Tonight marks Round 2 of Wednesday Night at the Movies at Newcritics. This week's selection: Sweet Smell of Success. Read the thoughts here, then mosey over to Newcritics at 9 pm Eastern time and let's talk about this cookie full of arsenic, which for many is the movie about New York City.
At the time the Siren was living in Harlem she was working to support herself behind a jewelry counter at a downtown store, now long gone. To say the pay was low is like saying the same about the Mariana Trench. For a time it was a wildly popular store and a lot of celebrities came in. They had one thing in common. Major and minor, of-the-moment and washed up, they all got big discounts, just as soon as the suck-up manager spotted them.
And this killed me. People who were up to their facelift scars in cash never, but never paid retail or anything like it. My pals and I spent the day before payday pooling resources in an attempt to make sure everybody had cigarettes and lunch, like some crazy display-case version of Our Daily Bread. What I didn't realize was that this store wasn't that bad. The store owners, guys who came up the hard way and could squeeze a nickel till it screamed for the cornerman, still didn't give anything away. Some retail workers watch celebrities walk out without paying a dime.
In the Sweet Smell of Success, you never see J.J. Hunsecker pay for anything. Sidney Falco, on the other hand, doesn't wear a coat so he won't have to tip the hatcheck girl.
Thinking about Sid makes the Siren think about a couple of hours she once spent waiting on a condescending twit, biting back retorts as he needled her and insulted the merchandise, only to watch him leave with everything at half price. Not because HE had ever done (or ever did in future) anything worthwhile, but because he was the brother of a single-monikered pop star. Sid says he wants to be "way up high, Sam, where it's always balmy, where no one snaps his fingers and says, 'Hey, Shrimp, rack the balls!'" When the Siren thinks about that customer, she still starts to think like Sid: Maybe the rules are for suckers, and the only way is to claw your piece out of the pie.
A lot of critics categorize the movie as film noir, which I suppose fits as well as anything. Noir is usually a fatalist morality play disguised as a crime thriller or mystery, and Sweet Smell wears no disguise. It's an ugly story about amoral people, with an elegantly simple plot. The omnipotent king of the New York columnists, J.J. Hunsecker (Burt Lancaster) is furious that his sister Susie (Susan Harrison) is taking baby steps toward independence by dating a rising jazz musician (Marty Milner, whom the Siren cannot look at without hearing a dispatcher calling for Adam-12). He enlists press agent Sidney Falco (Tony Curtis) to plant a false story about the musician. Sid, who has earned J.J.'s ire with a prior misstep, is willing to plant the story, and to do a whole lot more, to ensure no one will be snapping their fingers at him again.
This movie about ambition and treachery made its way onscreen via one betrayal after another. We've all read that Hunsecker was a take on columnist Walter Winchell. Former press agent Ernest Lehman, who wrote the original novella and co-wrote the script with Clifford Odets, acknowledged the connection but claimed he'd tried to differentiate between Hunsecker and Winchell with things like Hunsecker's wall of golf trophies. (Winchell didn't play golf, so everyone was supposed to say "Hey, maybe it isn't Winchell." Right.) Anyway, in The Bad and the Beautiful, the authors write that Falco was an obvious take on press agent Irving Hoffman, who had known Lehman for years and was displeased that a lot of his recognizable perks and foibles were in the novella, but none of the many instances in which Hoffman had stood up to Winchell. Unlike Falco, Hoffman never toadied. "Irving had a right to feel betrayed," said Lehman, and though they eventually made up Hoffman quit speaking to Lehman for a year.
The backstabbing didn't end there. When Burt Lancaster's production company, Hecht-Hill-Lancaster, became interested in making the film, Lehman was lured with the promise that he'd direct. He didn't, of course, and people like Tony Curtis and producer Jim Hill confirmed years later that nobody ever had any intention of letting Lehman direct. Instead they signed up Alexander Mackendrick, known for comedies like The Ladykillers. "He was from Scotland for god's sakes!" said Lehman, who came down with a stomach ailment that landed him first in the hospital and then on a tour of the South Pacific, trying to recover from the whole experience. Mackendrick, whom even Lehman came to see as an extravagantly gifted director, found the making of the movie a physical and emotional ordeal that was compounded by its failure at the box office. Two weeks into making The Devil's Disciple, also for Hecht-Hill-Lancaster, he was removed because, they said, he was running up the budget. Although the Siren likes A High Wind in Jamaica, which Mackendrick made in 1965, his later career ended abruptly and he moved into teaching film. His too-short career as a director is as painful to contemplate as Charles Laughton's.
