Monday, August 12, 2013

Classic Films in Focus: SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS (1957)

Arriving late in the era of classic noir, director Alexander Mackendrick’s Sweet Smell of Success (1957) dispenses with any pretense at cool and dives right into the murkiest end of the cesspool, with Tony Curtis’ pretty boy face a thin veneer for unrelenting ugliness. This is the darkest, dirtiest sort of tale, a sordid story of ambition, jealousy, and betrayal. Tony Curtis and Burt Lancaster play characters so utterly despicable that they’re painful to watch, even if their performances are brilliantly conceived and crackling with smart talk.

Curtis plays press agent Sidney Falco, who wants success badly enough to play lackey to powerful Broadway columnist J.J. Hunsecker (Burt Lancaster). Hunsecker pushes Sidney to break up a romance between the columnist’s kid sister (Susan Harrison) and a jazz musician (Martin Milner), but even Sidney balks at the depths to which Hunsecker wants him to go. When smears in the papers don’t do the trick, Hunsecker arranges for Sidney to frame the lover for drug possession and then set him up for a beating from crooked cops.

The love story between the two young people is the least interesting thing going on in the picture, until the kid sister finally gets desperate enough to play a few of her brother’s tricks. The relationship that really grabs our attention is the sick entanglement of Hunsecker and Falco, two men on different rungs of the ladder but both of them as morally bankrupt as rotten souls could possibly be. Falco is perfectly willing to pimp himself to Hunsecker for the scraps the columnist will toss him, and he’s equally ready to pimp his girlfriend for the same cause. Hunsecker is such a control freak that he can’t stand for his sister to have her own life; he’s willing to destroy a good man just for having the temerity to court her. These two specimens of human depravity are tied to each other as much by hate as by need; Sidney sits smiling a sycophantic grin while Hunsecker holds court and cuts him down, taking every verbal blow without flinching, but underneath we get the sense that he’s keeping score. None of this can end well.

Our story revolves around vicious columnists whose livelihood depends on their poisonous tongues, and the dialogue offers plenty of barbed bons mots. One of the most famous bits, “I’d hate to take a bite out of you. You’re a cookie full of arsenic,” serves as an apt example of the whole. If you like the dirty kicks of crooked conversation, then this is the picture for you, with Curtis and Lancaster both delivering some of the most venomous double-edged lines ever conceived in classic film. It’s wickedly smart stuff, though it leaves a bad taste in the mouth and the mind. Only a rat could get away with saying such awful things, but only rats could behave as badly as Sidney and J.J. do. We long to see both of them poisoned with their own bait and thrown out with the rest of the trash.

Sweet Smell of Success did not do well when it first appeared, but today it’s considered an important accomplishment, despite its flaws. Alexander Mackendrick only directed a dozen films, but his other work includes Ealing comedies like The Man in the White Suit (1951) and The Ladykillers (1954). For more of Burt Lancaster’s films from this era, try Gunfight at the O.K. Corral (1957), Run Silent Run Deep (1958), and Elmer Gantry (1960). Tony Curtis is best remembered for more likable characters in films like Some Like It Hot (1959), Operation Petticoat (1959), and The Great Race (1965). For more late noir, see The Killing (1956), Nightfall (1957), and Touch of Evil (1958).