Saturday, April 24, 2010

#1: Sweet Smell of Success (Alexander Mackendrick, 1957)

Released: June 27, 1957

Director: Alexander Mackendrick; Screenplay: Clifford Odets, Ernest Lehman, and Alexander Mackendrick (uncredited) based on a novelette by Lehman; Cinematography: James Wong Howe; Studio: United Artists; Producer: James Hill; Music: Elmer Bernstein

Cast: Burt Lancaster (J.J. Hunsecker), Tony Curtis (Sidney Falco), Susan Harrison (Susan Hunsecker), Martin Milner (Steve Dallas), Sam Levene (Frank D’Angelo), Chico Hamilton (Chico Hamilton), Barbara Nichols (Rita), Emile Meyer (Lt. Harry Kello), Jeff Donnell (Sally)


- “Mr. Falco, let it be said at once, is a man of forty faces, not one - none too pretty and all deceptive.”


Not much suspense left in reaching #1 I suppose, as once the shock of Out of the Past coming in as the runner-up subsided, it certainly became obvious what would take the top spot. That comes with the territory, though, as everyone had a general idea as to what the final ten films would be, so it was just a matter of marking them off the list as things played out.

But, I did at least manage to elicit some shock, which I suppose could create a backlash toward crowning Alexander Mackendrick’s Sweet Smell of Success as #1 in the film noir countdown. The general consensus seems to be that Out of the Past is the more logical choice, and as you can tell from my intro yesterday, I grappled with the decision myself. In terms of “greatness” or historical significance, it’s a no contest, Out of the Past would take the title with very little opposition. My own taste, as of right now, though, leans toward Sweet Smell of Success. Watching it again, I was just too drawn into the darkened atmosphere that James Wong Howe so smoothly creates. I became too intoxicated by Elmer Bernstein’s jazzy score. And the two lead performances remain just as blistering on the ninth or tenth viewing as the first. Ask me in two weeks how I would rank my favorite noirs and the top two might flip, but for now I simply have to go with Sweet Smell of Success.

I have been trying to come up with a greater one-two punch of lead performances that would top Tony Curtis and Burt Lancaster and have drawn a complete blank. To my knowledge, such a film simply doesn’t exist. They both give powerhouse turns. Sidney and J.J. are equally cruel, but the actors manage to elicit diametrically opposite sympathies from an audience. J.J. is the nominal villain; the man that everyone wants to see chopped down to size. Sidney is just as devious, but Curtis plays him in such a way that it’s hard not to grudgingly root for him.

As I discuss in the review below, this is a case of all the elements coming together, with all of them playing a significant role in the final product. Lancaster, Curtis, Mackendrick, Wong Howe, Bernstein, Odets, Lehman – without the contributions of each individual person, things would not be the same. They come together to create a dark, cynical portrait of late-night Manhattan that somehow manages to be both repugnant and irresistible. This is another film that I have never grown tired of and can watch at any time.

Oh, and once again, I point everyone to the script. I might throw the term around loosely, but it unquestionably qualifies as a masterpiece.


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If I wanted to get really cute with this review, I would simply post a link to the Odets and Lehman penned screenplay, copy and paste a picture of both Tony Curtis and Burt Lancaster in their roles from the film, and end things at that. That would be more than sufficient in summing up why I consider this film to be not just the best of 1957, but among the finest that I have ever seen. In reality, my review of the film is just going to be expounding on these key strengths, while also singing the praises of the stunning nighttime photography of New York City. I almost never refer to a film as perfect, but I have to admit that when it comes to Sweet Smell of Success, there is nothing that I would argue needs to be changed.

The background on how the stars aligned to bring all of the principals in the film together is interesting. The script, cast, and production team were put together in stages, with each new addition to the team adding something to the final product. The story is based on a magazine story by Ernest Lehman that originally was published in 1950, basing the story on his own experiences working in the New York public relations industry. When the film rights to the story were acquired, Lehman quickly began to work to direct it himself. United Artists balked at the idea, not wanting a novice director causing problems. It was then that the producers turned to a director who had not worked in the United States in over twenty years – Alexander Mackendrick. Mackendrick, although born in the U.S., had moved back to Scotland at an early age and had been working in the film industry in Britain since the 1930s. He had made many successful films as a director at Ealing Studios, but with the sale of company, Mackendrick began casting his eyes toward Hollywood. Courted by the Hecht-Hill-Lancaster production company, which had the rights to Lehman’s script, Mackendrick agreed to come back to the States and take over director duties.

