Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Cinema Bestius: Sweet Smell of Success

“I love this dirty town.”

#26 – Sweet Smell of Success
In thinking about Sweet Smell of Success, I am reminded of the fable “The Scorpion and the Frog.” A scorpion and a frog meet on the bank of a stream, and the scorpion asks the frog to carry him across on its back. The frog asks, "How do I know you won't sting me?" The scorpion says, "Because if I do, I will die too."

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 Plot In Brief: Sidney Falco (Tony Curtis) is a press agent of questionable morality. A big part of his job is trying to get show business clients mentioned in newspapers—in particular, in a popular gossip column written by J.J. Hunsecker (Burt Lancaster). Falco is at his wits’ end because Hunsecker has frozen him out of the column. Hunsecker is angry because his sister Suzie (Susan Harrison) is dating jazz guitar virtuoso Steve Dallas (Marty Milner)—in spite of the fact that Hunsecker has already tasked Falco with breaking them up. Falco must find a way to break them up quickly and irrevocably because Dallas has just proposed marriage, and Hunsecker can’t stand the thought of losing control over Suzie’s life. To what sleazy depths will Falco stoop to return to Hunsecker’s good graces?

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.
The performances here are all outstanding. Burt Lancaster, usually known for outsized and athletic performances, plays against type. He makes himself so guarded and small that his ferocity when eventually exposed is all the more surprising. Tony Curtis is a wonder, showing us the underside of the peppy, cheerful romantic leads he had played previously in his career. Curtis is also a whiz with Odets’ and Lehman’s precise, stylized dialogue, which sounds like a cross between Damon Runyon and Davis Mamet. (In Barry Levinson’s wonderful film Diner, a minor character walks through the film, endlessly reciting the script of Sweet Smell of Success. We are told that he memorized it.) At one point, Curtis assures Lancaster that his plan that night will go off without a hitch, saying “The cat’s in the bag, and the bag’s in the river.”

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.
Cinematography James Wong Howe outdoes himself here and creates a razor-sharp, nightmare hellscape from which we can never emerge. Certainly some of the credit for this is due to the script and direction, but Howe sells the illusion that this is a town plagued by perpetual night. Though the actual narrative takes place over many nights, he creates the feeling of a single, continuous night that simply will not end. I think all of us have had nights like this.

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.”
Sweet Smell of Success’s Three Miracles: Lancaster’s intense, focused performance (He is the devil around which everyone else dances); career-best cinematography from James Wong Howe (and this is the man who shot The Thin Man, the live action sequences of 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”


  1. I would refer anyone expressing the belief that Tony Curtis could not act to this film. He gets inside Falco to such a degree that I actually come to understand the man. Every JJ Hunsecker needs hungry sleazebags like Falco to do their dirty work, and it seems there is no end to men like him.

    Once again, Criterion has done a masterful job with this movie. I can hardly wait for Chimes at Midnight!

  2. Thanks for the great write up on one of my favorite classics! The pace and dialogue is so fun, Tony Curtis is perfect here. And I was in HS when I saw it the first time and went on a short Burt Lancaster kick after. He's still an actor I'm kind of curious about because from the movies I saw he played a lot of "gentle giant" roles. With his looks he could have gone either way. I think I have to buy SSOS tonight. Thanks, JB!

    1. Gentle giant not including this one.

  3. This is one of my favorite films! It's one of the most darkly twisted films I've seen. In addition to the amazing jobs by Curtis and Lancaster, I also love Susan Harrison's portrayal of Hudsucker's innocent sister. When the men force her to bare her fangs, you realize just how deeply the world has fallen.