Over the course of this project I’m going to have to make some tough decisions. Occasionally we’re going to have years that were absolutely firing on all cylinders, giving us a staggering amount of films that I could easily consider my favorite films. Usually I have a couple choices, but one standout that I feel incredibly comfortable picking to feature. 1957 is not one of those years. 1957 is perhaps the best year that I’ve tackled on this project up until this point. I have no idea what was going on with cinema in 1957, but it must have been a glorious thing. I ended up going with Sweet Smell of Success, a movie that I find endlessly fascinating, but there were honestly four movies that I could confidently call my favorite films of the year, with a few other wonderful movies tossed in for good measure. The biggest source of conflict probably comes from Sidney Lumet’s masterpiece 12 Angry Men, a film that remains one of the most tightly constructed films I’ve ever seen, and one that instantly grabs your attention and doesn’t let go until the last frame. But, we also could have gone with Stanley Kubrick’s Paths of Glory, a fascinating film set in World War I that has kind of quietly become one of my favorite films Kubrick ever made. I first got into Kubrick’s movies in high school, and got obsessed with some of his bigger and flashier films, but Paths of Glory was really where I ended up first appreciating him, getting swept up in what is essentially a legal drama set during a war, and it’s frankly amazing. We could have also gotten incredibly topical and talked about A Face in the Crowd, a film that gets more prescient with every passing day, getting to see a boisterous and offensive media figure becoming a political powerhouse, while letting his ego completely take over and build a cult around himself. It’s not exactly uplifting to watch in 2018! And I would be crazy not to bring up Berman’s the Seventh Seal, a film that often gets remembered for one scene, and possibly more for that scene being parodied with Bill and Ted, but that still remains a fascinating piece of cinema. So, you can see that I had some pondering to do. I ended up revisiting all of these movies just to make sure, and I remain resolute in my decision. Because there’s something about Sweet Smell of Success that gets stuck in my head every time I see it.
Like so many films that I end up writing about on this site, the story behind the creation of Sweet Smell of Success is kind of a mess. It all began with a novella written by Ernest Lehman, who based the basic premise off of his real life exploits as an entertainment press agent. And, in the seven years between when the novella was published and the film was released, Lehman had enough stature that he thought he could write and direct an adaptation of the story, but United Artists had no interest in letting a first-time director tackle this project. So, instead, they hired a Scottish director named Alexander Mackendrick, who’d never directed an American film at this point. And Mackendrick really didn’t think that the script would function as a film, at least as it was given to him, and he ended up bringing in semi-disgraced writer Clifford Odets, who played ball with HUAC earlier in the decade, to punch things up. Mackendrick then started production, afraid the entire time that the studio would fire him, and as a result ran an incredibly tight ship that often clashed with the two super-stars in the cast. Tony Curtis and Burt Lancaster were both playing incredibly against type in the film, and no one was convinced that either could pull of their roles, leading to an absolutely messy production. And, like I’ve had to say so many times during this project, the finished product was incredibly unpopular when it was released. It was too dark, people didn’t like seeing Tony Curtis this despicable, they didn’t like how slow and talky Lancaster was, and it was a pretty widely ignored flop. But, as decades passed it was recognized for what it actually was. A pitch-black little piece of noir, full of terrible people doing terrible things, which is a thing I absolutely love about this film.
Sweet Smell of Success follows a man named Sidney Falco, a unscrupulous publicity agent in New York who hustles all night long to get his clients the publicity that they need to survive in a city full of entertainment choices. And, the best way to accomplish this goal is to earn the favor of an incredibly powerful critic named J.J. Hunsecker. Hunsecker writes a daily newspaper column, has a radio show, and a television show where he tells people what to do, see, eat, and listen to in New York ,and holds a massive amount of sway over the city. So, Falco sets out into the night to gain Hunsecker’s favor. And, after an incredibly awkward interaction where Hunsecker dresses down a philandering senator, he agrees to make a deal with Falco. He’ll put some of Falco’s clients in his column if Falco agrees to help him do something horrible. Hunseckers beloved sister Susan is in a relationship with an up and coming jazz guitarist named Steve Dallas, and Hunsecker wants Falco to break them up, but in a way that will keep Susan worshiping Hunsecker. Falco is worried about this deal, but decides that his success is too important, and agrees.
