A Hollywood remake of the 1935 French movie Fanfare d'Amour, Some Like It Hot is widely regarded as amongst the funniest and most cherished films in the history of cinema. Written, Produced and Directed by one of cinema’s finest, Billy Wilder, it stars Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon as destitute musicians, eking out a living in prohibition era Chicago. Having accidentally witnessed the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre, the two men go on the lamb and hop on a train to Florida. In order to go unnoticed by the Mob they disguise themselves as women and join an all female band heading to Miami. Amongst the band members is Sugar (Marilyn Monroe) who both men (obviously) fall for.
I’ve wanted to see Some Like It Hot for a long time and having finally got around to it last night, I can report that I wasn’t disappointed. Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond’s script is rich, saucy and hilarious while full of the sort of bawdy double entendre that would have been impossible to get passed censors in the years before. In fact, along with the likes of Hitchcock’s Psycho and Wilder’s own The Apartment, it was just this sort of movie which saw to the decline and eventually dismemberment of the dreaded Hays/Breen Code that had constricted Hollywood since the early 1930s.
What I liked about Some Like It Hot was that although it was a little bit naughty and cheeky, everything was implied. For example in one fantastic scene in which Jack Lemmon is joined in his tiny railway sleeper birth by the voluptuous Monroe in what can only be described as erection inducing attire, he squirms and looks flustered and awkward. The audience knows exactly what the danger is but it’s never mentioned. Had the film been made today, you have to feel that a tent would have been made of the bed sheets but as this wasn’t permissible in the late 50s, writers, directors and actors had to think around the idea. It makes for something much funnier and more awkward. There are numerous examples of similar scenes, all of which skate around the obvious subtext. To me at least, this is much cleverer and subtler than simply shoving the audience’s face in an engorged member.
As well as being a knockabout romantic comedy, the film also makes for an excellent Gangster picture. The Mob elements bookend the more romantic fayre and are successful in large part to George Raft and his character of ‘Spats’ Colombo. Raft, who had been in steady decline since his glory years in the very early 1940s, re-imagines the Gangster characters he was famous for and delivers a calm and stealthy performance as a local Mob leader. His pursuit of the two leads gives Curtis and Lemmon some of their best physical comedy scenes and brings a sense of foreboding which hangs loosely around the fluffier stuff in the middle of the film. He’s flanked by the sort of flat nosed, greasy haired stereotypes that do little more than stand around and look intimidating but Raft’s deadly and calm demeanour amongst the stereotyping helps him to stand out in his few scenes.
Tony Curtis appears to have a lot of fun playing his various roles, from his typical lothario to the heel wearing cross dresser through to his eccentric millionaire character, he’s on top form and has some great back and forth with Jack Lemmon. The scene in which he seduces Marilyn Monroe but seemingly not wanting to seduce her is brilliant and he seems strangely comfortable in a dress. Co-star Jack Lemmon was a comedic behemoth with a slight penchant for over acting but here those two facets combine perfectly. The way in which he goes from the sensible half of the pair to maraca shaking love puppy is delightful and he expertly delivers some fantastic lines from the loaded script. Lemmon received one of his eight Oscar nominations for the role. Marilyn Monroe for me gives one of her best performances in this movie, playing exactly the type of sexy, ditzy character she played best. She oozes sexuality and has the male characters jumping over themselves for attention. She isn’t responsible for much of the comedy but the dramatic scenes all flow through her. She moves in such a way as that it is impossible to avert ones gaze from her and Lemmon’s character accurately describes her as moving “like Jell-o on springs”. Every part of her body is tuned to her character’s purpose but she is perhaps more subtle with it than some might think. Obviously her walk leads with her lips and breasts and her rear and sways in that way but in a tender scene with Curtis, her fingers run gently through his hair, almost forgotten by the camera. With focus on the actor’s faces, it’s easy to miss the many subtle things that create the Marilyn character.
Wilder and Diamond’s writing is like a master class of comic timing, double entendre and saying the unexpected. Quotable lines jump out of the script all over the place with humorous lines being interspersed with dialogue with deeper meaning and an overall feminist message. Unfortunately that message which is dotted throughout the film is slightly ruined by the ending but overall, this is one of the best written films from the era. The fact that I also said the same about Wilder’s next film, The Apartment, goes some way to show how good I consider his and Diamond’s writing. In addition to Wilder’s writing, his direction is assured. He moves his camera with grace and creates some beautifully romantic moments with sharp lighting and soft focus but he’s also able to ramp things up a little. I enjoyed the way in which the camera spun between Curtis and Monroe at a romantic dinner and Lemmon and Joe E. Brown dancing, capturing the different moods of the two simultaneous scenes. Alolph Deutsch’s score is also excellent and the soundtrack features some popular songs including I Wanna Be Loved by You which is seductively sung by Monroe.
While I personally preferred 1960’s The Apartment, 1959’s Some Like It Hot is barely short of a masterpiece. It’s a joyful romp of a film that features four excellent performances, some great songs and sumptuous costumes. It’s outrageously witty and adeptly crafted by a master film maker and rightly deserves its place in history.
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