Film of the Weekend: Sweet Smell of Success (1957)
What a treat for film lovers with tellies this weekend.
On Sunday, on BBC2, there’s a late night showing of Alexander MacKendrick’s jazzy, sleazy tale of the Manhattan media, Sweet Smell of Success.
Note: Mild spoilers , so if the film is unfamiliar, watch it first then come back here to see what I thought.
Sweet Smell of Success
(Alexander MacKendrick, US, 1957)
Nasty, sleazy and cynical but, driven by legendary performances and dialogue to die for, it’s impossible not to love this dirty film
Sweet Smell of Success proves that noir is less a style than a state of mind. Eschewing the genre’s narrative tropes of cops and criminals, and with the bare minimum of physical violence, it remains merciless in its dispassionate view of moral twilight.
This is one of the blackest movies ever made, at times – notably Sidney Falco’s amoral pimping of his lover – almost unwatchable. Many films would reach their moral threshold during the climatic scene where Falco makes his stand against the monstrous J. J. Hunsecker, but this one never flinches and drags its anti-hero right back into the gutter for one more kicking. Such narrative ruthlessness would stand out now; in the 50s, it must have been revolutionary.
The film owes its brilliance largely to its screenplay, possibly the greatest ever written. The story – one of cinema’s true originals – is a workplace drama writ large, for the characters’ hunting ground is the city itself. The film creates a claustrophobic world of bars and nightclubs where, beneath the superficial gaiety, nobody is happy, constantly striving to make a buck or get one over their rivals. The details of life in this pressure-cooker environment are so well observed that the film transcends its specific milieu to become a study of power, corruption and the lengths a man will go – even to the point of selling his soul – to get ahead.
Based on a novella and scripted by a playwright, the screenplay combines the minimalist detail of the former with the psychological cut-and-thrust of a great play. Whilst the fast-moving plot curls around the characters like a serpent, what everybody remembers is the dialogue. Scarcely a minute goes by without some staggeringly original turn of phrase, at once witty and sinister, catching you off-guard like a knife to the ribs. It feels as if all of the characters (with the exception of the lovers, whose sentimental talk sounds utterly out of place) have been infected with the cryptic, hip lingo of Hunsecker’s newspaper column.
Given the stylisation, this could easily come across as theatrical but Alexander MacKendrick takes his lead from the rat-a-tat pace of the words and films at such speed, and with such fluidity, that it never feels contrived. The judicious balance between the expressionism of the sets and the verisimilitude of on-location shooting is united under the inky malevolence of the cinematography, as if Hunsecker’s poison as stained the screen itself.
The performances straddle the same perilous line between naturalism and grotesquerie – the dialogue feels urgent and insistent. Casting matinee idols Burt Lancaster and Tony Curtis as these horrible people is a shrewd move, as it’s their charisma that has people believing in their lies. Curtis is horribly plausible as Falco, both a pimp and a whore, plying his business wherever he can find a taker. A complete loser – with his bed in his office – he’s utterly repellent…but in contrast to Hunsecker he’s an angel.
Lancaster dominates physically and psychologically. What’s really frightening about Hunsecker – beyond the suffocating, incestuous desire that drives the plot – is the sense of pure, perverted ego. Self-importance has led to power, which in turn has increased that sense of self-importance to the point where Hunsecker can believe that a criticism of him is directed at his readers. Yet, even amidst the moral carnage he inflicts, Lancaster’s haughty grandeur is almost enough to paint Hunsecker as a tragic figure, the arch manipulator unable to accept that there’s one thing – love – that’s beyond manipulation.