Falco then gets to work coming up with an incredibly complicated plan. He is going to use a lesser columnist to spread a lie that Dallas is a pot-smoking Communist, hoping that Hunsecker will then step in to save the day, which will offend Dallas to the point that he’ll make an ass out of himself and Susan will just break up with him. Things do get a little more complicated when it’s revealed that Dallas and Susan have become engaged, but Falco doesn’t give up. He ends up finding a semi-washed up columnist who he bribes with sex with a down-on-her-luck friend of his, and gets the blind item about Dallas into the papers. And, the next day everyone ends up meeting up at the studio where Hunsecker tapes his show, and everything comes to a head. However, it doesn’t end up happening exactly as Falco expected. Dallas just ends up insulting Hunsecker, and Susan breaks up with him fearing what Hunsecker will do in response. Which was a valid worry, because Hunsecker then announces to Falco he wants him to plant marijuana on Dallas, and then get a corrupt policeman to arrest and beat Dallas in retribution. This is initially a bridge too far for Falco, who isn’t wiling to actually frame an innocent man, until Hunsecker sweetens the deal. He says that if this all goes as planned he’s going to go on a long vacation with his sister, and would let Falco to take over the column in his absence, giving Falco free reign to publicize any of his clients.
It’s too sweet of a deal for Falco to pass up, and he ends up going through with it. He puts some joints in Dallas’ jacket, and watches as Dallas is arrested and beaten. But, he doesn’t care, because he’s won. Falco heads out to a bar to start celebrating with friends, toasting his business acumen, when he gets a call requesting he head to Hunsecker’s apartment. Falco goes to the apartment, and ends up finding only Susan there, who is about to commit suicide. Falco stops her, just in time for Hunsecker to arrive, quite confused about why Falco is alone with his sister in his own apartment. Falco then realizes that Susan has planned this whole thing as revenge, and attempts to talk his way out of it. And he is unsuccessful. Hunsecker beats Falco up, and calls the same corrupt cop who arrested Dallas to come arrest Falco. So, Falco tells Susan what really happened with Dallas, and that it was all Hunsecker’s idea, and then flees into the morning, only to be caught and arrested. But, as Hunsecker is basking in his triumph, Susan tells him that she’s leaving and never coming back, and moves out of the apartment to go be with Dallas, leaving Hunsecker bitter and alone.
I find this film incredibly captivating. People at the time didn’t react well to it, finding it too dark and too talky, but that’s kind of why I love it. The film is completely carried by two tremendous performances from Tony Curtis and Burt Lancaster, and we just get to see them sitting around and being terrible. And they absolutely nail it. I don’t have a whole lot of experience with either Curtis of Lancaster, so I didn’t have any weird baggage with them playing against type, but I think regardless of that idea the film would work wonders for me. It’s a gorgeously dark film, and Alexander Mackendrick does a fabulous job directing the film, giving it a bizarre feel that I just love so incredibly much. It’s a film that grabs you almost immediately, plunges you into a world that should be mostly alien to the average viewer, gets you up to speed with what’s going on, and then keeps you guessing every step of the way. I do understand why some of the people behind the scenes of the film were a little worried that the film could have come across as a little dull. It doesn’t really have a lot of action, and while I certainly feel that it falls into the Film Noir subgenre, it doesn’t have near the amount of murder that you’d expect. It’s not a story that’s full of murder and hardboiled detectives. Instead, it’s about two incredibly morally bankrupt people having a race to the bottom of the barrel, and that’s one of the reasons that I love it so much.
One of my favorite types of stories are one that revolve around the lives of bad people. Specifically, a type of bad person that I like to think of as a dirtbag. Someone who is only looking out for themselves, and who has no problem destroying the life of another person to enhance their lives. But, usually, these types of stories take place in the gutters of the world, a bunch of seedy criminals who operate in the underworld. This movie is different. It’s a very similar structure to those types of films, but instead of telling the story of a bunch of criminals it focuses on people who you would think would be upper crust. The characters are respected journalists and talent agents, and yet they’re behaving in the same manner as a bunch of gangsters and hitmen would in a different film. This isn’t a story about the underworld, it’s about some sort of overworld. These are the social elite, and they’re still just a bunch of dirtbags trying to get one over on each other. They live a strange life, hanging out in restaurants and bars all night, pressing the flesh and making deals while the common people sleep. Because social standings don’t remove our base human desires, and there’s the same amount of dirtbags in any social strata.
Sweet Smell of Success was written by Alexander Mackendrick, Clifford Odets, and Ernest Lehman, directed by Alexander Mackendrick, and released by United Artists, 1957.
Categories: Cinematic Century