22 November 2005

100 films: Sweet Smell of Success

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starring: Burt Lancaster, Tony Curtis, Susan Harrison, and Martin Milner
written by: Clifford Odets and Ernest Lehman, from the novel by Lehman
directed by: Alexander Mackendrick
NR, 96 min, 1957, USA

All-powerful gossip columnist J.J. Hunsecker (Burt Lancaster) has blacklisted press agent Sidney Falco (Tony Curtis) until he can fulfill a promise to break up the impending nuptuals of his sister (Susan Harrison) to guitar player Steve Dallas (Martin Milner). Falco devises a plan, but Hunsecker's protective nature goes too far and he discovers too late that not everything can be manipulated like the lives of the people in his column.

Sweet Smell of Success was roundly panned upon its release in 1957, and it's box office failure ensured that director Alexander Mackendrick's first big American film[1] would essentially be his last. Really it's a shame, because Sweet Smell of Success is the sort of taut battle of wills we don't see all that often from Hollywood. Both Lancaster and Curtis play men lacking a moral compass--completely unsympathetic people--which probably goes a long way toward explaining the tepid box office. American audience don't usually react all that well to films where all the main characters are sleazy, manipulative creeps, so the studio couldn't exactly have been expecting lines around the corner, but this is exactly the type of film critics would normally champion. Methinks perhaps it was a victim of bad timing. The two big films of 1957 were 12 Angry Men, a moral tale of standing for your convictions, and The Bridge on the River Kwai, a big war movie. It could be that Sweet Smell of Success was just a couple of years too early for critical acclaim.

And critical acclaim is precisely what this deserves. Set in the New York theatre district, it follows Tony Curtis (in a great performance) as he plays the angles, desperately trying to get his clients mentioned in Burt Lancaster's column. But Lancaster has a great deal of leverage over Curtis. He knows that Curtis relies on his column to live; without his gratis, Curtis is as good as dead. So he uses that leverage to force Curtis to do things against his will, like get a guitar player to stay away from his sister. Curtis views Lancaster as a friend, but there's really no give and take to the relationship. It's one man grovelling for a crumb and another making him dance for it. Pretty much Lancaster operates his column with the all-encompassing power of a mafia boss, moving people around like pawns with little to no consideration for their well-being. Even his concern for his sister has selfish motivations.

Mackendrick wisely made the simple but effective choice to give Lancaster a pair of glasses that cast a shadow over his eyes, so even if his face is fully lit, we never see his eyes. Whenever we see him, it's clear to us that he's not to be trusted, but what choice do the other characters have? He has the power to crush them with a single phone call. He is king of a theatre underworld brought to life with expert camera work and cinematography. You feel as if you've walked these streets a hundred times and can't get rid of the smell.

[1] He made a name for himself with the British comedies Whiskey Galore! (1949), The Man in the White Suit (1951), and The Ladykillers (1955). He made a couple of films after this one, but nothing of any real substance. It's possible we lost one of our great filmmakers.