Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Alexander Mackendrick - The Sweet Smell of Success (1957)

Sweet Smell Of Success is one of the nastiest films ever made and I can't think of a higher recommendation than that. A cruel, devastatingly witty satire on fame, celebrity and scandal, it begins as a pitch-black comedy and ends up as something even darker and infinitely more powerful.

Sweet Smell of Success, one of the best and last true film noir works, is one of the greatest of all films. Clearly, it’s script (By Ernest Lehman & the great American playwright Clifford Odets) posses some of the sharpest dialogue ever written, and even if it’s not exactly naturalistic, it’s stylized in the best sense. The film takes place in a late-night New York, in which words can easily kill a man’s reputation, so it makes sense that the inhabitants of this world possess almost inhumanly quick wits. The film’s villain, J.J. Hunsecker (Burt Lancaster), is a thinly veiled caricature of real-life gossip columnist Walter Winchell, and his power seems absolute. Everyone is aware that he is not afraid to administer it mercilessly either, and as a result, he manages to build a sense of menace before he even appears on the screen. When he finally does appear, in a scene set at Twenty One (which still looks identical today), one gets the impression that nothing his physical presence changes nothing. He was presiding over the film’s events all along. Lancaster’s a physically big guy, and embodies Hunsecker’s overbearing persona perfectly. Even better in the film, though, is Tony Curtis who plays Sidney Falco, a sleazy, yet somewhat successful talent publicist. Curtis generally possesses a nervous energy in his work, and it’s often distracting, but here that energy genuinely invigorates the film. You get the impression that Falco’s pathetic scrambling for whatever table scraps the fat cat Hunsecker lets him have is borne from a combination of jealousy, self-loathing, and maybe even sexual attraction.

The relationship between Falco and Hunsecker comprises the bulk of the film, but it takes the time to establish a whole food chain of lowlifes as they try scandalizing each other. You feel that everyone here, even Hunsecker, is expendable. If he were to fall from grace, there’s little hope that the game would be run any differently by his successor. That the film blames the world instead of the villain for the way things are is what places it firmly in the noir tradition, as well as the ammunition for much of the palpable satiric bite that the film packs. It also makes Hunsecker a thoroughly complex villain. The film never overtly says it, but Hunsecker is so overprotective of his sister that incestuous implications wouldn’t surprise. Clearly, the world of the gossip columnists has an incestuous, symbiotic element to it. Hunsecker rankles his nose when Falco suggests he needs publicists like himself in order to get material for his column, but Falco is right, to a degree. What Falco is neglecting though, is his own disposability, and that’s his biggest character flaw.

The film thankfully never descends into becoming a full-fledged crime flick. When the film begins, you get the impression that Hunsecker will end up dead or disgraced by the story’s end. He doesn’t. Aside from a roughing-up or two, the biggest crime in this film is slander. Most of the immorality on display is murkier that in other film noir works. It might not be specifically illegal, but it is clearly wrong, and as such it cuts closer to home for viewers that don’t plot insurance scams or aren’t gumshoes. That uncomfortable relevance makes the film stick with the viewer. The film was reportedly a financial flop upon its release and has only recently been reappraised as a classic. Frankly, I find Sweet Smell of Success’ evisceration of Winchell is far more pungent, relevant, and entertaining than Orson Welles’ Hearst bashing in Citizen Kane.

**** Masterpiece -- Movie Martyr

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