SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS
Sweet Smell of Success (1957) dir. Alexander MacKendrick writ. Clifford Odets and Ernest Lehman (from Lehman's novel) cine. James Wong Howe music Elmer Bernstein (and the Chico Hamilton Quartet) star. Burt Lancaster (J.J. Hunsecker), Tony Curtis (Sidney Falco), Susan Harrison (Susie), Martin Milner (Steve), Sam Levene, Barbara Nichols, Jeff Donnell, Joe Frisco, Emile Meyer, Edith Atwater
Winter. Night. Manhattan, somewhere on the Broadway axis. Pretty-boy press agent Sidney Falco (Curtis) is on the hustle. Picks up an advance copy of The Globe, scans J.J. Hunsecker's column, doesn't find what he wants, tosses the paper into a pavement trash bin, adjourns to his nearby apartment/office where he proceeds to vent his frustration on his homely, love-struck secretary.
Sec: I wish I could help you somehow.
Falco: (snarls) You could help with two minutes of silence.
Sec: Sidney, if you feel nervous....
Falco: (turns, hissing) What? You'll open your meaty, sympathetic arms?
Like a character from an Italian revenge tragedy, Falco is a go-between desperately trying to manufacture success by the manipulation of his clients, friends and lovers. He's a parasite, a good intention gone bad.
When he tracks down Hunsecker (Lancaster) holding court in the 21 Club, he bears bad news from The Elysian Room, the club owned by his Uncle Frank. But first he has to gain an audience, so he phones Hunsecker's table from the lobby. But Hunsecker is displeased with Falco's failure to carry out his assignment, namely, break up the romance between his young sister Susie and an up-and-comer jazz guitarist. "You're dead, son," Hunsecker barks into his table phone. "Get yourself buried."
But like all court jesters and starving animals, Falco is willing to play the masochist if gets him what he wants. He slithers up to Hunsecker's table, and the columnist proceeds to humiliate him in front of his companions -- a senator, a blond "singer" and her "pimp", a vacuous male who might or might not be an agent.
There's no nicer way to say this -- Hunsecker is a prick surrounded by flies. To see Falco cavorting at his shoulder is a lesson in ancient court politics. Later, as Hunsecker and Falco stroll the street, Hunsecker says, "I love this dirty town, Sidney... conjugate me a verb. For example, I promise...."
Well, Falco promises to six Susie's impending betrothal to the guitarist who looks like an ivy leaguer on the slum. He will slander Steve Dallas (Milner) by planting fictitious slurs in a rival column. "Cat's in the bag, bag's in the river," he purrs as he exits into the night.
There are a number of first-rate scenes as Falco goes through the machinations that will allow him to destroy this romance, become J.J.'s understudy, write his column while the tyrant is on holiday. Lies, blackmail, and pandering are the weapons of choice. In order to get Otis, Hunsecker's rival, to include the slander about Steve in his column, Falco sets him up with a vulnerable cigarette girl from his uncle's club. The politics of this sexual exchange make you cringe, and stand in dramatic contrast to the true love of Susie and Steve.
As study of what is bad in human behaviour, Sweet Smell of Success is marvellous in its detailing... but, it must be noted, it's less successful in showing us the alternative. Susie is "good" because she's young, apparently innocent, the clear victim of her possessive older brother J.J., who is a control freak of the first order. Her beau Steve is quite unconvincing as a habitue of the club scene. He looks like he was parachuted into the Chico Hamilton Quartet directly from the frat house. Their characters are drawn by omission rather than by inclusion, their love supported by the cliches of history.
There's a feeling of edgy insomnia about much of this film, as if sleep is to be feared. It's an inverted world of late-night venues, where winter cuts the souls of the principals like an X-ray. Manhattan looks like an industrial dump, a grayscale saturation of angst, loneliness and corruption. The police are corrupt, mere pawns in the extended game of blackmail and nepotism purveyed by J.J. Hunsecker, the man in the penthouse over Broadway. Falco is corrupt, driven by his infantile desire to not only be near his idol J.J. but to actually be J.J. And of course Hunsecker is utterly corrupt, his morality merely another form of bad egotism.
"My right hand hasn't seen my left hand in thirty years," says Hunsecker metaphorically, as if his halo is so bright that darkness no longer exists.
Like many masterpieces, Sweet Smell of Success was considered a failure at the time (1957) because it lost money at the box office. Yet over the years many have recognized the brilliance of Curtis's performance as the handsome sycophant Sidney Falco, a man who calls himself a press agent. As for Lancaster, what can one say? Another defining performance from his Golden Period (which includes From Here To Eternity, Apache, Trapeze, Gunfight At The O.K. Corral, Elmer Gantry, et.al.).
"Hunsecker" -- pronounced as sucker the very name itself is a classic of the sexual and/or racial insult. As the king of the show-biz columnists, the character has the lonely elegance of today's talk-show host, courted by clowns, politicians, and cops. As a demigod, the persona is a lethal cocktail of the understated epigram and the skull-faced stare. Like all tyrants, he believes he rules by divine right. "I wasn't really playing a columnist but a heel," Lancaster says. "No, I just played a heel who happened to be a columnist."*
*as quoted in Gary Fishgall's 1995 Burt Lancaster biography Against Type
© LR 9/2000
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