Sweet Smell of Success (1957)

Dir. Alexander Mackendrick. Starring Burt Lancaster, Tony Curtis, Susan Harrison

There’s a movie out there about what Bill O’Reilly would have been like if he’d been born handsome in a different era. It’s called Sweet Smell of Success, and you should see it.

If you are like me, and you went to high school and learned about such a thing as a “literary canon,” and then got a little interested in film and tried to fill in the terrific gaps in your own film-watching background via two DVDs at a time from Netflix and buying cheap movies from Wal-Mart based on what you understood as a “filmic canon,” you probably had not heard of Sweet Smell of Success. The Oscars for 1957 did not recognize the film at all; like, if I was trying to see “important movies” based on Oscar history, this would be a post about how it only took twelve years for Hollywood to realize, via Red Buttons in Sayonara, that the Japanese are people too.

This is not to say that Sweet Smell of Success was the kind of thing that gets aired on the Sundance Channel. It has Burt Lancaster in it at the halfway point between his most iconic roles, in From Here to Eternity and Elmer Gantry. Tony Curtis is there as well, signalling desperately that he can do things other than smile pretty. (Am I allowed to say that I think Tony Curtis, even in the mid-late ’50s, was kind of weird looking? Am I the only one who thinks that?) Alexander Mackendrick directed the film: he was a refugee from the fall of Ealing Studios, and hardly a nobody. Clifford Odets was the force behind the script. For goodness’ sake, they made a musical out of it directed by Nicholas Hytner and starring John Lithgow. But Sweet Smell of Success is still the kind of film that requires a little bit of digging to find: if you’re still digging you way out of the film canon (and, God help me, it is a convenient and accessible way to find decent movies to watch and talk about on a second-rate blog), you have to poke around Sight and Sound and Empire and the National Film Registry to find out it exists.

There’s a sort of malaise hanging over the ’50s in film, I think. This may not be a fair assessment at all – it’s the decade that, in America, gave us Sunset Boulevard and Singin’ in the Rain and Rear Window and On the Waterfront and All About Eve – but internationally, it’s also the decade that gave us The Seventh Seal and The Seven Samurai and The 400 Blows and Tokyo Story and The Bridge on the River Kwai, so Team World probably wins this round.  While Americans were being introduced to some really fabulous cinema from other nations, it has to feel at least a little like we were reaching back or reaching for metaphors. Sunset Boulevard and Singin’ in the Rain both recall silent pictures. Every sci-fi movie of the ’50s was some metaphor about not bombing the Russians. Film noir, after dominating the ’40s, was subsiding without a clear successor. Is the Western still High Noon and Shane, or is it Johnny Guitar and The Searchers? Are the movies going to be in color or in black and white? Maybe it’s Pauline Kael’s fault that we think this way, but there are hints even before Bonnie and Clyde and Easy Rider that American film was still making strides.

Sweet Smell of Success feels like something which could have come out in the late ’60s and, if someone added the Internet to the mix, could be remade today without a hitch. J.J. Hunsecker (Lancaster) is the gossip columnist in New York, hard-edged and hard-boiled. I’m not sure whose idea it was to give Lancaster glasses for the film, but whoever it was was a genius. In a just world, he would have been called “Rock Lancaster” and Roy Hudson would have had to deal with it. Lancaster looks like they just shipped him out of the White Mountains and threw a suit on him; he is handsome as heck and always seems to be on the edge of an avalanche, but the glasses deny us the privilege of the gaze and provide us instead with a meaty intellectual. There’s no other way we’d believe that the musclebound army-dude who kissed Deborah Kerr in the waves could be satisfied with writing about Broadway and nurturing his reputation as a guy who can preach some very ’50s sermons about D-E-M-O-C-R-A-C-Y while destroying anyone who even speaks back to him. Best of all, and maybe this is my Southern literature background coming back to me, but Lancaster’s Hunsecker has the same problem with women that we assume Cain must have had.

Lancaster’s voice is what gets me in this picture. He is always calling his sister, Susan (Susan Harrison) “dear.” It’s always said with a gravelly tinge, the same polite stoniness which Daniel Day-Lewis uses to such effect in Gangs of New York. (I confess that there are more than a few similarities between Bill the Butcher and J.J. Hunsecker, both Gotham elite; if Bill thought the newspapers would secure his reputation in the Five Points, he’d use ’em; if J.J. thought he would eradicate dissent by killing an elected official in the light of day, he’d do it.) You can hear it when Bill the Butcher sniffs a young Schemerhorn’s glove after kissing her hand and mutters, “Orange blossom. Lovely.” Or after he’s put a knife through an associate’s hand, asked for Amsterdam’s name, expressed his surprise, and growls, “I’m New York…Don’t you never come in here empty-handed again. You gotta pay for the pleasure of my company.” Lancaster, whose 1940s are more succinct than Day-Lewis’ 1860s, manages to get most of that menace across with “dear.”

Tony Curtis, playing the meretricious and ethnically ambiguous Sidney Falco, only gets to ratchet up the menace when he thinks, at the end of the film, that he’s going to get to take over Hunsecker’s column. Otherwise, he weasels his way through the film, sucking up to Hunsecker and doing his dirty work. (Falco was supposed to split up a budding romance between Susan and Steve Dallas, a jazz guitarist. He didn’t pull it off. Hunsecker is squeezing Falco’s clients out of his column and thus squeezing Falco out of a livelihood. That all sets the stage. I won’t say much more about the plot.) “Weasels” is a good word: Falco (jeez, even the name) gets more animal epithets and comparisons and idioms thrown at him than you can count throughout the film, from “dog” to “snake.” And he certainly acts the heel. There’s a moment late in the film when Falco has an order to carry out: if he does, he’ll get everything he wants and be damned forever, but if he doesn’t, he’ll be back in Akron writing obituaries and kicking himself about his sudden burst of conscience. You can guess which one he chooses. You can guess which one you want him to choose, because I definitely had a preference.

The reason I say this film could have been made in the late ’60s or in today’s world is that there’s a well-founded paranoia that emits itself from the vents. The movie understands that national discourse is being created by a few old fogies on their typewriters with a big print audience; nowadays, it would talk about how Bill O’Reilly is setting the conversation and there are a couple of Rachel Maddows and John Olivers here and there who are flicking peas at him from the kids’ table. Hunsecker is clearly a phony (as Falco calls him), a guy who takes as much as he can get and assumes that he deserves all of it and more, a self-professed man of the people living in a penthouse…who gets a lackey to plant marijuana on a decent young man, manipulating the police into whatever suits him best.

There’s a hint of All the King’s Men in this movie, though Robert Penn Warren’s novel is streets ahead of Sweet Smell of Success. The question is, in both stories, about what power does to people once they have it. I wish there was a little more to be said about J.J. Hunsecker’s ascension in the film – like God via Boethius, Hunsecker has been powerful for so long that he exists outside of time. And I wish there was more Jack Burden in Sidney Falco: Falco’s code is not shame but envy. What Sweet Smell of Success has that All the King’s Men doesn’t have is a totally different perspective on where power can lie, and who can be the emissary of control, and how even the best laid plans of all the king’s men can’t put the toothpaste back in the tube. Willie Stark snarls from an Olympian cloud; J.J. Hunsecker leers over the table at 21. Who ya got?

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