The Sweet Smell of Success
Last year my friend Annie put me on to Alexander Mackendrick's must-own book 'On Filmmaking'. It's as good a book as you're likely to find regarding the art and craft of making movies.
I had known of Mackendrick through his Ealing comedies with Alec Guinness - 'The Man in the White Suit' and 'The Lady Killers'. The one film I didn't see or even know about was 'The Sweet Smell of Success'. When Ealing went under, Mackendrick traveled across the Atlantic looking for work in America. He had been working with Burt Lancaster's production company on a different project when they asked him to direct 'Sweet Smell' from a script by Ernest Lehman based on the writers own horrible experiences as a New York press agent. Lehman eventually quit due to stress and Clifford Odets picked up where he left off, polishing the story and writing great bits of dialogue.
The film is about a young and upcoming press agent Sidney Falco (Tony Curtis) who is in the service of the most infamous and powerful gossip columnist J.J. Hunsecker (Lancaster). The plot is simple, Hunsecker wants Falco to break up a relationship between Hunsecker's little sister and her jazz musician boyfriend. Hunsecker is a huge ego with no scruples and he controls everything around him and his sister is no exception. Falco is equally without morals and will stop at nothing to get a seat at the table.
The film features a blaring jazz score by Elmer Bernstein and unforgettable location cinematography by James Wong Howe. The vibrant nineteen fifties New York jumps off the screen at you. Odets addition to dialogue is equal to the task with great lines like 'the cat's in the bag and the bag's in the river' and 'I'd hate to take a bite outta you. You're a cookie full of arsenic." The performances are dead on and Mackendrick's direction is confident and fresh.
The film belongs with Orson Welles 'Touch of Evil' as a remnant of the 1940's film noir save for the missing femme fatale (at one point Lancaster wanted Welles for the role of Hunsecker). Both films feature protagonists that are morally corrupt. It's no surprise that 'Sweet Smell' wasn't a box office hit as Sidney Falco is a loser trying to get ahead by any means and Hunsecker is a snake with no regard at all for his fellow man. To call it cynical is an understatement. In a lot of ways Oliver Stone's Gordon Gekko (Wall Street) seems to be a descendant of J.J. Hunsecker. They are certainly cut from the same cloth.
I love moments like these when you discover a gem that was sitting there all along waiting for a few hours of attention. I also love films that stand out as so original and daring despite the fact that they caused nothing but pain for the men who made them. Mackendrick didn't fare well after the film and eventually took the position of Dean of film at California Institute of the Arts.
Ernest Lehman who left the film due to stress went on to a spectacular career with such classics as 'North by Northwest', 'West Side Story' and 'The Sound of Music'. Lancaster did well as an actor but his role as producer went down with the film as he and his associates abandoned their production company.
I'll leave you with a few more quotes to whet your appetite...
"You're dead, son. Get yourself buried. "
"Don't remove the gangplank, Sidney - you may wanna get back onboard."
A corny trailer to be sure... And yes, that is Marilyn Monroe being pimped out by Falco.