2018 Film Essays

Vague Visages Is FilmStruck: Jeremy Carr on Alexander Mackendrick’s ‘Sweet Smell of Success’

“It’s later than you think.” – J.J. Hunsecker

Sweet Smell of Success is not the only film directed by Alexander Mackendrick. There aren’t many others, but among them are the Alec Guinness comedy The Ladykillers (1955) and later, the solid action-adventure picture A High Wind in Jamaica (1965), starring Anthony Quinn and James Coburn. For most, though, this renowned 1957 production, a scathing, socially acute newspaper noir, is his primary claim to fame, and that’s only if people associate his name with the film to begin with, or the other way around. Despite all its formal virtues, Sweet Smell of Success seems to exist somewhere beyond auteurist canonization or even the traditional Hollywood studio stock. It’s not quite a brilliant one-off like Charles Laughton’s The Night of the Hunter (1955), but there is that same sense of singularity. As far as classic American cinema goes, there’s nothing quite like it.

Born in Boston, raised in Glasgow, Mackendrick primarily worked at Ealing Studios until it was sold to the BBC in 1955. Seeking work elsewhere, he arrived in California and signed with Hecht-Hill-Lancaster, an independent production company named after its administrators Burt Lancaster, his agent Harold Hecht and producer James Hill. More than anything, Mackendrick was keen to dive into a promised adaptation of George Bernard Shaw’s “The Devil’s Disciple,” but after that project was shelved, much to his dismay, Sweet Smell of Success became Mackendrick’s first American feature. And it’s about as American as American movies get.

Charting the nightly schemes and wheeling-dealing ways of influential columnist J.J. Hunsecker (Lancaster) and press agent Sidney Falco (Tony Curtis), this United Artists release is populated with people in the business of promoting others, while they themselves are utterly consumed by their own self-interest… just like everyone else. It’s a piercing portrayal of syndicated scandal and the power of the tabloid press circa 1957. It isn’t simply a matter of getting good copy — this is life or death. Careers are launched by the written words of an imperious author, an author who can also sign a professional execution with their caustic pen. In this dicey fame game, individual vendettas inform public opinion, and those with axes to grind meet at the confluence of knee-jerk emotions and hyperbolic evaluation (alas, some things never change).

Guiding Sweet Smell of Success through the byways of promotional manipulation and condemnation, Sidney is an eager bundle of nerves, his good looks scarcely shrouding his manic desperation. His handsome face and obstinate charm are the only things keeping him from becoming totally repugnant, to those around him and the viewer. Sidney lives for his work, and for better or worse, his work is his life. His office isn’t so much a certified headquarters as it is a makeshift bureau, adorned with a side of domestic accessory, bed included. Outside, his terrain is glitzy and dazzling, but like the artificiality of Las Vegas, similarly built on a good show and the fickle impermanence of eminence, it’s a façade. He desires to be the best at what he does, to be the top and then some, and he’s willing to forsake all else in his quest, to traverse a grueling, self-deprecating, soul-scarring path toward individual prosperity.

Whatever his motivations, and regardless of who gets hurt along the way, perhaps there’s something admirable about one so driven. At the very least, it’s sympathetically pathetic. Sidney is so completely dependent on others that his own value is intermittently allocated, as if on a daily currency exchange. He knows the score either way. He’s savvy and street smart — why wear a topcoat when you’ll just have to tip the hatcheck? — but he can be brutally insensitive. He has no qualms about essentially pimping out a friend of his, a hard-luck, love-struck cigarette girl (Barbara Nichols). What is she, she asks when told to entertain a figure in Sidney’s calculating machine, “a tangerine that peels in a minute?” Well…. like so much else in this world of pressure, persistence and pretension, dignity is easily compromised, especially when push comes to shove and one’s livelihood is on the line. “Don’t do anything I wouldn’t do,” cautions Sidney as he leaves the room. “And that gives you a lot of leeway.” He’s not kidding. Although many have pointed out Sidney’s surname similarity with a particular bird of prey, canine correlations are far more prevalent in Sweet Smell of Success. It’s a repeated dog-eat-dog world, Sidney is told he scratches for the latest scoop like a dog and J.J.’s sister, Susan (Susan Harrison), says that as her brother’s lap dog, Sidney “jumps through hoops, like a trained poodle.” Sidney is scrappy for sure, stubborn and spirited, but he’s void of any semblance of love or loyalty, unless it’s to his own end.

