Thursday, January 20, 2011

Film #48:Sweet Smell of Success (1957)

Director: Alexander Mackendrick

Initial Release Country: United States

Times Previously Seen: once (about 2 years ago)

Teaser Summary (No spoilers)

Unscrupulous press agent hustles through New York, stabbing backs to climb the social and professional ladder.

Uncut Summary (A full plot synopsis, spoilers and all. Fair warning)

New York City, 1957. Sidney Falco (Tony Curtis) is the hustlingest press agent around. He's also a very minor player in the big city, but he's willing to try every dirty trick in the book to climb out of his self-described hole. At story's beginning, he has just been frustrated by his meal ticket, the immensely influential newspaper columnist and nationalist television pundit, J. J. Hunsecker (Burt Lancaster). Falco believed that one of his clients would be given a positive review in the day's paper, but Hunsecker has left it out.

Sidney scrambles to Hunsecker to find the reason for the snub. He learns that Hunsecker is ignoring Falco's clients because Falco has not yet performed a requested service for him; namely, breaking apart the relationship between Hunsecker's young sister, Susie (Susan Harrison) and an up-and-coming jazz guitarist, Steve Dallas (Martin Milner). Realizing that his career won't advance until the relationship is ended, Falco races to the night club where Dallas is playing.

"Match me, Sidney," says cock-of-the-walk Hunsecker (right) to the ambitious weasel, Sidney Falco.

At the club, Falco discovers that not only are Susie and Dallas still together, but that he has proposed marriage to her. Falco and Dallas have a confrontation during which Dallas accuses Falco of being a sneaky henchman for J.J. Hunsecker. The two part ways without blows, but only just.

When Falco relays the news to J.J., Hunsecker reiterates that Falco will get no meaningful work in the town unless he sabotages Susie and Dallas's relationship. Hunsecker also reveals his reason – that Susie is the only family that he has left, and he refuses to lose her to anyone else, especially not a jazz musician. Falco sets out again.

The first place he goes is to a rival columnist of Hunsecker's, Al Evans. He tries to get a smear piece run on Dallas, claiming he is a druggy and communist, by attempting to blackmail Evans. He threatens to reveal to his wife that Evans made advances on a cigarette girl at another club. The plan backfires, as Evans confesses the truth of the story to his wife, leaving Falco with nothing to show for it. Falco happens upon another rival columnist immediately after, the lusty Otis Elwell, who agrees to run the column if Falco can find him some female companionship. Falco obliges, pimping out the very cigarette girl that Evans had propositioned. The smear piece is run the next morning and Dallas' band is promptly fired by their night club.

On Falco's advice and to maintain the illusion that he is not behind the subterfuge, J.J. Hunsecker calls the night club the next morning. With Susie looking on, he vouches for Dallas and has him rehired. Falco's notion is that Dallas will never accept the charity, refuse to take the job, and the strain will divide Susie and Dallas. He's almost right, too.

Dallas shows up on the set of Hunsecker's television show, and the two have a confrontation that begins calmly but escalates into Dallas accusing Hunsecker and Falco of being totally devoid of morals. Susie watches the entire scene, and is terribly unnerved by everything. After Dallas leaves, Hunsecker tells Susie that she must not marry him, and she demurs. Seemingly, J.J. Hunsecker has obtained what he wanted. This, however, does not seem to be enough. He now wants Steve Dallas's career destroyed as punishment for casting aspersions as Hunsecker's character, claiming that an attack on him is an attack on his “60 million readers.”

Hunsecker and Falco deal with an increasingly agitated Steve Dallas (far right).

Later that night, Hunsecker directs Falco to plant marijuana on Dallas and call a crooked cop to make a bogus arrest. Falco initially balks at this vicious plan, but soon agrees on the promise that he will be allowed to write Hunsecker's column for a three month period while the man is away with his sister. Falco does the deed and Dallas is arrested.

