The Sweet Smell of Success
Ed here: There is no other film quite like The Sweet Smell of Success. I still remember the afternoon I saw it. I was fifteen and I realized that I was seeing a movie that was real art. Parts of it reminded me of Norman Mailer's novel The Deer Park, which I'd read recently. But not even the psychotic darkness of Mailer's book could compare with the snake pit that the creators of Sweet Smell had concocted. These are two brief excerpts from a very long article appearing in Vanity Fair. If you have any interest in how a classic film managed to get made, read this. Some of the portraits of the principals are unforgettable--Burt Lancaster, who apparently enjoyed beating up women; his business partner Harold Hecht who was long sick of Lancaster getting all the press;; Clifford Odets, old, broke, sitting in the back of a freezing prop truck banging out scenes on a typewriter because Lancaster and the director could never agree. And Odets afraid and ashamed of being back in NYC after all these years because the serious people there felt he'd sold out--first by going Hollywood and living a glitzy life; and then cooperating with HUAC. He was terrified of seeing them. If there's a hero here it's Tony Curtis, who's quoted at length and whose appearance in the film changed his life forever. I hope the piece wins some kind of magazine journalism award for its writer Sam Kashner. It's a masterpiece in its own right.
The Sweet Smell of Success—the story of an unethical press agent named Sidney Falco and a power-mad gossip columnist named J. J. Hunsecker—does for New York what Sunset Boulevard did for Hollywood. It was conceived as a short story called “Hunsecker Fights the World,” published in 1948 in Collier’s by Ernest Lehman, an unhappy press agent who wanted only to be a novelist and a screenwriter; it was Lehman’s attempt to expiate his guilt for being one of the little guys feeding the big columnists the stuff that made Walter Winchell more powerful than presidents.
Among the film’s many pleasures is James Wong Howe’s chiaroscuro cinematography, which unerringly captures the look and feel of postwar New York City. Howe shot his subjects from low angles so they always seemed to be “knifing up through the air, poised for the kill,” as critic and screenwriter Stephen Schiff put it. The city is awash in brilliant shadows—everything shines, seemingly drenched in acid rain: the enormous neon signs above the great buildings, even the newsstand holding down its corner of the sidewalk in front of Nedick’s. At one point, after Hunsecker watches a drunk being bounced from a nightclub, he turns away and says, “I love this dirty town.” Sweet Smell of Success is a corrosive valentine to New York, embracing its energy and its clashing ambitions. But what cineasts really love about this film is its biting dialogue, written by Lehman and that most miserable of urban geniuses, Clifford Odets. Where else would you hear a sinister cop utter the words “Come back, Sidney. I want to chastise you”?
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