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  • Writer's pictureMatt Levin

Sweet Smell of Success

There's so much to love about Alexander Mackendrick's 1957, blistering film-noir masterpiece, Sweet Smell of Success, starring Burt Lancaster and Tony Curtis. Ever since I first saw it in film school in 1990, no film has left an impression on me the way Sweet Smell has.

For starters, it's one of the first films that was ever shot on location in New York City. NYC is used as a location all of the time now, but in 1957 it was revolutionary. The film was photographed by the pioneering Chinese-American cinematographer, James Wong Howe(Body and Soul, Hud, Seconds, The Rose Tattoo). Howe used long-focus lenses to film the city backdrops, which gave off the impression that the buildings were all crammed together. The atmosphere he achieved is impeccable in its claustrophobic gloominess, perfectly capturing the neurotic energy of post-war New York City.

The story finds Lancaster playing J.J. Hunsecker, the most powerful of the New York columnists(Loosely based on famed gossip columnist, Walter Winchell.), whose items can make or break a career. Curtis is Sidney Falco, a press agent longing to be Hunsecker, and will do anything to get there. Falco is so marginal that his name isn't painted on his office door, but written on a sheet of paper and taped there. (The inner room is his bedroom.) Falco supports himself largely by getting items into Hunsecker's column, and recently Hunsecker has frozen him out. Why? Hunsecker asked Falco to break up a romance between Hunsecker's younger sister Susan (Susan Harrison) and a jazz musician named Steve Dallas (Martin Milner), and Falco has so far failed.

Lancaster and Curtis sink into their respective roles with relish and aplomb. Their toxic, co-dependent relationship is at the center of Sweet Smell. The two men relate to each other like junkyard dogs. One is dominant, and the other is a beaten dog, circling hungrily, his tail between his legs, hoping for a scrap after the big dog has dined. The dynamic between a powerful gossip columnist and a hungry press agent, is seen starkly and without pity. The rest of the plot simply supplies events to illustrate the love-hate relationship. Howe often filmed Lancaster from a low angle, with a wide-angle lens and lighting that was placed directly above him, which made him look both menacing and superior. This was a specialty of Howe’s, who had become known as “Low-Key Howe” due to his use of shadows and low-key lighting.

Perhaps the best aspect of Sweet Smell is the brilliantly acerbic screenplay by activist playwright, Clifford Odets, famous for his left-wing social dramas(Waiting for Lefty, Awake and Sing!) from an original story by Ernest Lehman. Never has a script felt so caustic and inflammatory. Odets' razor sharp dialogue bristles with memorable one liners. “The cat’s in the bag and the bag’s in the river,” “I’d hate to take a bite out of you; you’re a cookie full of arsenic,” and “Everybody knows Manny Davis… except Mrs. Manny Davis.” “Don't do anything I wouldn't do, that gives you a lot of Leeway”

Sweet Smell Of Success is a tough film to pigeonhole: It looks like a hard-boiled noir, but has the snap and wit of a newspaper comedy, and is awash in melodrama. The movie’s mood turns on a dime, too, from jazzy and hard-hitting to more melancholy and romantic. (It’s like the city itself, changing with every block.) And where most Hollywood films hold viewers’ hands while leading them into unfamiliar worlds, Sweet Smell Of Success presumes we’ll figure out who’s who and why it matters.

Much of the credit for blending all of these divergent styles together into a cohesive whole, is the deft direction by Scottish-American director, Alexander Mackendrick, who made his reputation in the early ’50s with a handful of comedies for London’s legendary Ealing Studios.("The Man in the White Suit" (1951) and "The Ladykillers" (1955), both starring the brilliant Sir Alec Guinness. While no one would call Sweet Smell a light comedy, it's filled with brilliant, dark humor, so it wasn't really as big a stretch for Mackendrick as you might think.

Lastly it's impossible to watch Sweet Smell without relating it to present day America, and Trump specifically. Lancaster's Hunsecker is drunk on power and sadistic in his treatment of Curtis' Falco, he gleefully enjoys watching him suffer. (Trump was reportedly giddy when hearing about the insurrection at the Capitol). Hunsecker's phony patriotism and populist rhetoric he imbues in his column, perfectly matches the fervor Trump has ratcheted up with his base. Not to mention his clear incestuous psycho-sexual relationship with his sister..... Ivanka anyone? Finally, with the tabloid and gotcha journalism along with the smear campaigns of Sweet Smell, you cannot help but think of TMZ, and the dirty tactics that permeate much of the political landscape today.

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