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Saturday, June 6, 2009

Mister Cory (Blake Edwards, 1957)

Essential Viewing, 1957

In the 50s, the heyday of widescreen, Universal took a particular interest in setting dramatic stories in the loveliest and wealthiest settings that America had to offer. Filmmakers sometimes added darker currents beneath these paradise-like surfaces without damaging the projects' appeal; in this spirit, Blake Edwards, shooting his third feature at age 34, contrived to make a slum film that was set almost entirely in fancy country clubs and luxurious mansions. The trick was predicated on the star presence of Tony Curtis, in the eponymous role of a hustler from Chicago's Sangamon Street who projects himself upon the world through the sheer force of his desire. Landing a job as a country-club busboy, Cory focuses his considerable strategic skill on the conquest of society in general and on blonde society girl Abby Vollard (Martha Hyer) in particular; given the odds against him, it's no reflection on his ingenuity that the course of his ambition does not run smooth. Scripting from a story by Leo Rosten, Edwards conceives Cory as a balanced mix of appealing and unappealing qualities: he lies fluently to gain his ends, does not mind making enemies with his ambition, and reverts easily to a fighter's stance; yet he has innate calm and dignity, he seems happier when he can tell the truth, and an adolescent urgency can be read on his face whenever he isn't being watched. What makes Mister Cory so potent is the way that Edwards swallows up all these qualities with elliptical writing, restrained performances that are not tasked with the burden of advancing the narrative, and a reliance on long shots that show Cory's schemes in a larger social context. His approach to 50s widescreen color drama is fundamentally unlike that of Ray, Sirk, and Minnelli, who in different ways link their characters' emotionality to style eruptions; like his friend and occasional collaborator Richard Quine, Edwards prefers the grace of containment to post-war convulsions. The director's focus on calm surfaces and successful concealment shows us how good an actor Curtis is. On one hand, his effortless impostures are executed without signaling to the audience; on the other, his underlying anger is expressed directly and convincingly at full boil (in the frightening fight scene following the exposure of his lowly busboy status) and at a simmer (in the subsequent scenes of his retreat to a gambler's life). For all its intelligence and indirection, Edwards' script allows Abby's precocious younger sister (Kathryn Grant) to flaunt her wonderfulness at too great length, and a grizzled gambler (Charles Bickford) who takes Cory under his wing to narrate Cory's moral dilemmas too forcibly. And the film's resolution of the Cory-Abby relationship is longer on speechifying than on dramatic realization. Still, if Mister Cory perhaps falls a little short of greatness, it leaves no doubt about the magnitude of Edwards' talent. I can't help but wish that Edwards had started directing before the old studio system was on its last legs: instead, the 60s saw him launch himself as an independent producer-director, a path that seemed to encourage problematic aspects of his personality.
- Dan Sallitt, Thanks for the Use of the Hall

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