So Classic Film and TV Cafe is hosting a blogathon where they want you to (if the title's not self-explanatory enough) talk about your favorite classic movie. My choice was a relatively easy one if you've known me long enough:
|(1957, dir. Alexander Mackendrick)|
Admittedly when I first saw it several years ago, I thought it was very good though something about it was rubbing me the wrong way. I had to let it sink in before I realized how great of a film it was. (So much so that when Tony Curtis passed away in September 2010 I started recommending it to more people, mainly because I saw more people remembering him more for Some Like It Hot than any other film he did during his career.)
This is one of many films that has been treated much nicer thanks to the passage of time. And thank God for that. Back in 1957 when it was released, neither audiences nor critics were very fond of it. This was in the midst of the Cold War and a few years after the Korean War ended. People went to the movies to briefly escape their troubles; no one wanted to see a movie as cynical and jaded as the times they were living. Now nearly sixty years later, Sweet Smell of Success has the reputation that undeservedly eluded it upon its release.
This film had to have been one hell of shock for fans of Curtis. At the time, he was known for strictly swashbuckler pictures and the occasional light comedy. (That's Universal Studios fare for you.) Here, he proves to naysayers that he was more than just a pretty face from the Bronx. (As if that stopped co-writer Clifford Odets from poking fun at Curtis' good looks throughout the script.) His character Sidney Falco is a schmoozer and a user, a real S.O.B. to those that know him. A restless figure throughout most of the film (constantly rubbing his hands and fingers, rarely sitting down), Falco tries his damnedest to make it big in the vicious world of journalism and earn the respect of others even if it means making more enemies than allies. To quote the Vanity Fair article "A Movie Marked Danger":
Both Mackendrick and Lehman thought Curtis was miraculous as Falco. For Curtis, the role opened doors; other complex and demanding roles would follow—in The Defiant Ones, Some Like It Hot, The Great Impostor, and The Boston Strangler. And behind all those roles was Sidney Falco: “In all the films I’ve done, I’ve never lost Sidney. And I don’t want to lose him,” Curtis says.
Burt Lancaster, meanwhile, was already established as an actor. (He earned his first of four Oscar nominations several years earlier for From Here to Eternity.) As J.J. Hunsecker (a thinly veiled depiction of gossip columnist Walter Winchell), Lancaster plays it to the hilt when it comes to ruthlessness. He speaks his lines as if he's about ready to bite someone's head clean off. No surprise considering Lancaster was frequently cast as the tough guy throughout his career so having him play a character that's more verbally vicious than physically wasn't too far-fetched.
At the center of Sweet Smell of Success are Hunsecker's sister Susan (Susan Harrison) and her fiance Steve Dallas (Martin Milner). She's firmly stuck under Hunsecker's thumb, he's trying to free her from her brother's controlling grasp. Hunsecker doesn't take to their relationship very well and he has Falco trying to break them off, even going as far as depicting Steve as a marijuana-smoking communist in a newspaper column. (A good indicator that this was made in the 1950s, don't you think?) They're easily the lone innocents of the entire film, the two figures that won't be corrupted by outside forces.
The nature of Hunsecker's bond with Susan is clearly an unhealthy one. Of course with this being a film made in the era of the Hays Code, they couldn't be overly explicit about its true nature. Though there are subtle ways the film shows Hunsecker's infatuation and control over his sister.
(Not to mention Susan's general feelings towards her brother.)
Thankfully by film's end Susan has had enough of her brother's looming shadow and again, the way it's shown is subtle but very effective.
The script by Odets and Ernest Lehman is proof that they just don't make 'em like they used to. Where else can you find a script where every line crackles even after all this time? (After all, there was a minor character in Barry Levinson's Diner who said nothing but lines from this film.) Sweet Smell of Success also contains easily one of my favorite lines ever uttered in a film:
"I'd hate to take a bite of you. You're a cookie full of arsenic."
James Wong Howe's cinematography and Elmer Bernstein's score make excellent bedfellows. Both bring out the pure sleaze of the film. The crispness of Howe's vision and the utter vulgarity of Bernstein's jazz composition show that the 1950s weren't the clean and wholesome era that Hollywood frequently depicts it as.
As Hunsecker sums up early on, "I love this dirty town." You and me both, J.J.