

What is your favorite Blake Edwards movie? Sound off below.

Tony Curtis: The Career Defining Role

Following Tony Curtis’ death on September 29, I avoided writing about the screen icon for one reason: I had never seen Sweet Smell of Success. That is a wrong I finally corrected this weekend.

Curtis is an actor who I always admired. The Defiant Ones and Some Like it Hot have long been two phenomenal pictures that I love. Even the unintentional humor of Spartacus has shaped my appreciation for Curtis. Yet since watching Sweet Smell of Success and savoring every moment Curtis appears on screen, I now fully understand why this is his career-defining role.

In Sweet Smell of Success Curtis plays Sidney Falco, a New York City press agent desperate to get his clients coverage. He is pitted against Burt Lancaster’s unethical yet powerful newspaper columnist, J.J. Hunsecker, who controls everything and everyone within his reach – his readers, his clients, and his sister. Hunsecker can make or break someones career and life. When his sister Susan (Susan Whitman) falls in love with Steve, a young jazz musician, the columnist uses Falco’s desire for success as a way to provoke the press agent into ending his sister’s romance.

Taking place over 36 hours, with two sequences, quite symbolically, set at night and the film’s conclusion set at day break, Sweet Smell of Success uses these two devious, malicious, and downright repugnant male protagonists to reveal the dark side of desire and the oft-depicted glamorous entertainment industry, complete with lies, backroom deals and corruption.

Both Lancaster and Curtis, known for their good guy roles, are playing against type. It is Lancaster’s first villainous role and Curtis never played a character this deceitful. Like what his last name implies, Sidney Falco preys on unsuspecting victims, who like him are seeking the notoriety that comes with Hunsecker’s approval.

These characters are so corrupt and dangerous that they can hardly be considered foils for one another. Sidney Falco may be a startling character but he is simply modeling himself after Hunsecker as a way to take down Hunsecker and cement his own power.

Although Sweet Smell of Success was a commercial and critical failure in 1957, this story about American ambition and the dangers of it has become a late Hollywood film noir critical darling. Beyond the stellar performances of Curtis and Lancaster, the film is enhanced by its cinematography, writing and music, without which these characters would only  seem more sympathetic. Scottish director Alexander Mackendrick (The Ladykillers) helmed this picture written by Ernest Lehman (North by Northwest) and playwright Clifford Odets. The endlessly quotable, slang-filled dialogue (“I’d hate to take a bite outta you. You’re a cookie full of arsenic.”) paired with the sharp black and white cinematography and the Elmer Bernstein’s jazz score , just oozes off of the screen. Without these stylistic choices that influence our perception of the protagonists (the harsher the lighting, the sharper the dialogue, the faster the music, the darker they seem), Sweet Smell of Success would hardly be the stand out noir that it is today.

What is your favorite Tony Curtis role? Along with countless other classic Hollywood fans, I have now been converted to Sidney Falco in Sweet Smell of Success.

Arthur Penn and the Lasting Influence of Bonnie and Clyde

Arthur Penn, the Academy Award nominated director of Bonnie and Clyde and Alice’s Restaurant, died last night at the age of 88.

Bonnie and Clyde is considered to be one of the greatest American films, at the forefront of the New Hollywood Cinema. The film’s bloody and violent closing sequence shocked audiences and marked a definitive end of the studio system.

As one article puts it: “In Mr. Penn’s hands, [Bonnie and Clyde] became something even more dangerous and innovative — a sympathetic portrait of two barely articulate criminals, played by Mr. Beatty and a newcomer, Faye Dunaway, that disconcertingly mixed sex, violence and hayseed comedy, set to a bouncy bluegrass score by Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs. Not only was the film sexually explicit in ways unseen in Hollywood since the imposition of the Production Code in 1934 — when Bonnie stroked Clyde’s gun, the symbolism was unmistakable — it was violent in ways that had never been seen before. Audiences gasped when a comic bank robbery climaxed with Clyde’s shooting a bank teller in the face, and were stunned when this attractive outlaw couple died in a torrent of bullets, their bodies twitching in slow motion as their clothes turned red with blood.”

Bonnie and Clyde is without a doubt Penn’s greatest contribution to American cinema and its influence is constantly felt to this day.

Bonnie and Clyde is a film I addressed frequently throughout the course of my research on post-9/11 American independent cinema last year. Bonnie and Clyde, as well as The Searchers and Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, influenced director Courtney Hunt throughout her inception of Frozen River.

Knowing this, the relationship between Ray Eddy and Lila Littlewolf, the female protagonists and unlikely illegal immigrant smuggling duo carries a greater depth as it develops throughout the film. Like Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow, these women are outlaws united by and for a greater cause. While Bonnie and Clyde were outlaws mostly out of boredom, Ray and Lila were united by their maternal suffering. They smuggle illegal immigrants to provide for their children after being abandoned by their husbands and patriarchal society. Their actions play out like a wild west showdown, complete with gun fights, chases in the woods, and the ultimate maternal sacrifice by one of the women. The frozen tundra of upstate New York-Canadian border region contributes to the film’s frequent wild west characteristics.

Frozen River was nominated for two Academy Awards and it is by far one of the best independent films released in recent years. It is films such as Frozen River, which are relevant to today’s current political issues and have a level of unmatched artistry, where we see the unparalleled legacy of Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde.

“Hello, Sally” – Remembering Sally Menke

The news today that Quentin Tarantino’s longtime editor Sally Menke was found dead in California is a definite blow to the filmmaking community.

Menke collaborated with Tarantino since Reservoir Dogs and she was nominated for two Oscars for her work on Pulp Fiction (1995) and Inglourious Basterds (2010). Check out this charming video from the set of Inglourious of everyone on the set saying hi to Sally. It will certainly make you smile.

 

Here is a video of Tarantino praising Menke’s work:

The Academy Remembers Patricia Neal

Following Oscar winner Patricia Neal’s death on Sunday, AMPAS official YouTube channel dug into their archives and posted two videos of Neal at the Academy Awards. These videos are truly remarkable gems not just for Neal but also for the presence of Gregory Peck and Bob Hope. For classic cinema nerds, you can get a sense what the Academy Awards were like in the 1960s and how the awards show has changed over the course of the last 40 years.

The first video is of Neal’s acceptance speech at the 36th Academy Awards ceremony in 1963, for her performance in Hud. Neal was not present .

The second video is off Neal presenting at the 1966 Academy Awards, just months after she suffered three cerebral aneurysms. It’s an appearance that has gone down in Oscars history lore. After receiving a standing ovation from the audience, she begins by saying “It really is wonderful, wonderful, wonderful to be back with you all.”

These are two nice and simple tributes to remember an actress with an iconic voice and screen presence. Well done.