Two new stars in heaven: Tony Curtis and Arthur Penn

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on October 2, 2010)

Match me, Sidney: RIP Tony Curtis 1925-2010

Tony Curtis was likely better known to the general public in recent years from his appearances on TV talk shows (and as Jamie Lee Curtis’ dad), but for those of us “of a certain age” he was, and will always remain, a Movie Star-in the classic sense. He may not have vibed the smoldering, “Method” intensity of contemporaries like Monty Clift, Brando or James Dean, but there was no denying that he was ridiculously handsome, charismatic, and possessed of an effortless versatility (the latter of which many critics seemed to overlook-undoubtedly due to that Bronx honk). Granted, the bulk of his best work may have been behind him by the late 60s, but it’s still an impressive body of work.

I’m sure that the majority of people would say that his memorable pairing with Jack Lemmon in Billy Wilder’s wonderful and riotous 1959 screwball romp Some Like It Hot rates as their favorite Tony Curtis performance, but for me, that runs a close second to his role as the slime ball press agent Sidney Falco in the 1957 film noir, The Sweet Smell of Success. Curtis gives a knockout performance as the toady who shamelessly sucks up to Burt Lancaster’s JJ Hunsecker, a powerful NYC entertainment columnist who can launch (or sabotage) show biz careers with a flick of his poison pen .

Although it was made 50 years ago, the film retains its edge and remains one of the most vicious and cynical ruminations on America’s obsession with fame and celebrity. Alexander Mackendrick directed, and the sharp Clifford Odets/Ernest Lehman screenplay veritably drips with venom. Lots of quotable lines; Barry Levinson paid homage in his 1982 film Diner, with a character who is obsessed with the film and drops in and out of scenes, incessantly quoting the dialogue.

Rounding off my Top 10: The Boston Strangler (Curtis received a Golden Globe nomination), The Defiant Ones, Operation Petticoat, Spartacus, The Great Imposter, Houdini, The Vikings, and Insignificance (1985 Nicolas Roeg sleeper-highly recommended!).

American maverick: RIP Arthur Penn 1922-2010

And alas, more sad news-we also lost an artist of note from the other side of the camera this week. Director Arthur Penn was responsible for crafting some of the most significant films of the late 60s to mid 70s (America’s “golden age” of the maverick moviemakers). He was a filmmaker of great intelligence and vision, with deep roots in the theater (which I’m sure is what helped make him such a great “actor’s director” as well).

Most of the more perfunctory obits floating around the last several days might give casual film goers the impression that the only movie he ever made was 1967’s Bonnie and Clyde; and while the importance of that breakthrough work cannot be overstated, one certainly cannot ignore a resume that also includes The Miracle Worker, Alice’s Restaurant and Little Big Man (in which Penn reinvented the western just as surely as he reinvented the crime drama with his 1967 masterpiece). My personal favorites by this director, however, are two less-heralded efforts, which I feel are also two of the best post-1950s film noirs.

Mickey One –Penn’s 1965 existential film noir stars Warren Beatty as a standup comic who is on the run from the mob. The ultimate intent of this pursuit is never made 100% clear (is it a “hit”, or just a debt collection?), but one thing is certain: viewers will find themselves becoming as unsettled as the twitchy, paranoid protagonist. It’s a Kafkaesque nightmare, with echoes of Godard’s Breathless. A true rarity-an American art film, photographed in expressive, moody chiaroscuro by DP Ghislain Cloquet (who also did the cinematography for Bresson’s classic Au Hasard Balthazar and Woody Allen’s Love and Death).

The other Penn film that I feel compelled to return to now and then is Night Moves. In this 1975 sleeper, which you could call an existential noir, Gene Hackman gives one of his best performances as a world-weary P.I. with a failing marriage, who becomes enmeshed in a case involving battling ex-spouses, which soon slides into incest, smuggling and murder. Alan Sharp’s multi-layered screenplay cleverly parallels the complexity of the P.I.’s case with ruminations on the equally byzantine mystery as to why human relationships, more often than not, almost seem engineered to fail.

More Penn to explore: Four Friends, The Missouri Breaks, Target, The Chase.


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