Some time later, after he has had many a celebratory drink to toast his diabolical success, Falco is contacted by Hunsecker. He is told to get to his apartment right away. When Falco arrives at the Hunseckers', he finds Susie, who has heard of Steve's arrest and is wracked by grief to point of being suicidal. Falco coldly assures her that she is merely being immature and that it will pass. However, Susie nearly makes good on her threat by attempting to throw herself over the balcony. Falco stops her, and begins to calm her down.

Just then, Hunsecker arrives. He disavows Falco's claim that he was the one who had called him, and it soon becomes clear that Falco has been set up. Hunsecker has planned to have Falco framed for an attempted assault on Susie. Hunsecker begins to batter Falco, and eventually Falco blurts out how Hunsecker had arranged the frame on Dallas. Hunsecker relents just long enough for Falco to flee from the apartment, but Susie has heard everything.

The fighting over, Susie sadly packs her bag and leaves the apartment, but not before performing a final act of courage: she looks her domineering older brother straight in the eye, tells him that she would rather die than live with him, and that she pities him. Out on the street, Falco is captured by the police and arrested. Nearby, the immensely powerful J.J. Hunsecker watches helplessly as his young sister walks out of his life.

Comeuppance, I'd like you to meet Mister Sidney Falco...

Take 1: My Gut Reaction (Done after this most recent viewing, before any research)

This film confirms one thing: I'm a full-fledged United States citizen, all right.

Don't get me wrong. This is not some patriotic thing. I mean to say that, after watching several slower, meditative, humanistic films of a realistic bent, made in foreign lands, watching Sweet Smell of Success spoke to me loudly and clearly. It said, “You, my son, were raised on fast-moving, slick-looking movies about fast-moving, slick-looking characters, and by God, you'll always love them!”

Who am I to argue?

I watched this movie once about a few years ago and was ambivalent, but upon this recent viewing I have decided that I simply wasn't paying close enough attention. It's great. Sure, there may not be a probing, deeper message beyond the “greed kills” theme, but it has enough substance to match all of the flash that it has.

The story intrigued me plenty. Seeing the curtain pulled back on the press agent and publicity businesses is interesting enough. As most are well-aware, the news sleeps for no one, and anyone who's desperate to make their mark in the field had better be tireless. Sidney Falco is certainly that, which sets up that great dichotomy that, while not distinctly American, can probably be found in our films in greater numbers than anywhere – that obsession can lead to an inexhaustible work ethic but a complete absence of circumspection and self-reflection. Following Falco around from one seedy, shadowy locale and deed to another is fascinating. The tale only slows down a few times just long enough to catch your breath and try to keep up with the impassioned hustlers involved. Unlike longer, more measured films like Aparajito and Pyaasa, the time flew by while I watched this movie.

Greater than the plot itself are the characters. It's rare that not one but both main characters are unlikable in a movie. Sidney Falco is a self-obsessed monomaniac whose complete lack of compassion for others is only matched by his utter absence of ethics. His idol and partner-in-crime, J.J. Hunsecker, is the 1950s version of Rush Limbaugh or Glen Beck – a media mastodon who wraps himself in a flag and uses his power to raise up or cast down those he deems worthy, with extreme prejudice and without moral compunction. Seeing them try to manipulate the events around them and each other would be entertaining enough, but Susan Hunsecker turns out to be the final ingredient. She's really the only character who evolves and is sympathetic in the end, though she is not in the picture nearly as much as either Falco or her brother. Quite a storytelling trick, that.

Here's a great scene. It's the introduction of J.J. Hunsecker. Start it at 2:00. It takes a few dozen seconds to pick up the glacial intimidation that Lancaster emits:

As always, great characters can only truly shine through when put in the hands of great actors, and here we have a couple of “legends” in their prime. While I'm not a particular Tony Curtis fan, I have to say that he was spot on as the slimy Sidney Falco, complete with impish good looks and devilish wit and charm. Burt Lancaster, solid in everything I've seen him in, does a great turn as a powerful megalomaniac. Despite the dorky glasses that he sports, he uses his broad frame, clenched jaw and granite-cold eyes to bore holes into anyone he sees as lesser than himself. Which, in his view, is everyone.

