In fact, I would go so far as to say that this is one of the few perfect movies ever made, mainly because it's a collaboration between a variety of talented creators at the tops of their respective games, as opposed to a true "auteur" film where a singular creative vision of a director is apparent. Alexander Mackendrick was a talented and underrated director, having made several great movies like The Man in the White Suit, The Ladykillers, and A High Wind in Jamaica, but none achieve the quality of this film. The acting, the writing, the black and white cinematography, and the score (by Elmer Bernstein) are all just flat out perfect.
The movie, however, is bleak (it is often, but not always, categorized as film noir), which explains why it failed miserably in its initial release. Tony Curtis plays Sidney Falco, a bottom-feeding press agent whose job it is to feed items about his clients to newspaper columnists. While Curtis's career certainly has its low points, he can be forgiven much for this movie and for Some Like It Hot--the two movies that truly tapped into the talent underlying his matinee idol image. Curtis's performance as Falco is manic without being over-the-top--Falco is often doing three or four things at once (dressing, talking on the phone, signalling his secretary, pacing), and he is constantly in a state of frenetic motion. Sidney is a hustler, dodging irate clients, tracking down new marks, and hatching new plans to move up "the golden ladder" where, as he says, "The best of everything is good enough for me." In every situation, you can see the wheels turning in Sidney's head, as he tries to find ways to turn it to his advantage. When Rita, a cigarette girl, asks Sidney for help getting her job back after she's fired because she won't put out for another columnist, Sidney first uses the information to try and blackmail the columnist, but when that doesn't work, he pimps out Rita to yet another columnist in return for a favor. And, when Rita resists, he accuses her of being ungrateful. (The columnist, Otis Elwell, is played by David White, best known as Larry Tate on Bewitched. It's flippin' crazy to see him play such a sleazy character, yet it's also easy to believe that 60's ad man Larry Tate would have been well familiar with such situations.)
When Sidney first appears in the movie, he is in crisis mode, as he has failed in a specific task assigned him by powerful newspaper columnist J. J. Hunsecker, played by Burt Lancaster, and Hunsecker is now "freezing him out" of his column. Lancaster is probably my favorite actor of all time, and he's amazing in this movie, with a haircut you could set a clock to and glasses that genuinely scare the shit out of me. He's best known for the physical quality of his performances, as in Elmer Gantry, From Here to Eternity, The Crimson Pirate, Jim Thorpe--All-American, and, one of my personal favorite, The Train, directed by John Frankenheimer. In Sweet Smell of Success, he uses that physicality in a much different way. While Falco is in a state of perpetual motion, Hunsecker is static, with deliberate movements that serve a specific purpose, usually to intimidate. Late in the movie, however, J. J. sends Sidney flying across the room with a series of open-handed slaps, a scene that confirms that the threat of potential violence in his intimidating posture is real. But even when he's unleashing this violence, his movements are still very controlled.
In Burt Lancaster: An American Life, biographer Kate Buford quotes Alexander Mackendrick on one off-screen incident between actor and star:
"We'd been drinking a little. Burt started shouting at me -- and he's scary. Then he came at me across the room with that coiled-spring animal energy, like a panther, and vaulted over a sofa in one of the most graceful movements I've ever seen, [as if] to attack me. I stood up and said, 'No, Burt,' and he stopped. That took every atom of performance possible. The reason I had the strength was that just as he came across the sofa I thought, 'He's beautiful!'"
The film apparently had a troubled shoot, much due to some typical volitile behavior on Lancaster's part, but I think that anecdote really encompasses what makes him perfect in this role: a physical grace combined with a constant threat of violence.
In the film, J. J. wants Sidney to break up the relationship between J. J.'s little sister(Susan Harrison) and her jazz-guitarist boyfriend, Steve Dallas (Martin Milner). The reasons behind J. J.'s disapproval are unclear, but the movie, in all its bleakness, hints at an incestuous relationship between the brother and sister. Steve and Susie are the only truly "good" characters in the movie, and in this world all goodness does is mark them for a fall. When Sidney tries to describe Steve's "integrity," J. J. asks, "What does that mean, integrity?" Sidney responds, "It's a pocket full of firecrackers, looking for a match." Any kind of moral aspiration becomes something to exploit. And that, in essence, is what I really love about this movie: it creates a consistent amoral world without ever letting up or compromising. Characters have to either adapt to it and play the game or die, though playing the game is no guarantee of success, either.
