24 January 2010

9. Some Like It Hot

The prologue, like the best ones do, sets up everything. We see a hearse driving down the street, then a cop car starts chasing them. They begin shooting. Why? Instantly we're curious, involved. The funeral workers are actually gangsters -- they open a secret compartment in the ceiling stocked with guns and they start shooting back.

The cops spin out and the chase ends, but not before doing damage. The "casket" is leaking because it's filled with booze. And we get a beautiful joke in the title card: Chicago, 1929.

Here's what's great about this beginning: 1) It sets up the film's main concern, that of deception and disguises, "Things Aren't Always What They Seem". Everyone in the movie is either deceiving themselves or disguising themselves or both, just like the gangsters are doing with their bottles of booze. 2) It is exciting, filled with action, which immediately gets the audience involved. 3) It gives us the setting in a fun, unique and economical way. 4) It does all of this without any dialogue.

The theme is expanded and deepened in the next scene -- the "funeral home" is actually a rowdy speakeasy. A cop comes to shut it down: "Give me 5 minutes, then hit 'em with whatever you got." This is smart, because like the opening tracking shot in "Touch of Evil", by giving us a time limit with something, we as audience are immediately on the edge, tension is created, and we wonder the most important thing an audience member can wonder: what's going to happen next?

We meet our heros, two musicians, right before the raid starts. They immediately discuss two main concerns: money and women. By their back-and-forth dialogue, we get a sense of who they are and how they interact -- Curtis is a gambler, a risk taker, a horse-better. Lemmon is a bit of a nebbish, easy swayed. They see the raid coming, evade it. But because of it, they don't get paid and they have to hock their overcoats.

Now they are really destitute. They find out about a job, but it's only for women. Lemmon considers it, Curtis says no. A thousand times no. Two important things happen here: Curtis is shown as a serious womanizer, and he initially resists the idea of cross-dressing as crazy. Both of these establishments are key to making this movie work. If you want your characters to do something crazy, it has to be their absolute last option.

And it is, because they subsequently witness a massacre, and the only way to really get away from it is to disguise themselves as women and travel down to Florida -- it solves all their new immediate problems, as well as the old less pressing ones of being cold and broke.

So: they are now women, and they are now on a train. They meet Sugar Cane. The character shift a little bit, and the previously randy Curtis has to curtail the now-overwhelmed Lemmon, who is horny and wants to get with Sugar or anyone. Again, they re-establish the fact that these are men and can hardly be contained. Just because they're cross-dressing doesn't mean they're gay.

There's a set-up where Sugar tells Curtis everything she wants in a man, which is paid off several scenes later when they arrive in Florida and he reveals himself as a Shell Oil magnate, a Cary Grant clone. And he does something smart: he is rude to her, plays hard to get, makes her seduce him.

Curtis' ruse is uncovered by Lemmon, and another deception occurs: Curtis must come upstairs, beating both Monroe and Lemmon and cover himself in bubbles in the tub so he can act like Josephine to Monroe.

The rest of the plot plays out like clockwork, perfectly constructed. Curtis makes Monroe seduce him, Lemmon gets engaged to Joe E. Brown and does his maracas bit, Spats comes back and discovers their disguises, there's a chase and musical numbers with Monroe and at the end, our main men have to give up their disguises and become who they are to get what they want.

And we get one of the great closing lines in movies, which you either know or don't know. If you know it, you're smiling right now, and if you don't, you shouldn't have it spoiled by me.

Note: I'll be teaching this film as part of Facets Film School starting next month. More information at: http://www.facets.org/pages/filmschool.php.


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