Friday, May 22, 2015

Favorite Scene Friday! Sweet Smell of Success

Our month of character intro themed favorite scenes continues! Will from Exploding Helicopter did the honors this week.

Sweet Smell of Success (1957) is one of the darkest films ever committed to celluloid.

Set amidst the apparent glamour of the entertainment industry, it depicts a corrupt parallel world. One where illicit favours are the only recognised form of currency. And the rotten black heart at the centre of it all is Burt Lancaster’s J.J. Hunsecker.


Lancaster plays a newspaper columnist and broadcaster with the power to make or break careers. A megalomaniac control freak, Lancaster is blackmailing press agent Sidney Falco (Tony Curtis) to break-up his sister’s relationship with a young jazz musician. Until the romance is ended, Curtis is unable to earn a living as his clients won’t receive any media coverage.

We learn these details in a series of scenes that open the film. Having established Hunsecker’s malign power we’re finally introduced to the man himself.

The scene begins with a quick demonstration of Lancaster’s authority. After Curtis approaches, Lancaster commands a bouncer to remove the uninvited guest from the nightclub. Acceding from his demand, Curtis is ultimately allowed to sit down, but he’s tucked behind Lancaster’s elbow like an attentive flunkey rather than equal. It’s clear who the man in charge is.

This command is emphasised by director Alexander Mackendrick’s camerawork. Throughout the film he photographs Lancaster from low angles making him dominate the frame in a way that mirrors his dominance of the characters around him. Traces of that can be seen here. Lancaster is subtly foregrounded in several shots making him appear more important than those around him.

This is reinforced in small details that again occur through the film. In this scene Hunsecker holds what appears to be an impractically small pencil. This appears to be an active choice on the part of the filmmakers, as later we see Lancaster dining in a restaurant with absurdly small cutlery. It all seems designed to suggest that Hunsecker is bigger than everything and everyone around him.

Lancaster’s ruthless modus operandi is wickedly delineated as he dismissively deals with a brutally brief phonecall from a comedian. When he recounts a joke that Hunsecker has already printed in his column he is, in Sidney’s words, “condemned to death”.

The perceived insult is compounded when the promoter Manny Davis makes the mistake of laughing as the punchline is repeated. Lancaster’s cold steely glare betrays his cold anger, and he maliciously starts to expose Davis’ scheme for promoting the ingénue he’s touting.

The senator makes a doomed attempt to change the topic. But this simply allows Lancaster to turn his fire on Curtis, carving up his character like a stiletto wielding assassin.

This excoriating tirade, delivered by Lancaster in his trademark clipped honey-smooth voice, ends with Lancaster’s literal and figurative challenge, “Match me Sidney.”

Aware he’s engaged in a battle he can’t win, Curtis makes a tactical retreat. But not before he’s helped establish Lancaster as a demagogue who expects no-one to challenge the rule of his domain.

What's your favorite scene from Sweet Smell of Success?

Friday, May 15, 2015

Favorite Scene Friday! Inglorious Basterds: The Bear Jew

This week's scene - another in this month's series on character introductions - is by Nick from French Toast Sunday!

There are many great scenes that encompass Quentin Tarantino’s Inglorious Basterds. One of them is the introduction of Sgt. Donny Donowitz (Eli Roth). As words escape the gravel pit of Lt. Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt), we can hear tapping from a long dark hallway. Raine explains to the Nazi soldier under interrogation, that if he doesn’t give the Basterds the information they need, he’s calling out the Bear Jew. But who, or what exactly is the Bear Jew? Stories amongst the Nazi soldiers tell of a golem who crushes his enemies with a club. Is that true? Maybe this soldier has a death wish, for he refuses to disclose information that the Basterds need. As Raine calls out for Donny to “oblige him” we continue to hear the tapping. The Bear Jew's solid wood weapon of choice knocking along the cinderblock walls of some type of stronghold. The music begins, a light flute coupled with a curiously tense piano. Choir voices join in, almost as if they're offering a prayer for the soon-to-be-deceased soldier. As the score builds, we see the reactions of the other Nazi soldiers. One fighting back fear as tears pour out, while the soldier under interrogation begins to accept his fate. He’s stone faced until just before the Bear Jew appears. We see a slight twinge in his eyes. Has the fear gripped him? Does he know of the horror to come?

Alex Pardee via Upper Playground and GeekTyrant

As the Bear Jew emerges from the shadows, the horn regally declaring his arrival, the Basterds go wild. They know what’s about to happen, the soldiers think they know what’s about to happen, but even when it does happen, we're still shocked. Sgt. Donny Donowitz approaches the soldier, asks if the medals he wears were achieved from killing Jews. The soldier replies, “bravery”. That's interesting unto itself. It’s a two-sides-of-the-same-coin situation. The Nazi soldiers see their heinous acts as a necessity to further their ideals and reward each other for such acts, whereas everyone else in the world sees the extermination of a race that needs to be stopped. We almost feel the flames of bloodlust explode within the Bear Jew’s eyes as he lowers his bat to the soldier’s shoulders. The Bear Jew is measuring his prey. He winds up and it’s a homerun. A gut-wrenching, horrifying homerun. Really it’s a grand slam as the music abruptly ends while Donowitz smashes the soldier's head in. You can have all the monologues you want. You can have plot twisting reveals. You can even wait until the last minute of the film and switch up your walking style. But until you come out to a myth-making score from Ennio Morricone and then brutally vanquish your enemies, you’re still in the Minor Leagues, slugger.

What's your favorite scene from Inglorious Basterds?

What's your favorite character introduction in a Tarantino film?

Friday, May 8, 2015

Favorite Scene Friday! Skyfall: The Last Two Rats

We're looking at character intros all this month for Favorite Scene Friday!

First impressions are important, especially when you have a reputation to live up to. Take Raoul Silva (Javier Bardem) in 2012's Skyfall. It's truly impressive how many strings he pulls before he ever appears on screen. In the first few minutes of the film, his henchman almost kills James Bond (Daniel Craig) and manages to steal a list of embedded MI6 agents. Silva later orchestrates an attack on MI6 headquarters, threatens M (Judi Dench), and begins assassinating her agents.

Rodolfo Reyes via JoBlo
But Silva's introductory scene doesn't disappoint. After Bond recovers, he tracks down Silva's henchman, which leads him to the villain's lover Severine (Bérénice Marlohe). Despite her warnings, Bond and Severine travel to Silva's island where they are abducted and seperated. Bond is sitting in a chair surveying his surroundings when an elevator at the far end of the room cranks to life.

This clip, while short, is one of the best character intros I've ever seen. The one point perspective shot dares you to take your eyes off of Silva (Kubrick would be proud) as he walks directly towards Bond. The camera zooms in on Silva as he spins his yarn about his grandmother's island. The tale starts innocently enough but transforms into a threat. They're the last two rats, Silva tells Bond. M made them animals, and they can't both make it out alive.

As Silva walks toward the camera, his story becomes more and more upsetting and the villain grows from an off screen threat in the shadows to a very real and present danger. "Be careful what you wish for," Severine warned.

What's your favorite scene from Skyfall?

What's your favorite character introduction in a Bond movie?