Sweet Smell of Success (dir. Alexander Mackendrick, 1957)
It’s hard to write a positive review. But it’s doubly hard to write a positive review on the internet. Not only do you have a shroud of anonymity which compels you toward negativity, it’s also tough to put the right inflection into text. So when I write something like: “Hey, I love that picture you posted of the sunset”, it sounds sarcastic right? (Actually when I write that particular sentence it is always sarcastic). However, I want to be clear, this new column on the Grain&Noise Blog is going to be positive. This column, which I’m calling “Mission Accomplished” is the yin to the “Mistakes Were Made” yang. The goal of these posts will be to celebrate those moments, relationships, sequences, when a film moves beyond the great and into the sublime.
Alright then, let’s start off with the 1957 film Sweet Smell of Success and specifically the brilliant work down by its’ two leads Burt Lancaster and Tony Curtis. Sweet Smell of Success is the story of a press agent, Sidney Falco (Tony Curtis), and his attempts to gain favor with the newspaper columnist/radio host JJ Hunsecker (Burt Lancaster). Falco needs Hunsecker to give his clients promotion in his column and he’s willing to do anything to get in Hunseckers good graces, even if that means framing an upstanding jazz musician on a phony drug charge so the musician can’t date Hunsecker’s beloved younger sister.
The push and pull relationship between JJ Hunsecker and Sidney Falco is one of those things that’s so pitch perfect, so realized that as I write about their interactions I feel like a farmer trying to describe how soda works. But suffice it to say that this is one of those on screen pairings that compels your attention. You have this sense from the moment the two appear on screen together that their’s is a complicated, complete history. The back and forth between Curtis and Lancaster turn a snappy script into a study of desperation.
This wasn’t the first time Lancaster and Curtis had worked together. They’d done a film two years earlier called Trapeze about an aging trapeze artist showing a new member of the circus company “the ropes” (pun definitely fucking intended). That film, unfortunately, is about as good as it sounds. Great if you want to see a bunch of Technicolored sequences of people swinging around and passionately necking next to the lion cage, not great if you value the waking hours we spend in this life. But their previous work together is important because it established a layer of comfort between the two actors. In Sweet Smell of Success each actor reaches levels of maliciousness and vulnerability that would be impossible to achieve without some history.
JJ Hunsecker is a character who doesn’t care much for presentation but cares deeply about presence. He changes the temperature of a room when he enters. Not only is he physically large, with broad Monstar-esque shoulders, but his demeanor brings out everyone’s serious face. His wardrobe, haircut, glasses are functional… but his posture, his affect, hold the center of the room. Sidney Falco is the exact opposite. He hovers. He glides around in the background, leaning over people’s shoulders, or inserting his face into the scene. And Falco has a pretty face. Other characters comment on his “beautiful kisser”. But he’s never given the time of day unless he begs for it. Falco desperately wants to be seen. Hunsecker does all the looking.
Think of it like a shark and Remora. Theirs is a symbiotic relationship sure, but you can see the Hunsecker’s shark coming from a mile away. It’s only up close that you see Falco’s Remora hanging on, feeding on the scraps.
The following scene is one of the first extended scenes between the two actors and one of the best. Hunsecker doesn’t even address Falco until 3 minutes in and then it’s only to give a direct command. Watch the way Falco’s words leap from his mouth while Hunsecker’s march out. Watch how the Senator and his company try to lighten the atmosphere when they speak to Falco but they become grave anytime Hunsecker speaks. The contrast in Falco and Hunsecker is on the one hand distinctly visible, but on the other so natural that it never feels artificially heightened.
Sidenote: Hunsecker takes telephone calls during his meal from one of those old rotary phones. It’s in the 50’s equivalent of that really great person at the dinner table who keeps checking his or her phone because apparently BJ Novak’s twitter thoughts are as important as the conversation you’re having.
Sweet Smell of Success is a hyper-cynical film. Every character is crooked. Every character hustles. Even Susan, the woman caught in the middle and the supposed victim, turns up her frown when she sees Hunsecker slap Falco around. I wish could understand why we like cynicism so much? Why does Sweet Smell of Success survive as a classic even when its’ outlook is so bleak? Yes, there’s gorgeous photography, brilliant performances, a compelling script, and the aforementioned relationship between the two leads, but as my grandmother recently remarked in regard to Before Midnight “I hated it. All I could think was that I might die in this theater watching these two self-absorbed people argue”, the same could be said for Sweet Smell of Success. It makes no attempt to be redemptive. It makes no attempt to hide the worst of our self-preservational instincts. Why is it so much fun to watch slimy hucksters cover one another in acid? I wish I had the answer. Still, I’ll always take Bob Dylan over John Denver. Sweet Smell of Success is about as bleak a depiction of show business as you’re likely to see. The chemistry between Lancaster/Curtis just make it that much easier to swallow, even if it’s a cookie full of arsenic.