It’s not quite Harry Lime in Carol Reed’s The Third Man (1949), but J.J. is granted substantial conversational build-up before his first appearance in Sweet Smell of Success, following about 20 minutes of verbalized and insinuated omnipresence. When he does appear, couched in his fine dining cubby hole and surrounded by favor-seeking sycophants, he engages with Sidney and confirms through their antagonistic tête-à-tête the nature of their precarious, malicious, unseemly association. Sidney defends J.J. ad nauseam, but it never once rings of genuine devotion; it’s more about naïveté and necessary leverage. Consumed by mutual connivance and duplicitous desires, everybody in this film has at least two faces (Sidney, says J.J., has “half dozen for the ladies”). Yet even two faces aren’t enough to get a full picture of the cunning, commanding J.J., who is, as far as the film’s primarily plot is concerned, currently obsessed with the relationship between sister Susan and jazz musician Steve Dallas (Martin Milner) and will stop at nothing to see it fail. Sweet Smell of Success shows J.J. to be decidedly asexual, but the latent incestuous interest can’t be ignored.

Seated in this introductory scene, Lancaster is shot in low angles with high lighting, casting cavernous shadows on J.J.’s face as he holds court. Behind his browline glasses, his formidable glance is obscured, making it even more intimidating; later, Mackendrick coats the lenses with Vaseline, adding to the detachment. If eyes are the window to the soul, a glimpse into the innermost being of J.J. Hunsecker is emphatically denied. To a certain extent, J.J. is in Sidney’s debt — something about a favor a year ago, something “dirty” — but he thrives on the cosmopolitan corruption that feeds his vocation. “I love this dirty town,” he declares with wicked, giddy vehemence. Lancaster and Curtis had worked together before on Trapeze (released in 1956 and directed by Reed), and though studio heads had their reservations about Curtis, lest he tarnish his pretty boy screen persona (which he does, while simultaneously broadening his acting range — he’s never been better), the character of J.J. was one of several complex personalities embodied by Lancaster during this period. Even if both Frank Sinatra and Orson Welles were considered for the part, this multifaceted, ambiguous portrait points the way to Lancaster’s Oscar-winning turn in 1960’s Elmer Gantry, his elegant, sensitive performance in The Leopard (1963) and his fascinating, enigmatic role in The Swimmer, from 1968. Sweet Smell of Success shows just what he was capable of, and it was just the beginning.

Sweet Smell of Success was based on a Cosmopolitan story by Ernest Lehman, where it was renamed “Tell Me About It Tomorrow!” (the editors objected to the “smell” of the title). J.J. himself was modeled on the celebrated gossip commentator Walter Winchell and some of the drama was inspired by Lehman’s time working for a New York-based press agent and columnist. Collaborating with Lehman on the screen adaptation was a man who knew his fair share about betrayal and deceit, Clifford Odets. While Lehman had written the award-winning TheKing and I the year before and would write Alfred Hitchcock’s North by Northwest two years later, renowned playwright and left-wing champion Odets fell victim to the early-50s heyday of the House Un-American Activities Committee. In any event, their combined insight and wit produced a sparkling script where the merciless dialogue cuts like a knife, straight to the heart or firmly planted in the back. Sweet Smell of Success has all the verbal seasoning of a noir or screwball comedy — “Don’t be a two time loser,” “The cat’s in the bag and the bag’s in the river,” “you’ve got more twists than a barrel of pretzels” — but the bitterness of the humor is an inimitable concoction, best evinced in the film’s most famous quip: “I’d hate to take a bite out of you, you’re a cookie full of arsenic.”

