Dracula with music by Philip Glass and the Kronos Quartet at Arlene Schnitzer Center, Portland, OR

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Sweet Smell of Success (1957)

There are some actors that when I see them on television or a commercial, it surprises me that they're still alive.  You could swear that you've read their obituary.  Comedian Don Rickles (KELLY'S HEROES) .  Still alive.  Abe Vigoda (TV'S BARNEY MILLER). I just saw him in a SNICKERS commercial.  When Tony Curtis passed away in September at the age of 85, it caught me by surprise.  Wasn't he already deceased? Apparently not. I'd seen snippets of Tony Curtis movies throughout my life but only watched two completely. He was a movie star you never forgot.  He had the matinee idol looks.  The distinctive Brooklyn accent.  The perfectly coiffed hair. They don't make them like Tony Curtis anymore.

Curtis was mostly know for comedy roles in films like SOME LIKE IT HOT (1959) or OPERATION PETTICOAT (1959) or THE GREAT RACE (1965). But he could play dramatic too and one of his greatest performances is in the extraordinary under rated 1957 film SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS directed by Alexander Mackendrick.  Written by playwright Clifford Odets (GOLDEN BOY) and screen writer Ernest Lehman (NORTH BY NORTHWEST) and based on Lehman's novella, SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS is set around Broadway in New York.

Curtis plays Sidney Falco, a sycophantic press agent trying to climb the ladder to success. To smell success, he has to patronize the most powerful newspaper gossip columnist in NewYork -- J.J. Hunsecker (Burt Lancaster).  But Falco is in Hunsecker's dog house. Hunsecker's kid sister Susie (Susan Harrison) is in love with jazz guitarist Steve Dallas (ADAM 12's Martin Milner) and Hunsecker wants their relationship ended. Falco tried to break up their relationship once but failed . Not one to give up, Falco tries to smear Dallas's reputation, hoping to win Hunsecker's favor again so Hunsecker will write favorably about Falco's clients.  Falco first tries to paint Dallas as a dope smoker, feeding misinformation in a rival columnist's column about Dallas and later, planting marijuana on Dallas after his jazz quintet's show. Falco uses and discards any one to attain success - his receptionist, his cigarette girl friend, other press agents, even his own clients. But that sweet smell of success alludes Falco in the end as Hunsecker turns on him after Falco's smear campaign pushes Susie to an emotional brink and puts Falco in a compromising position.

Curtis plays Falco like someone who's seen the dark side of the entertainment business. Falco is a snake as he tries to steal clients or offer up his sometime girlfriend Rita (Barbara Nichols) to a rival columnist just so he can hurt Dallas's reputation and please Hunsecker.  Falco has sold his soul to the devil...or in this case J.J. Hunsecker.   "How can you like a man who makes you jump through burning hoops like a trained poodle?" someone asks Falco. But Falco's world has its highs and lows.  One moment he's on top of the world, buying his cronies drinks, the next instance he's walking around like he's expecting to get punched. He's always on the periphery, hanging in the shadows or sneaking into places through the back door.

When we first meet Hunsecker, he's holding court at a trendy New York restaurant with a Senator (William Forrest) from Washington and his blond female companion and her agent.  A trusty phone rests next to Hunsecker, his lifeline to the gossip flowing freely around the big city.  Press agents and public relations hacks try to get their clients into J. J.'s column. Hunsecker reminds everyone of their faults and failures: Falco, the Senator, even the blond's lowly agent. He thrives on their misery. Hunsecker is the genesis of TMZ, the New York Post, and the paparazzi all rolled into one. Hunsecker is based on the infamous Broadway columnist Walter Winchell.

Lancaster is excellent as Hunsecker, the supreme ruler of gossip.  He has spies everywhere, listening and watching for him: waiters, police detectives, and press agents. His penthouse suite overlooks the bustling streets of New York.  With his big round glasses, Hunsecker perches over the city like an omnipotent owl. Director Mackendrick often films Hunsecker from low angles to make him seem more powerful.  Hunsecker tries to control his sister like he controls the entertainment and high society community.  Susie is weak and emotionally fragile.  Hunsecker's relationship with her almost borders on incest. But she's also the only real thing in Hunsecker's twisted world.  He doesn't want to share her with any one  - especially Steve Dallas. Susie is his lifeline to the one genuine thing in his life. A semblance of family.

Together, J.J. Hunsecker and Sidney Falco are like vampires. They're up all night, sleep most of the day, and drain the blood from most everyone who comes in contact with them. They loathe each other but they're intertwined by their lies and deception.

Martin Milner as Dallas and Susan Harrison as Susie are the only two decent characters in this film and their naieveness to the evils of the world are the one shining hope in this bleak world they inhabit. Besides a great cast and juicy, razor sharp dialogue, the other star of SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS is the city itself. Director Mackendrick and famed cinematographer James Wong Howe stage many scenes outside on the sidewalks, streets, and back alleys of New York City.  The film captures the hustle and bustle of a big city where it's a dog eat dog world. I was taken aback at how the men and women throughout the film are so modern looking. The men rarely wear hats. The women are exceptionally beautiful. The film doesn't feel like it's in 1957.  It could be today.

Cinematographer Howe's black and white photography is stunning. The black and whites and grays throughout the film enhance the mood and themes of SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS. The photography at times almost has a documentary feel. Falco often withdraws into shadows. Howe films Hunsecker in silhouette several times, his glasses back lit as he surveys his domain. Whenever I tell my teenage kids to watch a black and white film, they roll their eyes. Color is the only type of film for today's film goers but for me, black and white is just like color.

According to, SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS was not a hit for director Mackendrick, who had made two successful comedies earlier in the decade - THE MAN IN THE WHITE SUIT (1951) and THE LADYKILLERS (1955), both with Alec Guinness.  It's a shame that it took moviegoers and critics some time to appreciate SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS.  It would have been great to see what other topics Mackendrick might have taken on had he had his own sweet smell of success...or at least box office success.

SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS proved that Tony Curtis was more than just another pretty face.  He was a great actor as well.  Do yourself a favor and catch this gem of a film.

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