Guys and Dolls

(Joseph Mankiewicz, USA, 1955)


Hollywood's stereotyping of national cultures regularly gives offense, but who can resist the glimpse of Havana, Cuba, in a central scene of Joseph Mankiewicz's splendid musical Guys and Dolls?

Suave gambler Sky Masterson (Marlon Brando) has talked prim Salvation Army member Sarah (Jean Simmons) into taking a plane and dining with him in Havana. As she gets drunk and succumbs to her reckless impulses, she is fired up by the primal, Latin American drama unfolding all around her: her instant rival, a fiery dancer, trying to seduce Sky. Soon the whole room is swept up in a hilarious dance of drunken passions.

The scene offers a magnificent example of Michael Kidd's revolutionary choreography for film. Normal, everyday gestures, such as walking or pointing, are by degrees stylised, made angular and rhythmic, until the point of full-blown dance. The actions of individuals are woven into group patterns. And, above all, the staging incorporates movements that are deliberately and proudly ungainly, awkward, seemingly amateur – such as Sarah's drunken lunges and swings.

Guys and Dolls is really two films in one, divided up for its dual male stars – and indeed, there is a deathless over-the-table dialogue between Brando and Frank Sinatra that anticipates the Pacino-De Niro encounter forty years later in Heat (1995).

The Nathan Detroit (Sinatra) half is the more indebted to Mankiewicz's source, Damon Runyan's tales of loveable, streetwise crooks (every 'ethnic' tic of New York speech and behaviour lovingly exaggerated by Mankiewicz). Nathan has a long-suffering dame, Adelaide (Vivian Blaine), which leads to amusing material about their fraught path to the altar, and numbers in Frank Loesser's colourful score including "Adelaide's Lament".

But – even though it is the more conventionally polished, show-stopping group numbers, such as "Luck Be a Lady" and "Sit Down, You're Rockin' the Boat" that Broadway devotees remember – it is in its far more romantic, Sky-Sarah half that the film really soars, and Mankiewicz for once overcomes his propensity for screen talkiness. The songs "If I Were a Bell" and "I'll Know When My Love Comes Along" are glorious swellings of amorous emotion, and Mankiewicz surrounds them with a wonderful mise en scène of comings and goings, attractions and repulsions between these two admirable bodies.

MORE Mankiewicz: The Barefoot Contessa, Five Fingers

© Adrian Martin April 2003

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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