The script is great. Co-adapted for the screen by the author of the source novella, Ernest Lehman, it crackles with all of the silver-tongued, noir-ish dialogue you would hope for from a tale of the New York media scumbag biz. There are plenty of quotable lines, not the least of which is the oh-so-revealing quip by Falco, “Don't do anything I wouldn't do. And that gives you a lot of leeway.” And he wasn't joking in the least. Sure, there are a few moments during which the script gets a little too clever for its own good, a la older screwball comedies, but this is rare, in my view.

Here's a clip of one Falco's particularly sleazy moments. Start from the beginning and watch for a few minutes. You may even see Falco's skin taking on a scaley quality:

The dialogue is noir-ish, but the cinematography is noir unfiltered. At this point, I'm sure that United Artists could have sprung for a color picture, but this film demanded black and white. This was essential to enhance the mood of the darkness, shadows, and looming gray facades and harsh, glaring lights of Manhattan and midnight. Falco is one of countless weasels who wants to be a big shot, and J.J. Hunsecker may be a big shot, but they're all gnats in the shadows of the city itself.

I'd watch this movie again in a heartbeat. It's one of those movies that sails along at such a fast clip that it virtually demands more than one viewing. Now that I know all of the twists and turns of Falco's ethical gymnastics, I can watch to enjoy the performances and nuances a little more.

Take 2: Why Film Geeks Love This Movie (Done after some further research)

Sweet Smell of Success was not received well by a test audience, which led producers to think that they had a severe flop on their hands. Apparently, Burt Lancaster physically threatened director Mackendrick after the initial test screening, thinking that he had sunk them. This, however, was premature. That first audience was apparently taken aback by seeing two established “good guys”, Lancaster and pretty-boy Curtis, as utter scoundrels. Once released to wider audiences, though, the high praise came flowing in. This is rather clear from this first review back in 1957 by TIME magazine. This review, along with nearly every other that I've read, cites the tight, “whiplash” dialogue as being the element that makes the movie so singular and worthy of respect.

This is probably the most well-rounded scene, in which all of the major characters go after each other. Start it at 4:00 to see the verbal showdown between Hunsecker, Falco, Dallas and Susie:

As is often the case, the story behind the story is interesting. The Hunsecker character was modeled on real-life New York gossip columnist Walter Winchell, who held sway in the big city for decades. Original novelette and co-screenwriter Ernest Lehman had been a columnist and used his experiences with press agents to build the tale.

The thrumming urgency of the plot and dialogue was very likely the product of the filming process. Lehman had become ill just before shooting, so Clifford Odets was brought on to finish the job. Instead of doing a two- or three-week quick polish, he dismantled much of the script and began reconstructing all of the relationships through the dialogue. It took several months – so long that filming began before Odets had completed the work. The result was that Odets was often finishing pages mere hours before the scenes were shot. I have to believe that this added to the built-in stress and tension in many of the scenes. There's a snippet of director Mackendrick's description of the process here.

Worth looking at more closely is the interplay between Falco and Hunsecker. Roger Ebert does a nice job breaking down their symbiotic relationship in his review here. Ebert actually suggests something else that others have also picked out – a possibly latent sexual interest by Hunsecker towards both his young sister and Sidney Falco. I suppose that this is fair, though it's hardly what makes the film truly entertaining.

Some modern critics point out that a few of the aspects of the film are dated: that 1950s version of the hip New York and the age of the all-powerful gossip columnist. Still, even those who point these things out concede that they do little to diminish the timeless strengths of the movie.

That's a wrap. 48 shows down, 57 to go.

Coming Soon: Some Like It Hot (1959)

From one Tony Curtis movie to another. One with Jack Lemon and Marilyn Monroe, to boot. This one is invariably put in every critic's “top 10 American comedies list”. I watched it some years ago, and have never felt a desire to watch again. Well, I was surprised in my re-viewing of film #47, so I should go into this one hoping for the best.

Please be sure to pick up all empties on the way out.