Sweet Smell of Success - 1957

Sweet Smell of Success

Sweet Smell of Success - 1957, Directed by Alexander MacKendrick

Burt Lancaster is a ruthless, calculating, and slightly unhinged newspaper columnist named J.J. Hunsecker (called "Jay Jay" by most of the characters in the tale) who has such a large newspaper audience that he can create and destroy careers overnight by what he chooses to cover (or not cover) in the American entertainment and political worlds. He uses that power for sensational commercial purposes to bolster the circulation of the newspaper he is with, but on the side he also manipulates the lives of other people, especially a by-the-seat-of-his-pants publicity agent named Sydney Falco (Tony Curtis) who he enlists in a demented plan to control the life of the person most important in Hunseckers life, his younger sister Susan (played by Susan Harrison). Director Andrew MacKendrick and screenwriters Ernest Lehman, Clifford Odets (and Alexander Mackendrick) don't let us get too close of a look at the motivations of Hunsecker's obsession, but it powers Jay Jay's maniacal behavior and seems to imply any number of things in the process.

Falco is the perfect man for furthering Hunsecker's goal because while Hunsecker must maintain a professional and respectable pose while running his lucrative and popular column, Falco is a slithery, double-talking manipulator who can squeeze through hostile conversations, outfoxing opponents and turning the facts upside down. Like a hypnotist using shiny words to convince the other person they're moving closer to what they want while actually doing exactly what Falco needs them to do, there's a steady parade of this activity for the audience to hate (for example the night club employee Rita - played perfectly by Barbara Nichols - who Falco first gets pregnant and then uses as bait to manipulate the lust of another man he needs a favor from).

Jay Jay seems to despise the lack of scruples that Sydney Falco has in his ethics, commenting at one point "I’d hate to take a bite outta you. You’re a cookie full of arsenic," yet it could also be an accolade considering the remark comes from another master manipulator. Jay Jay doesn't have the freedom of Falco's anonymity (nor does Burt get the screen time compared to Tony as Falco frantically builds webs to catch flies), but as director MacKendrick shows us the tale, Jay Jay looms larger and larger as a far more dangerous serpent, mostly through hints of how his words can span the whole continent to strike or stroke important egos, and the scenes featuring the sheer physical size of actor Burt Lancaster (a 6' 1" former acrobat) that looms like Godzilla over the sets, and in a way, the whole city.

Of course, nothing turns out how this master devil and his junior imp plan, but for awhile it looks like the sleazy will triumph through fast-thinking, hard work (Falco certainly burns up a lot energy racing through town to meet Jay Jay's deadline), and the helpful solicitude of corrupt local police. But Sweet Smell of Success, though brimming with 1950s jazz music (helped along by Elmer Bernstein) and MacKendrick's fantastic visuals of New York City (courtesy of master cinematographer James Wong Howe), the movie is still in the same genre as older newsprint morality tales like Five Star Final, which means the evil designs of bad people against good people ultimately fold up like, well, so much newsprint.

Though Burt's lightning-quick line-readings and physical silhouette (amplified by the black and white photography) grab the attention when he is on the screen, the bulk of the heavy lifting in Sweet Smell of Success is done by Tony Curtis. He seems to be moving constantly like a nervous cat, tormented by a problem he's got to solve in a rapidly decreasing amount of time, and that expression of nerves almost looks like a momentary crisis of conscience (it's not). When Falco has to go up against other characters who act like they're prepared and ready to refuse his oily deals, their attitude full of contempt toward this fast-talking publicity agent, Curtis attacks the scene like the Marines hitting a beach, feeding off the refusals until he finally clicks all the tumblers into place and he gets what he wants.

An irony in Sweet Smell of Success is that Hunsecker and Falco are so caught up in the moving parts of their schemes they're blind to a little manipulation being thrown their way from an unexpected source, giving the tale a live-by-the-sword, die-by-the-sword twist. A simpler, more melodramatic film from an earlier era would have found a way to gun the two demons down.

In the 21st century, high-speed internet is a ubiquitous presence feeding varied digital platforms serving literally billions of people around the world, and you need to be of a certain older age to personally remember the domination of newsprint for receiving entertainment and information, the world of Sweet Smell of Success, where deadlines for editions of a newspaper meant the same thing to that time period as the endless streaming info in social media does today. Those newsboys hawking papers on street corners in old movies shouting something from headlines is the equivalent of an internet click-bait headline: both then and now its meant to be immediate, important and attention grabbing. Director MacKendrick and Lancaster and Curtis make that bygone world of ink and paper look the same.

Original Page Feb 2020

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