Classic Musings: Mackendrick's 'Sweet Smell of Success' ('57)

So, what does success smell like? If one were to believe Alexander Mackendrick's cynical trip through New York, the scent resembles a strong whiff of smoke, smog, and fear. Towering architecture stretches to the ceiling of the city's skyline, with dirty, loud glitz around every corner of the chain of restaurants, bars, and nightclubs. Important people fill the spaces, from senators to starlets, as two-faced eyes watch for both budding talent and blossoming sleaze. Sweet Smell of Success knows the darker side of these spaces, which takes us through a day-and-a-half scramble with a muck-scraping press agent looking to pick up and plant "items" -- stories, both constructive and harmful. Mackendrick's film uses the fear of whispers or little scraps of paper, and of the entertainment/gossip journalists that elaborate on them, for a sharp-toothed noir that's still shockingly current and incisive.

The man at center of the hoopla is J.J. Hunsecker (Burt Lancaster), a -- excuse me, THE gossip columnist for the Globe who can make or break careers over a twenty-four hour period. People claw and connive at the chance for their names to appear in his column, while others try their damndest to keep negative information out. His prickly writing style reflects just as much on his character in person, though it takes a while to find this out; instead of directly focusing on the man behind the typewriter, the film's eyes and ears are those of Sidney Falco (Tony Curtis), a persistent weasel and information-gathering lackey for Hunsecker. Falco, a "hungry" scrounger of info, has been asked to act out a secondary job for the column-writing giant: to break up the relationship between Susan (Susan Harrison), Hunsecker's sister, and her guitar-playing boyfriend Steve (Martin Milner). Desperate and more-than-capable to twist information around, he obeys the hand that feeds him.

Initial audiences who caught pre-screening exhibitions of Sweet Smell of Success were off-put by Sidney Falco's demeanor, which veers significantly from Tony Curtis' charming and welcoming attitude from previous pictures -- and that was even before Some Like It Hot. Falco's manner earns every bit of that label, but that nastiness becomes the lifeblood of the seedy backstabbing that transpires in Mackendrick's picture. He's deliciously mischievous in his antics, a shark with an "ice-cream face" who's able to get what he wants with smooth-talk and a bit of eyelash-batting, and his manipulation -- from schmoozing a genial cigarette girl (Barbara Nichols) with his sex appeal to tiptoeing along the line of blackmail with another gossip columnist -- borders on the villainous. Yet he continuously harps on it being out of desperation, out of getting to the top "where it's balmy", which attempts to justify his actions in a dog-eat-dog fashion, as if it's the only way to survive long enough to earn a position like J.J. Hunsecker's.

When the Globe's writer finally comes out from behind the shadowy curtain in Sweet Smell of Success, Falco's icky mannerisms begin to make sense. J.J Hunsecker is first seen sitting at a table with a phone right beside him and a cigarette intertwined with his fingers, chatting with a politician and a young female starlet as Sidney Falco bashfully slinks to his side like a dog with his tail between his legs. Burt Lancaster commands the screen with stony, almost jaw-dropping ferocity as Hunsecker, channeling famed gossip-column pioneer Walter Winchell with his rapid-fire words and contemptuous tone, using his weighty opinion's clout as a weapon to knock those down around him. Yet there's something strangely codependent about his connection with Falco, a seemingly easy target for the columnist to squash, and it slowly begins to make sense; he needs someone to do his dirty work, and who's better than a hungry, unscrupulous minion who strives to ascend the ranks of these showbiz busybodies?

The movement in Sweet Smell of Success is largely determined on where the quick-witted Falco goes to discover or contort information for his "items" or for a miniature smear campaign against the jazz guitarist, which takes us across several opaque hotspots and apartments in New York City. Oscar-winning cinematographer James Wong Howe captures each location with roomy depth, almost like we're looking from the corner of these places as a casual, curious observer. He gives the film a candid, albeit immaculately composed visual energy -- especially in the jazz club where much of the activity takes place, watching as the band wraps us up in the rhythm and the socialites chatter in a fog of smoke. It, in turn, envelopes us in the den-like atmosphere where Sidney slipstreams with bits of information, trading jabs and insults as he mentions the very name J.J. Hunsecker. The New York celebrity life is narcissistic and austere through Mackendrick's eyes, captured strikingly by his skilled cinematographer.

Ah, but the dialogue. The film noir genre has become synonymous with pulpy, stylish speech that endlessly plays with elaborate metaphors, yet the rhythmic wordplay propelling Sweet Smell of Success has a more instinctive flow than most others. Some quotes will leap out, such as Falco being called a "cookie full of arsenic" and another where they tie integrity to the feeling of acute indigestion. The speech that Clifford Odets and Ernest Lehman spin for the characters taps into this magical balance where they double their efforts to wedge intricate metaphors in the story, yet come across twice as effortless. It's addictive, especially when it's directed at Sidney Falco; he's not the kind of guy who gets away with slime-balling his way into everyone's hearts, and they make him know it. Everyone around him knows that he's a sketchy string-puller under the thumb of Hunsecker, and each one takes a moment to direct their verbal guns at the sweet-faced, shrewd agent. It makes for some of the film's more infectious verbal barrages, especially since we have no qualms in seeing him take a beating.

Sweet Smell of Success' thematic vertebrae can be found in Falco's shifty assertion about journalism, whether it's necessary to scrape and debase to stay afloat. The script nonchalantly carries labyrinthine scheming across two nights and two sunrises, long enough to see Hunsecker take the information he's given and shape the popularity of those whom he writes about, starting a new morning for Falco to pick up another paper and skim for the important "items". The film doesn't directly aim for a cautionary tale or a message about journalistic powerplay, though. It simply uses the intangible currency of gossip and hearsay and crafts a harsh, vigorous noir that's filled with bustling nerves and relentless gloom. How it snaps together, however, transforms it into a smutty, wry mystery of human dishonesty, filled with predators, their pray, and nothing more. And by letting the characters thrash at one another in this poisonous little batch of malice, it says more than enough about the not-so-fictitious nature of notoriety's consuming sway.

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