#26 – Sweet Smell of Success
The frog is satisfied, and they set out, but in midstream, the scorpion stings the frog. The frog feels the onset of paralysis and starts to sink, knowing they both will drown, but he has just enough time to gasp, "Why on earth did you sting me?” The scorpion replies, “I am a scorpion. It’s my nature…”
The thing is, in comparing Sweet Smell of Success to this well-known fable, I am not sure which character is the scorpion and which one is the frog. Such is the twisted, nasty nature of the film. I am not sure if Ernest Lehman, Clifford Odets, Alexander Mackendrick, and Burt Lancaster set out to make one of the darkest films ever made, but that’s certainly what they produced.
The film is set in New York, but it’s not the real New York; it’s a stylized, heightened, Noir York made entirely of smoky nightclubs and rain-slicked streets. The city we see—every alley twisting into shadow, every dingy surface, every lurid flash of neon—is the physical manifestation of the main characters’ interior states. We wonder how the film’s few “normal” souls survive here more than a night.
Elmer Bernstein turns in another iconic score, jazzy and full of moody horns and stabbing percussion. Your Pope is one of the least-musical people in all of North America, but I find Bernstein’s range to be awe-inspiring. My introduction to Bernstein was his score for National Lampoon’s Animal House. Director John Landis made the decision that he did not want a standard, “jokey” comedy score, so he commissioned a real orchestral score for his very silly movie. I can think of no modern film composer whose scores are more different or who demonstrates more range: Bernstein’s score for Sweet Smell of Success is worlds away from his score for Animal House, which is worlds away from his iconic scores for The Ten Commandments, The Magnificent Seven, To Kill a Mockingbird, The Great Escape, Airplane!, Stripes, and Ghostbusters. What a career.
Sweet Smell of Success might be the sleaziest film ever made by a major studio. Our protagonist is a pimp and a liar; his foil is a megalomaniac and a fascist who nurses incestuous feelings for his sister. This is not a family movie. This is not a first-date movie. This movie is “a cookie full of arsenic.” In thinking about Sweet Smell of Success—about the absolute hold the Burt Lancaster character has on the Tony Curtis character—I am reminded of the song "Paradise Circus" by Massive Attack:
“It's unfortunate that when we feel a stone
We can roll ourselves over 'cause we're uncomfortable
Oh well, the devil makes us sin
But we like it when we're spinning… in his grin.”
Fantasia, Yankee Doodle Dandy, The Old Man and the Sea, and Seconds); and a stylized New York full of corruption and guilt that beckons us to visit, but only for an evening… only for a show.
In nomine Lehman, et Curtis, y spiritu Lancaster… Amen”