Happily, with their gaudy costumes and exaggerated mannerisms, the persons around whom Guys and Dolls revolves are all fun to watch and are consistently memorable. What is more, the film's dialogue, with its imaginative turns of phrase and eccentric vocabulary, is often genuinely amusing and greatly helps both to give these characters a potent energy and to conjure up a captivatingly overwrought fictional world. The viewer is, thanks to such elements, sure to be charmed by Nathan's wheedling, Sky's conniving, Adelaide's frustration, and Sarah's overzealous decency and to find himself engaged with the lives of these various individuals.
While such characterizations are undoubtedly entertaining, the movie is made particularly involving as a result of its visual qualities, especially its often stylized set designs. These, which include obviously artificial neon signs, complex tangles of sewage pipes, fabulous stage shows, quaintly dilapidated Cuban edifices, and more, almost invariably draw the viewer out of his ordinary existence and immerse him in a brilliantly hued imaginary universe. Admittedly, the director has included a number of sets, such as that used for Sarah's mission, which are bland, pedestrian, and largely forgettable, but, somehow, their presence actually accentuates the appeal of the film's other moments.
What is more, Guys and Dolls is as engaging aurally as it is visually. The various songs with which the movie is punctuated are, for the most part, well performed, enlivened by clever lyrics, and deliciously entrancing. The dance numbers, however, are, perhaps, even more delightful. From the opening sequence, which is filled with capering gangsters and tourists, to a raucous brawl in a Havana café, to a joyous, elaborate ballet performed as a game of craps, nearly all of these scenes are likely to mesmerize the viewer.
As nicely performed as the musical numbers are, and as quaint as much of the dialogue is, such virtues, sadly, are not sufficient to raise Guys and Dolls above the ordinary. The film is simply never realized with enough skill that it is likely to awe the viewer, though it will, most likely, entertain him. Moreover, the story the director tells is occasionally less than enthralling. Sky Masterson's seduction of Sarah is a pleasure to watch, but her seduction of him and many of New York's other gamblers and gangsters, her convincing them to give up their disreputable lives and turn their souls over the Jesus, is handled in a perfunctory way and is not especially funny. Similarly, Nathan Detroit's being tricked into marrying his fiancée is so arbitrary that it is not really moving.
Although Guys and Dolls is certainly not a great film, its peculiar dialogue, stylized sets, and lavish musical numbers are always able to hold the viewer's attention and keep him entertained. The movie is, as a consequence, well worth watching.
Review by Keith Allen
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