Monday, 20 January 2014

Movie Review: Guys And Dolls (1955)


A colourful musical hampered by odd casting choices, Guys And Dolls stretches a minimalist plot to a remarkable 150 minutes, but maintains interest with a steady drizzle of highlights.

In New York, a group of small-time con men addicted to gambling entrust organizer Nathan Detroit (Frank Sinatra) with finding a location for an illegal craps game, despite the close attentions of Lieutenant Brannigan (Robert Keith). Nathan is also under pressure from Miss Adelaide (Vivian Blaine), a stage performer and his fiancĂ©e of 14 years, to finally get married. Looking for a quick $1,000 to secure a gambling venue, Nathan makes a bet with the laid back Sky Masterson (Marlon Brando): Sky will win the bet and $1,000 if he manages to take Sister Sarah Brown (Jean Simmons), leader of the Save A Soul Mission, to Havana for dinner. Otherwise, he will have to pay $1,000 to Nathan.

Sky moves quickly to court Sarah, who is struggling to attract anyone to her Mission. Meanwhile, the pressure on Nathan grows with the arrival of Chicago mobster Big Jule (B.S. Pully) in town, looking for some gambling action, while Miss Adelaide runs out of patience with Nathan's gambling obsession. Sky does indeed get Sarah to Havana, but their budding relationship is damaged when her Mission is used as a venue for gambling. With Big Jule looking for big winnings, all the gamblers meet in the sewer for a high stakes game, while Sky has to find a way to win back Sarah without falling into Brannigan's clutches.

With a story built almost entirely around the flimsy premise of finding a location for craps and a fairly basic bet-motivated romance, Guys And Dolls scrambles around for sub-plots and themes to hang some content on. To a certain extent the film finds humour and irony in the clash between a group of rough gamblers and a Mission intent on saving the souls of any and all sinners. The script by director Joseph L. Mankiewicz and Ben Hecht, based on the 1950 Broadway show, makes the most of small situations, but there is no escaping the overall slow pace and long waits between meaningful story developments.

The casting choices of producer Samuel Goldwyn had more to do with cashing in on Brando's skyrocketing popularity after the success of On The Waterfront than suitability for the role. Despite the prevailing spirit of fun throughout Guys And Dolls, Brando, Simmons and Sinatra all seem marginally uncomfortable. Brando is no singer, and while he does his best, his warbling is laboured. Simmons isn't a singer either, but she is asked to do less of it, and when she does deliver her highlight If I Were a Bell, she belts it out with some conviction. Sinatra, meanwhile, is given relatively little singing to do, and he just comes across as too smooth and too inherently good for the hustling character of Nathan Detroit.

Mankiewicz' direction is often static and unimaginative. He does relatively little to add motion picture dynamism, and many scenes carry the unmistakable whiff of a stage show being unimaginatively filmed. The sets are always animated with stacks of extras, but also obviously studio bound and lacking the authentic air of a real city.

Guys And Dolls does find some excellent moments. The scenes between Brando and Simmons gradually gain heat, and reach a fine boil in the prolonged Havana sequence, by far the best stretch of the movie. Surrounded by a night full of Latin sensuality, Sky melts away Sarah's stiff inhibitions to reveal the steamy woman within. Also good is the climactic craps game in the sewer, Mankiewicz finally finding some energy with a lively dance number and then a couple of all-or-nothing duels involving Nathan, Big Jule and Sky.

And the film wins plenty of style points, the set designs exploding with a vivid intensity, matched by slick men's outfits featuring a wide variety of colours, with Sky's sense of cool standing out in his love of variations on black.

A celebration of the simple pleasures that occupy men who should know better, Guys And Dolls is an undemanding roll of the dice.






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