The machinations amongst Hecht-Hill-Lancaster would also do Hunsecker proud. The original partnership was between Lancaster and Harold Hecht. How smoothly it went may be surmised from the incident where Lancaster lifted Hecht off the ground and threatened to throw him out the window. Lancaster, loathed by both Lehman and his director, brought in Jim Hill, after which Hecht lost interest in Sweet Smell of Success. When a reporter named Ezra Goodman told Hecht the film had bombed in previews, Hecht's face "broke out into a wide Cinemascope smile."
Between these stories in The Bad and the Beautiful and the many appraisals around the Web, Siren has spent all week with the low-down, lying snake that is Sid Falco. And he really is a heel. But in his single-minded desire to get ahead, he is also a piece of almost any New Yorker, except maybe the saintliest ones. (And if they're saints, what are they doing here?) He's pure ambition, and by that sin fell the angels. But the fall of Sid and J.J. doesn't mean there aren't plenty behind them, knife in hand. If you can make it here, you can make it anywhere. What the song doesn't mention is that afterward you may not like yourself.
Sex flows underneath the movie like a sewer, the subtext to everything from the come-hither shot of his sister that Hunsecker keeps on his desk, to the cop purring "Come here Sidney. I want to chastise you" for all the world like a brass-buttoned dominatrix. But sex is a currency, not an objective. Ambition is the animating force and power is what these people do for excitement. Is Hunsecker's interest in his sister incestuous? Oh sure, that idea is there. So is a whiff of the homoerotic in the way Lancaster mouths, "Match me, Sidney." But more than anything, Hunsecker is viscerally offended when anyone dares to slip away.
There's no point in debating who's better here, Lancaster or Curtis. Their performances are as symbiotic as Hunsecker and Falco--host and parasite, David Bordwell calls them. Lancaster was one of Hollywood's most magnificent physical specimens, a true athlete who once made his living as an acrobat. Curtis, born Bernie Schwartz in the Bronx, wasn't as physically powerful as Lancaster (who was?) but nature had given him looks that were no less striking. Both of them spent a long time in movies that made great use of their sex appeal. In its way, Sweet Smell does too. Lancaster plays a guy who rules the world from a table at 21, a night owl whose eyes never seem to blink behind his glasses. But Lancaster still moves with natural elegance, his posture is still majestic. Curtis constantly uses his looks to ingratiate himself, especially with women.
We all know how certain directors--Alfred Hitchcock, Anthony Mann--could take a beloved actor and show how his charm could turn sinister. Sweet Smell shows us how something sinister can charm. The Siren is always surprised when she reads essays about this film that go on and on about the morally repellent characters, but fail to acknowledge their sleazy allure. The press agents and columnists and hangers-on have their own kind of talk, full of slang, as jagged and rhythmic as Elmer Bernstein's great score. Even the less-famous lines insert the stiletto.
"President? My big toe would make a better president."
"It's a dirty job, but I pay clean money for it."
"Maybe I left my sense of humor in my other suit."
"What am I, a bowl of fruit? A tangerine that peels in a minute?"
"Watch me run a 50-yard dash with my legs cut off!"
"Harvey, I often wish you were dead and wore a hearing aid. With a simple flick of the switch, I could shut out the greedy murmur of little men."
The Siren could quote this movie all day. Another line the Siren loves, because it punctures a rare moment of moral clarity, after an honest columnist has refused to run Sidney's fake item: "What do I do now? Whistle 'Stars and Stripes Forever'?"
The old complaint that "nobody is likable!" is particularly irritating when applied to Sweet Smell of Success. Why do you need to like these guys? All the Siren wants to do is listen to them. You can show characters like Falco and Hunsecker pulling every dirty, manipulative trick in the book, but when you endow them with some of the best dialogue in American cinema, you are giving them the power to fascinate.
And when the cinematographer is James Wong Howe, it doesn't matter how many vipers come crawling out of the nest, your city is going to glitter and beckon like no other. Howe was a genius and Sweet Smell is his masterwork. There has been a lot written about the light in Greece and even in the Hamptons, but it took Howe to give us all the nuances of light in Manhattan. There's the light as the sun is going down and people are deciding where to go, there's the light in the first part of the evening, when every part of the city is blazing. Then the grainier quality you get as the night wears on and the less-hep start to switch off, and finally the sunlight staggering through the streets in the early morning. Through Howe's camera, the air and the light seem to have texture, so that you feel the difference between Sidney dashing out coatless in the evening and Sidney grabbing a paper before dawn. And Howe often shoots from down low and wide-angle, so you've got the same view on the New York lowlifes that a tourist gets on the New York buildings.
People who lived through this era of New York City loved it and speak about the 1950s like a long-dead first love. This may well be the best movie ever made about New York, capturing the city's Golden Age while it shows you a lining of pure lead.