Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Sweet Smell of Success (1957) / a film by Alexander MacKendrick; w/ script by Ernest Lehman & Clifford Odette; starring Burt Lancaster & Tony Curtis

"Uh - by the way, I got nothing against women thinking with their hips. That's their nature. Just like it's a man's nature to go out and hustle and get the things he wants."

J.J. Hunsecker may be the most powerful man in New York City. A gossip columnist based on Broadway in the mid-1950's, his words disseminate to the masses in a daily binge of critical essay, scathing reviews and subtle innuendo, carrying not only the up-to-the-minute analysis on plays and featured acts, but quite often some very, very private information on the city's most stalwart figures. He's known (and feared) for his ability to make or break people with little more than an offhand gesture of recommendation or an indirect defamation of character, naming no names of course but hinting with enough casual aplomb to get the message across. It's not as if people aren't wise to the dubious scruples of Hunsecker. The magnate and the celebrity that he is, J.J.'s got lots of enemies, ranging from those who think little of his petty tactics to those who believe he's a "national disgrace." But there are as many allies in his line of work, people like press agent Sidney Falco, a scheming underworld figure who feeds J.J. private bits of information (called "items") about those individuals fortunate or unfortunate enough to conspicuously engender themselves into the public sphere of Manhattan's "cafe society," or worse, make enemies with the man himself through some personal indiscretion. Sidney's willing to do (pretty much) anything to please his boss, as demonstrated by the callous way he treats people in general and the even more sinister, often exploitative way he uses them for his own purposes. He's done some pretty nasty things, turned some brutally vicious tricks to curry J.J.'s favor in order to someday rise to his same ivory-tower level of "success." But things are at a crossroads currently as Sidney's been tasked with the job of breaking up a romance between a jazz musician and Hunsecker's sister, the newsman's only family and an individual who's affection he simply can't abide losing to someone else. It's now make or break time for Sidney who needs to work fast, against the clock and in shrewd fashion, to do his master's bidding if he is to succeed in another shady ploy of manipulation and scheming.

One thing which makes really good stories even better is authentic context, truth backing up the fiction in other words. Walter Winchell was just that to this story. In the mid-twentieth century, Winchell was New York City's most popular gossip columnist and himself a major celebrity, dishing out information on the major movers and shakers in a daily news feed which the public simply devoured in a manner that would make many of today's more salacious talking heads envious. His power coupled with his rather odd, some say unnatural love for his daughter formed the basis for this far and away superior film. Made at a time when big studio pictures were dying off and private production companies were sprouting, Sweet Smell of Success is obviously an independent film (it could never have been made otherwise), budgeted and sponsored by both Lancaster's and Curtis' own individually-funded labels which succeeded in luring a noteworthy director in McKendrick and a master cinematographer, James Wong Howe, away from the bigger projects. To say the movie is more liberalized in its approach and less censured in its portrayal of blatant moral corruption would be an understatement. It's grotesque in a way few works of art can portray. And while nothing so malodorous as the on-screen products of today, it still hits home in away few major movies have since been able to do. Judging from the cover and a casual interpretation, it may seem like another cloak-and-dagger/shady-villains piece. But film noir it's really not though to say it carries similar tones and themes would be truthful; shadowy lighting, urban street scenes at night and men in hats and overcoats are very visible. It's more of a character study, a moral a fable even, equivalent to Faust or something Shakespearean--Curtis' Sydney Falco was actually based upon the Mephistophelian-like character of Mosca from Ben Johnson's Renaissance-era play, Volpone.

In addition to marking turning point in the way films were made as well as a liberalizing of production code standards, the film carved out new roles for leading men Curtis and Lancaster, actors heretofore typecast as heroic, honorable protagonists each popular with housewives and teenage girls. Each are the portrait of pure villainy in 'Sweet Smell', utter swine in their abilities to sink progressively further into a morass of greed and contempt. Without conscience in the way they deal with people, especially the ones with integrity, they're willing to push every limit, scheme every angle to get what they want. It's not just their surface acts but their strikingly profane mannerisms and public demeanor, not a vulgar protrusion but an icily cool presence, which turns their cherubic countenances, Curtis especially, into truly revolting figures of near-demonic depravity. There's little wonder, then, that the film did so poorly upon its opening--at a theater in New York City, no less, to an audience for which Winchell and his underlings brainwashed from the get-go. It's gotten its due credit, however, in succeeding years. Winchell, who would devolve more and more into McCarthy-esque tactics of calling out his critics, ultimately faded in popularity within New York gossip circles, eventually losing a pseudo battle of the media personalities to Ed Sullivan. (DVD SWEET)

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