The recent death of Tony Curtis spun me into a personal mini-festival of his films. Although I hardly need a reason. I have long thought Tony Curtis to be the most beautiful man in Old Hollywood. He has one of those faces, composed of strength and intrigue, that is captivating beyond anything else in a frame. The only other person who possessed such a face is Brahim Haggiag, whose presence intensified the already amazing affect of Gillo Pontecorvo’s La Battaglia di Algieri (1966).
My absolute favourite film starring Tony Curtis is Sweet Smell of Success (Alexander Mackendrick, 1957). Featuring a striking score that suggests the characteristic depravity of the jazz scene, Sweet Smell is an anti-love letter to New York City. ‘I love this dirty town,’ says J. J. Hunsecker (Burt Lancaster), and that’s just what it is. Tony Curtis is Sidney Falco, a sycophantic, amoral press agent who associates with the worst of the New York scene to make his living. ‘Don’t do anything I wouldn’t do – and that gives you a lot of leeway,’ he says one evening. He gets up to a lot. The first time we see Sidney in the film, the camera pulls back from a close up of an uptempo double bass. Immediately, Sidney is associated with tricky fingerwork, with perverse smoothness. Australian writer John Conomos writes that ‘jazz was used in film noir, especially in the 1950s, to foreground the inevitability of doom.’ Sure enough, inevitably, Sidney Falco is shot down (metaphorically) by the very world he aims to please.
Tony Curtis is fantastic in this film. His immaculate beauty contrasts perfectly with his dirty persona; nonetheless, he manages to portray Sidney with some sympathy. ‘A man of forty faces, not one – none too pretty, and all deceptive,’ says J. J. This is what he was like as an actor – and amazingly, hints toward his future role as the serial killer in The Boston Strangler (Richard Fleischer, 1968). This amazingly reserved film is startling in its honest portrayal of a killer with multiple personality disorder. As though embedding the multiple personality factor into the technology of the film, The Boston Strangler is, in part, told with a split screen. There is an interesting, psychological aspect to this type of storytelling; at the same time, the spectator watches the police force attempt to figure the murders, and must watch them happening. The murderer’s point of view becomes our point-of-view, unbroken, for most of the film, by the shot-reverse shot technique, and we are helpless but to participate in them. Albert DeSalvo (Tony Curtis) has multiple personality disorder and has no memory of his actions: the spectator is the only one who knows. This is a huge responsibility for the spectator, and it is an extremely disturbing experience. (And a much more affective one than presented in Michael Powell’s earlier British film Peeping Tom (1960).) While the position of spectator is valued as a privileged one in Aesthetics of Film, in The Boston Strangler it is also a form of punishment. The fascinating ending displaces the spectator entirely from the narrative, and from identification, leaving emptiness.
On to more tangibly enjoyable things; Goodbye Charlie (Vincente Minnelli, 1964) was a piece of fluff, let’s be honest, and not a particularly fun one at that. Despite Minelli’s magical touch, this film is flat. The Persuaders! (1971) is supremely enjoyable vehicle for Curtis’s display of man-love. Some Like It Hot (Billy Wilder, 1959) is, of course, one of the greatest films ever made. Billy Wilder is a genius – if pressed, I might count Double Indemnity (1944) as my favourite film. Tony Curtis looks so different wearing a wig, but when he takes it off, is as beautiful as ever. In his autobiography American Prince, Curtis mentions that he dated Marilyn Monroe for a while, when they were both new in Hollywood, but that it never went anywhere. ‘We were too young, too ambitious.’ It is interesting to see them together again here, in this context. After Some Like It Hot was made, someone asked Curtis what it was like to kiss Marilyn. He said, “It’s like kissing Hitler.” So Curtis grew to dislike Marilyn: it’s still a wonderful film. The two of them make a perfect pair, an immaculate couple.