Tuesday, 19 January 2021

The Sweet Smell of Success


  The Sweet Smell of Success

Alexander Mackendrick, 1957, USA

Screenplay: Clifford Odets and Ernest Lehman

Coming from Ealing, Mackendrick went to America and made this vehement attack on the noxious shwbiz gossip journalism scene. Moving stateside, the wit is less satirical and more acidic. Full of memorable put-downs and one-liners that are just desperate to punch you. The pace is at an authoritative stride and you’d best keep up. 

Elmer Bernsteins’s score keeps up the jazz dizziness and cool, never overpowering the dialogue but always paralleling the sense of characters constantly riffing. And with that heavy-hitting script and actors at their best, with that agile camera following and gliding through James Wong Howe’s wonderful black-and-white photography, it’s definitely a film where everyone is at the top of their game.

The screenplay is by Ernest Lehman and Clifford Odets from Lehman’s novel, and it’s a legendary script. It’s film noir with the nihilism and wisecracks transported to column writers rather than private dicks. And even if there is the implied gloss of the entertainment industry and we’re visiting high end clubs and restaurants, we’re firmly in the gutter and underbelly here. Tony Curtis practically sweats self-loathing as Sidney Falco, the press agent trying to simultaneously suck up to and siphon some power from columnist J.J. Hunsecker. Burt Lancaster as Hunsecker seems to turn the very air around him to cruelty. And boy, Lancaster and Curtis know just how to deliver those zingers. The former’s sleaziness and the latter’s ever-present ominous threat are palpable essences. Falco avoids the conscience-pricking of his secretary whilst Hunsecker connives to destroy his sister’s romance (Susan Harrison) to the decency of a jazz musician (Martin Milner). That’s the plot that barely hints at the poisonous flow of character and scheming, the hints of the incestuous and moral vacuity. All for the sake of personal weakness, cynicism and show business.

And of course, these men would never think they might be beaten at their own game.

A cold classic.


Philip said...

One reviewer (not sure who, but it might have been Geoff Andrew) noted that it's a sort of black reflection of The Ladykillers', pitting a naively innocent woman against a team of evilly sophisticated men.

Among my favourite scenes is the one where Falco tries to blackmail an adulterous rival in the presence of the man's wife, only to be foiled by the man's apology and the wife's dignified acceptance. Must be in the top five Scenes No PR Man Could Possibly Understand.

Buck Theorem said...

Yeh, the gender wars is the true story here, surely. The film reeks of male toxicity, but the playing and the zingers are so damned entertaining and delightful. The difference is the men do it for sport and she does it for survival and freedom. The women carry a dignity absent from these men.

There's so many scenes that are exemplary. Not only the first time we see JJ at dinner ("Do you believe in the death penalty, senator?), but the scene where it's apparent that Falco is just a pimp, and the friction with the corrupt cop, etc, etc.