When it comes to the way men like Sidney and J.J. behave, it’s tempting to assign something akin to joy, a perverse, unscrupulous high, but it’s not clear that joy in any conventional sense is something they’re even capable of. Does anyone remember a moment where they smile? Or where they mean it? There is no hesitation to put on an act, dialing up a fake phone call, resorting to blackmail, whatever it takes. Enacting their ruthless ambition with reluctantly venerable drive, they have no illusions; they know exactly what they’re doing, basking in what J.J. calls a “moral twilight.” There are sly looks everywhere, because everyone is working an angle. In Sweet Smell of Success’ fundamental frame-up, it’s spinning a smear campaign involving Steve’s supposed communist connections and his marijuana usage. Sure, it’s all rather salacious, but that’s because salacious sells. It still does, in the gossip columns and in the movies. What ultimately contributes to the downfall of clean-cut Steve? In part, the boy had integrity. Where does something like that fit in? It could be said the innocence of Susan and Steve is lost — in the end, suicidal Susan actually pities her brother — but that would suggest it was ever allowed to develop in the first place. Making her film debut, Harrison is easily overwhelmed by the presence of male leads Curtis and Lancaster, which is a shame, because hers is a delicate depiction of a good kid, vulnerable and suffering under the sexism of conventional expectations. But sexism is only the half of it. In this film, there is a sweeping contempt for all.

Contributing to the allure of Sweet Smell of Success, almost working against its sardonic tone, is the hopping, hot spot atmosphere, the effusive, encasing, all-encompassing heartbeat of a major American city. As vital as it is, however, it’s an insular view; like any great metropolis, social and economic divisions cut through the community, and here, the specificity of the occupational nucleus is even further removed from the mainstream. Exteriors shot in December and January show no sign of a wintery chill, melting away under the heated intensity of the characters and their sweltering ambition (interiors were primarily done at the Goldwyn Studios in Hollywood). Cinematographer James Wong Howe, already a five-time Oscar nominee and winner for The Rose Tattoo (1955), with four more nominations and another win to follow, employs a mobile camera and street-side photography, taking it all in and releasing the vivid cityscape in visions of stark black and white, bright lights and deep shadows, all merging in a realm of cigarette smoke, neon glints and the pulsating progress of Elmer Bernstein’s jazzy score. Constantly on edge, Sidney’s darting eyes inform the prowling camera, seizing snapshots of the peripheral commotion — the invasive, pervasive hustle. Thanks to Mackendrick’s shrewd direction and the precise editing of Alan Crosland Jr., few films have ever captured the milieu of their setting as evocatively as Sweet Smell of Success. The exquisite boldness of the binary contrasts negate the multiple shades of truth that eclipse the rest of the picture.

When Sweet Smell of Success was released in June of 1957 (oddly enough, the same year as Elia Kazan’s similarly prophetic media critique A Face in the Crowd), it failed to generate much commercial support. Critics, who were perhaps in a better spot to appreciate the industrial joke, responded more favorably. There was considerable tension when making the picture, mostly between Mackendrick and Lancaster, both of whom resisted any compromise of control, but that was unlikely the reason for the adverse audience reaction. Rather, it was the sheer pitiless and acerbic nature of the film, its world of sex but no love, of fame without necessarily talent, of greed and misfortune and injustice (imagine if the original ending had stayed in place, where Susan accuses Sidney of rape and he is subsequently murdered by J.J.). In order to help temper the insightful prescience of Sweet Smell of Success, there needed to be a degree of distance. And yet, it still exudes a staggering cynicism, albeit a captivating cynicism. Maybe it’s not sweet, but it’s a pungent aroma indeed.

Watch ‘Sweet Smell of Success’ at FilmStruck.

Jeremy Carr (@jeremyrcarr) teaches film studies at Arizona State University and writes for the publications Vague Visages, Film International, Cineaste, Senses of Cinema, MUBI’s Notebook, Cinema Retro, Movie Mezzanine, Cut Print Film and Fandor’s Keyframe.

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