Mackendrick and Lehman began working together to tailor the script to the new director’s liking, but soon hit a snag when Lehman fell sick and was no longer able to continue. Into his place stepped Clifford Odets, who began reworking the script even further. I have personally never seen it pinpointed as to exactly what Odets was changing with the script, but it apparently was extensive, as the editing continued even after shooting began. Apparently, it was not changes to the actual storyline, but more of a refining role to improve individual scenes and dialogue. Whatever it was, it worked, as the script is superb, and all three men who had a hand in working on it deserve praise.


It is also Hollywood lore that Universal Studios, which owned Tony Curtis’ contract, was vehemently opposed to him playing the role of Sidney Falco. Curtis, on the other hand, lobbied hard to land the role and fortunately won out – if Curtis ever did better work than in this film, I haven’t seen it. I'll go a step further and say that there are few performances I've seen in _any_ film that top Curtis as Sidney Falco. Orson Welles was supposedly considered for the role of J.J. Hunsecker, a thinly veiled depiction of Walter Winchell, but United Artists pushed for the box office appeal of leading man Burt Lancaster. This is another choice that has been shown to have been correct, as Lancaster showed his versatility. Normally in films noir, Lancaster would play characters that were at heart well-intentioned men, but for whatever reason would be swept up in uncontrollable circumstances. As Hunsecker, he is playing a man with virtually no redeeming qualities.

The screenplay and its story are as biting as you’ll ever encounter. It follows a night in the life of press agent Sidney Falco (Tony Curtis), a PR man who can hustle with the best of them. As with every other press agent in the city, his number one goal in life is to get his clients mentioned in the newspaper gossip column of the powerful J.J. Hunsecker (Burt Lancaster). Although promised lines in the column, Falco is continually rebuffed by Hunsecker because he has been unable to deliver on a promise made to J.J. Falco had agreed to break up the romance between Hunsecker’s sister Susan (Susan Harrison) and rising jazz guitarist Steve Dallas (Martin Milner). Until that objective is achieved, Sidney is being shut out from the Hunsecker column.


Over the course of the night, the audience has a firsthand view of Sidney’s bouncing from nightspot to nightspot, meeting with clients, currying favor with journalists and doing his best to schmooze with important people. He also continues doing his damndest to pull Susan and Dallas apart from each other. Throughout the night he also meets with J.J. as the columnist holds court at his usual restaurant table. It is here that we see the power of J.J. Husecker as he has politicians and celebrities coming to him for favors, nearly groveling just to get an audience with him.

I’ve already sung the praises of the screenplay, and I won’t do my usual cut-and-paste of favorite lines (although I will post a link to the actual screenplay: http://www.awesomefilm.com/script/sweetsmell.html). As I said at the beginning of this piece, aside from being my all-time favorite screenplay, there is more than just the excellent writing to admire here. The two lead performances are absolute masterworks, particularly Tony Curtis. Sidney Falco is downright sleazy, with no limitations on what he will do to curry favorable press. In an ironic way, he wears this characteristic as a badge of honor – after all, in his eyes he is just doing his job. As one of his clients tells him, “It’s in a publicity man’s nature to be a liar.” But Sidney goes beyond simply lying. He is outright manipulative, and uses anyone he can to help him out of a jam – his secretary, his sometime girlfriend, his uncle. The amazing thing is that Curtis is so charismatic in the role that you can’t help but at least grudgingly like Sidney. Was this intended by the writers? I don’t know, but if it wasn’t then it is further proof that Tony Curtis as Sidney Falco is the ultimate conman!