While I most admire this movie for its uncompromising bleakness, it is probably best known for its sharp script by Clifford Odets and Ernest Lehman. The film follows the plot of Lehman's novella pretty faithfully, though Susie and Steve's relationship is even further along in the book, and Sidney has additional family problems to deal with. One of the sharpest differences, however, is in the characterization of Hunsecker. In the original story, Hunsecker is much more overtly sleazy and verbose, often referring to himself in the third person ("Hunsecker doesn't say thanks with the lips. ... Hunsecker likes to say thanks in a way that has meaning.") and referring to Sidney as "baby." While reading the book, which also contains two other stories featuring Falco and Hunsecker--"Hunsecker Fights the World" and "It's the Little Things that Count"--I envisioned J. J. more like John Turturro or Kevin Spacey (both of whom, by the way, do uncanny Lancaster impersonations).
Some dialogue in the film is lifted straight from the novella, as in the scam Sidney runs on Herbie Temple, and the rhythm and lingo are similar. However, much of the credit for the script's quality often goes to Odets, who wrote some of the film's best dialogue on the set, as the story goes, including such great lines as "the cat's in the bag and the bag's in the river" and "Sidney, I'd hate to take a bite out of you--you're a cookie full of arsenic" (which is probably my favorite line in movie history). Each line in this movie is like a punch in the gut. Though I don't wish that I lived in the moral cesspool that this film depicts, I do wish that I lived in a world where people talked like that all the time, saying things like, "Don't remove the gangplank--you might want to get back on board" or "this syrup you're giving out, you pour over waffles, not J. J. Hunsecker." I've also contemplated starting a smoking habit just so that I can hold out a cigarette and say to someone, "Match me."
I first came across this movie when I saw it heavily referenced as a significant influence on the Coen brothers, especially on Barton Fink. And if you see Sweet Smell of Success, the comparison to the Coens is very obvious (most obviously, the Hunsecker/Hudsucker connection). Barton Fink is based on Clifford Odets, and the Coen brothers' dialogue is clearly influenced by this movie.
Also, many years ago now, I saw an interview between Bill O'Reilly and Who Wants to Marry a Millionaire? "winner" Darva Conger. Conger happens to be the daughter of Susan Harrison, the actress who plays Susie Hunsecker. O'Reilly expressed that Sweet Smell of Success is one of his favorite movies. His admiration for this film makes perfect, though disturbing sense. O'Reilly has fashioned a Hunsecker-like persona for himself, complete with a fantasy that he can use his media power to destroy those who cross him. Watch the scene where Hunsecker prepares for his television show, or where he vows to destroy Steve because he not only defied him, but also defied the collective taste of the American people who who watch his show--these are all moments that O'Reilly has mimicked and even duplicated on his own show many times.
I have three traditions that I follow on my birthday every year:
1. I go on a five-day free birthday dessert binge at local restaurants.
2. I make sure that I listen to the Rolling Stones' Let It Bleed.
3. I watch Sweet Smell of Success to guarantee that I watch the movie at least once a year.
Turner Classic Movies must have been trying to help me out with 3 by showing the movie on Sunday night, five days before my birthday. I'm also screening the movie for my film class on Thursday night, though this may backfire. I learned a lesson some time ago that I should never teach my favorite things in a class because I tend to take it a bit personally when students don't like them. This happened especially with my favorite novel, The Good Soldier by Ford Madox Ford, which I'll blog about soon. However, that lesson has clearly not set in, as I decided this semester to teach both The Good Soldier and Sweet Smell of Success in separate classes. This could be bad.
I am, however, an evangelist for this movie, trying to expose people to it as much as possible. So, if you've seen it, let me know. And if this inspires you to check it out, let me know that too.