A crackling dispatch from the kill-or-be-killed wilds of 1950s Manhattan, Alexander Mackendrick’s 1957 Sweet Smell of Success is now streaming in its full edition on the Criterion Channel on FilmStruck. Burt Lancaster stars as vicious Broadway gossip columnist J. J. Hunsecker, who ropes an unprincipled press agent (Tony Curtis) into smearing the up-and-coming jazz musician romancing his beloved sister. Featuring deliciously unsavory dialogue, in an acid, brilliantly structured script by Clifford Odets and Ernest Lehman, and noirish neon cityscapes from Oscar-winning cinematographer James Wong Howe, this cynical masterpiece is accompanied on the Channel by a 1986 documentary about Mackendrick, a 1973 documentary about Howe, and a video interview with film critic and historian Neal Gabler.
Also up this week: four Occupation-era rarities from French director Claude Autant-Lara, a pair of films from two of British cinema’s sharpest observers of character, and a double bill that focuses on the twilight years of classic Hollywood.
Spurned first by the French New Wave iconoclasts as belonging to the “tradition of quality” and later for the extremist political views their director embraced as a member of the right-wing National Front, Claude Autant-Lara’s wartime films are rarely seen today. These four romances, produced during the dark days of the German occupation, are fueled by a slyly subversive voice and exquisite visual sense, and showcase the formidable talents of two of his closest collaborators. The charmingly impetuous Odette Joyeux sparkles at the height of her stardom in a quartet of protofeminist roles, crafted by screenwriter Jean Aurenche, who injects a strain of progressive social criticism that managed to evade the Nazi censors. Also noteworthy is the first screen appearance of Jacques Tati, in Autant-Lara’s most popular and technically innovative success, Sylvie et le fantôme. These long unavailable gems deserve to be better known, if only as a record of some of the most talented film artists in France, working at the height of their powers during one of the most perilous periods in twentieth-century history.
British art-house favorites Andrew Haigh and Mike Leigh turn their attention to the close and sometimes painful bonds of sisterhood. Haigh’s 2009 short reveals the volcanic emotions that lurk beneath everyday scenes, centering on a girl who is sent on vacation with her cousins but remains preoccupied with her hospital-bound sister back home. An international breakthrough for Leigh, Life Is Sweet is an intimate portrait of a working-class family with twin daughters who couldn’t be more different: the bookish plumber Natalie (Claire Skinner) and the bulimic, ill-tempered Nicola (Jane Horrocks). Jim Broadbent and Alison Steadman exude warmth as the girls’ parents, and Stephen Rea, David Thewlis, and Timothy Spall deliver winning performances as the eccentrics who orbit the family unit. The edition of Life Is Sweet is accompanied by an audio commentary by Leigh.
These two swan songs herald the end of the Hollywood star system with a nearly mythical sense of finality. John Huston’s The Misfits features the last performances of Marilyn Monroe and Clark Gable, and their costar Montgomery Clift would only appear in three more movies before dying at forty-five. Scripted by Monroe’s husband Arthur Miller, the Nevada-set film sets the actress’s inimitable mix of sensuality and vulnerability against the world-weary alienation of three hardened men, played by Gable, Clift, and Eli Wallach. Humphrey Bogart's last film, The Harder They Fall, stars the legendary actor as a down-on-his-luck sportswriter who gets roped into a scam by a fast-talking promoter (Rod Steiger) lining up fixed fights for a talentless (and clueless) Argentine heavyweight. Bogart would die less than a year after the film’s premiere, and his understated portrayal of a reluctant hustler makes for a rich contrast with Steiger’s Method-informed bluster, marking a shift in the tides of American film acting.