Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Marxist Movie Reviews 01: Sweet Smell of Success (1957)

Welcome to Marxist Movie Reviews, a new series of film reviews that attempts to look at modern and classic films from the perspective of what they say about society and social conflict. This point of view has historically been left largely to the academic world. However, this kind of analysis can provide everyone with insights into motion pictures and the messages they deliver to those who watch them.

The Basic Plot: A scheming New York publicity agent (Tony Curtis) does the dirty work for a popular newspaper columnist (Burt Lancaster) who is trying to break up his sister and a jazz musician who’s fallen in love with her.

The Best Part(s): the dialogue, the acting, the music

This film is a scathing, powerfully acted portrayal of the Media & Entertainment industry and how it allows the corrupt and the vicious to thrive while squashing everyone else. The movie presents New York City as a beehive of activity, its citizens climbing over each other trying to get to “the top,” making and breaking deals, asking and giving favors, and doing lots of drinking.

Sidney Falco, the film’s protagonist, is the evil twin of the Go-Get-’Em American archetype, someone who’s charming on the surface but will do anything to get ahead, including lie, pimp out his sometime girlfriend, and arrange for someone to get beat up by corrupt police officers. Nothing is explained about his past or why he is the way he is, which makes him even more of an American Everyman.

Falco spends the film in a constant struggle to get into the good graces of J.J. Hunsecker, the most powerful man in media, someone who can make or break struggling entertainers with a few words in his newspaper column. A rich and successful misanthrope, Hunsecker despises everyone around him except his sister, for whom he has a domineering, unhealthy affection. He insults and humiliates whoever he pleases, and they (almost) all desperately come back for more.

The women in the film are all portrayed as sad, weak-willed props for the men to use in their power games, a dynamic that helps keep the spotlight on Falco and Hunsecker and their poisonous relationship. The Hunsecker character is based on a real person who had the kind of position that would be hard to attain today, with the proliferation of media choices available.

The model for Hunsecker’s character lost his power when he stopped being the one who everyone had to listen to know about the world. The cutthroat, do-whatever-it-takes mentality of Falco and millions of other “dreamers” remains, though as a critical part of the American Dream.

My Rating: 10/10 (“Loved It”)

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