All of this action takes place in exactly the setting that one would expect such shady characters to be operating in. I know that I am always harping on the atmosphere of great films, but it’s impossible not to admire the dark New York City streets and nightclubs captured brilliantly by Mackendrick and cinematographer James Wong Howe. They craft the perfect mood for the biting script and subject matter. The streets are dark, with smoke rising from every opening, swirling around the press hounds and P.R. men bustling about and lending a sinister undertone to nearly everyone encountered in the film. This movie isn’t dark in the same sense as other noirs, where there is a doomed feeling attached to every action. It is dark in a very literal sense – everything takes place at night and even when things are happening indoors, they are taking place in dimly lit bars or clubs. It might be reading too much into this fact, but it could very easily be interpreted that these bloodsucking press men are the modern equivalent of vampires who cannot see the light of day. Combine this with the jazz soundtrack of Elmer Bernstein and things are as I (correctly or not) picture New York City to have been at this time.

The story is acerbic and at times can be utterly cruel. Yet it’s always so much fun to watch. Maybe it says something about me and the many other fans of the film that find such biting humor to be so funny and entertaining… I’m not really sure. What I do know is that if we’re talking just pure enjoyment, there are times when I’m tempted to proclaim Sweet Smell of Success as my #1 film of any year.

21 comments:

  1. Now that's a stunner!!! I'm quite sure none of those who've been following this countdown would've guessed this one... so I can safely reiterate what I remarked in your last post - this is a Hitchcockian twist in the tale :)

    Anyway, on a more serious note, its been a pleasure following this wonderful countdown of yours, Dave. As I keep coming back to this countdown, I'm sure it'll compel me to watch a lot of films hitherto not seen by me - so I'm certain its legacy will be a long lasting one, at least for yours truly.

    Looking forward to a closing note & more such countdowns & lists from you.

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  2. I have to agree with the previous post as I am still stunned by your #1 choice. However I had great pleasure in following this countdown & would like to thank & congratulate you for the entertainment, information, insight & suspense you shared.

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  3. Congratulations on the wrap-up, Dave. I can see why the final choice troubled you, because it leaves me wondering, while I'd concede that Sweet Smell is a better film than Out of the Past, whether it should rank higher as a noir. By my own subjective standard I'd expect to see something with crime more in the forefront, but I wouldn't argue hard against the view that noir is a bigger category than crime. Anyway, Sweet Smell is an indisputably great film and one of many that proved Lancaster's versatility and willingness to break his star mold. Teaming him with Curtis here was inspired. Now I'm looking forward to the comments that will follow.

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  4. A perfect movie in every respect: screenplay (though as far as I remember the original version was a bit longer), dialogues (eminently quotable -- I wish I could talk like that; I'm twisted all right), exceptional cinematography, top notch performances (and two amazing characters), atmosphere, music -- everything. I love it, and I was smashed by it when I watched it for the first time a year ago. It looks like this film just gets younger, not older in the least. I don't believe it will ever become outdated.

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  5. In 1997, I watched Sweet Smell of Success every week for fifteen consecutive weeks; of course I agree with your choice!

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  6. Thanks guys, it has been a blast! Also, I wanted to say that in the next day or two I will be posting a wrap-up article of sorts and would love for people to post their own film noir Top 10, 15, 30, 100, whatever. So save those possible lists for that post!

    Shubhajit - Glad to see there was at least some suspense! Thanks for the compliments and your following the list, your comments have been a highlight throughout.

    Moremiles - I didn't set out to stun, but I seem to have shocked a few people with the ordering of the top two. Thanks for following the whole way through!

    Samuel - You raise valid points, but I do think that things do expand beyond just crime, allowing movies like this or Clash by Night to be included on a noir list. Plus, I do think there is some crime taking place in Sweet Smell, where you have an unscrupulous publicity man using corrupt cops to frame someone. It's not the focus, certainly, but it's still happening alongside everything else.

    Quirky Character - Great comments and we obviously are in complete agreement on this one!

    C.K. - That is impressive! I think possibly only Sam would be able to rival that achievement with his watching for Far From Heaven!

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  7. A great choice.

    Did I see this film at No. 1 ?

    No is the answer, but I have no problem with the choice because it is a magnificent film.

    In fact, all one hundred choices have made wonderful viewing over the decades.

    A sterling review.

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  8. Yes, I prefer OUT OF THE PAST, and believe it to be a greater film than SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS both as a noir and as a film in general. But I echo the others here in acknowledging the fantastic work you've done over many months, the preparation, and the nagging decision-making, which informs any kind of an auspicious project such as this one. No list is beyond criticism, but what you've done here is monumental, and I feel both honored and fortunate to have been here for the ride along with some others from the very beginning.

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  9. And needless to say your humility, sportsmanship and real passion hasn't been remotely lost on any of us, our very good friend.

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  10. Here, here Dave!!! Congratulations on a mammoth accomplishment. Making a cohesive list and a defining write up for each is no easy task. The work and time involved is massive and I for one, and I am sure there are others, appreciate it. "Sweet Smell of Success" is a great film, essential for serious film lovers. As much I love the film it did not make my top 10 noirs (lol) but as you have stated all along, and I agree, the list is personal reflecting you own taste. This has been a terrific ride Dave, look forward to what you do next!

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  11. Congratulations Dave, It was so much fun following this list through the months. Sweet Smell Of Success would make my top 10 noirs, so no complaints here about its placement at number one. Making lists is fun and not much work. Writing 100 insightful and imaginative essays is, as John said above me, "a mammoth accomplishment". Also the fact that you could make such a huge list is wonderful proof of your expertise.......M.Roca

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  12. Dave, This is indeed a stunner. I was hoping (crazy, I know) that Kane would somehow make it to the top.

    And hat's off or this countdown, which I believe tops even the previous, mammoth series because it is near impossible to narrow down and write 100 (long and insightful) essays on a single genre. I'm sure all that you can see now is black and white!

    I've barely seen a dozen of these 100, but I've been following the countdown regularly. And here's the comment I would have made in all the reviews of the countdown:

    "Gee, I wish I had seen that. Maybe soon. Thanks for this wonderful review. It's on my watch list" :D

    Bravo mate!

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  13. Dave, I just want to echo everyone's praise, this has been really wonderful following along. There's a bunch of omissions I'm really, really surprised by, but it's probably better to ask you about them in your wrap up post, so I'll mention them there.

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  14. Dave, congratulations on completing your monumental undertaking, virtually a reference work on the genre, and a real nail-biter there at the end. I've already picked several films on your list that I haven't seen for future viewing. I doubt that I could name 100 films noirs, much less rank them! I would have liked to see more British and French noirs on the list, though. (How did "Le Doulos" make it and not "Le Samourai" and "Bob le flambeur," and what about those French proto-noirs of the late 30s like "Le Jour se leve" and "Pepe le moko"?). I'm also not so sure I would call some of these film noir--noir-influenced, yes, but not film noir per se--including your #1 and others like "Body and Soul," "The Letter," and "Sunset Boulevard" even though I think they're great movies. If these are film noir, what about "Citizen Kane" and "Strangers on a Train"? But then as you've said, nobody has come up with a definitive definition and everyone has their own conception of what a noir is. One thing I can say is that all true cinephiles I know venerate the genre. Any plans for what's up next?

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  15. Congratulations, Dave, on this true labour of love and expertise - it has been great reading along, and I now have an even longer list of films I still need to see. Looking forward to whatever comes up next!

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  16. Compelling articulate review. I'll confess I'd never heard of this film until now. I might just check it out.

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  17. something really important about this movie is Despite a poorly received preview screening, Sweet Smell of Success has greatly improved in stature over the years. In 1993, the film was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry, I have watched it!

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  18. James Hill made an astounding job with this film. I admire him cuz he produced the movie with few resources, and no matter that he achieved to realize a master piece.

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  20. I'm increasingly convinced that Fellini was influenced heavily by this movie when he did La Dolce Vita. Right down to Marcello Mastroianni's Tony Curtis-hair, "La Dolce Vita" almost feels like an attempt to steal "The Sweet Smell of Success" and shape it into something else.

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  21. I just discovered your site after recently becoming a fan of noir. Though I watched some of these movies when I was a kid, I didn't have an appreciation for what I was watching.

    Thanks for the tremendous effort that you've put into creating and maintaining this site where converts to this genre can come and share the experience of "real film-making".

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