Wednesday, 29 June 2011

The Essential Films: "Sweet Smell of Success"

The Essential Films: A Series of Writings on Films that I feel are essential viewings for film lovers, coupled with films that are personal to me.

What I've always liked about Sweet Smell of Success, Alexander Mackendrick's 1957 masterpiece, is that both main characters are really bad guys. Gossip columnist J.J. Hunsecker (Burt Lancaster), is willing to smear anyone, is overly possessive of his sister Susan (Susan Harrison), and is intent on breaking up her relationship with jazz musician Steve Dallas (Marty Milner). Press agent Sidney Falco (Tony Curtis) longs to be like J.J.  In a brief but great monlogue, Sidney replies to his secretary Sally's question of where he wants to get to:

Way up high, Sam, where it's always balmy. Where no one snaps his fingers and says, "Hey, Shrimp, rack the balls!" Or, "Hey, mouse, mouse, go out and buy me a pack of butts." I don't want tips from the kitty. I'm in the big game with the big players. My experience I can give you in a nutshell, and I didn't dream it in a dream, either - dog eat dog. In brief, from now on, the best of everything is good enough for me. 

That last line really hit me hard watching the film again. It captured something I can relate to and I feel that the story of Sidney Falco character serves as a cautionary tale for ambition that outweighs morality. I'm glad that they didn't soften the character of Sidney Falco to create a contrast between him and J.J. Arguably, if the film was made today, the Sidney Falco character would start out as a nicer characterw who becomes corrupted along the way, only to be slightly redeemed at the end.

In the film as it stands, Falco becomes progressively worse as the film goes along, ultimately planting marijuana on Dallas, which leads to Dallas being beaten up by Hunsecker's cop friend Harry Kello (Emile Meyer). There's a great moment when we think Falco has found some kind of morality. This is when J.J. implies to Sidney that he wants to set up Dallas to be arrested by Kello. At first Falco says he won't do it but when he realizes J.J. will be out of town with his sister and that means he'll be the one to write J.J.'s column, he quickly changes his mind, to J.J.'s immediate satisfaction. J.J knows Falco even better than Falco knows himself. Notice this exchange just before Falco changes his mind about Kello:

Hunsecker: The man in jail is always for freedom.
Falco: Except, if you'll excuse me, J.J., I'm not in jail.
Hunsecker: You're in jail Sidney. You're a prisoner of your own fears, your own greed and ambition. You're in jail.

Falco of course confirms J.J's claim when he decides to go along with J.J's plan. The irony of J.J's statements is how they can imply to J.J as well as Sidney, particularly the fear part. J.J is afraid of losing his sister, and ironically this leads him to losing her for good. I feel J.J. can be viewed as knowing he himself is metaphorically in jail, which is why he knows Sidney is in the same situation. J.J of course has become so powerful that he cannot himself escape from the jail he made for himself nor does he feel he can be touched.

At the end of the film Susan breaks away from J.J, escaping from the jail she put herself in by staying with J.J. The film is extremely cynical but the end implies a certain hope as Susan walks away as the day begins, one of the only instances when the film takes place in the morning. The scenes between Susan and Dallas are by the default the most "boring" scenes in the film but the film, as well the actors, make us sympathize with the young lovers. We can see how they care for one another and they provide an interesting contrast with the crueler characters of Falco and J.J. The film does a great job of making Falco and J.J both fascinating and even enjoyable characters as well as allowing us to sympathize with Susan and Dallas.
What makes Falco and J.J fascinating characters relates to how understandable they are despite being detestable. As I said before, I can relate to Falco's hunger to be on the top, to be a somebody, and ultimately how this ambition can twist one's morals to the point of no return. I think J.J. does care for his sister, that'she's his last connection to any kind of humanity, but he is so overly possessive of her, which begins to imply an almost erotic attachment, that it is enevitable he will eventually drive her away.

What's enjoyable about the Falco/J.J. scenes lies within Clifford Odets and Ernest Lehman's screenplay, based on Lehman's novelette. The dialogue is razor sharp and poisonous. Words are weapons in this film, not just in J.J.'s gossip column but extending in to the real world as well. There's even a scene where J.J. remarks to Susan how she has picked up his lingo, to which she replies "I read your column every day," implying that to survive in this world one needs to learn how to speak its language. It also show the audience Susan cares enough about her brother to read his column every day despite the horrible things he prints in it. For me, this reading makes the moment when Susan tells J.J. that she pities him at the end of the film more powerful. I get the sense someone like Falco hardly cares what J.J prints if it's not from Falco but Susan realizes how many horrible things J.J. has written and pities him because of it.

Mackendrick's direction here is excellent. particularly in the way he handles the complex blocking of actors in scenes. I also like how he can hold actors in two shots, such as the first scene with J.J and Falco, with Falco sitting behind J.J., with J.J  addressing the people across the table, his words "ricocheting," as film scholar James Naremore says, back at Falco. Cinematographer James Wong Howe's photography creates a great stylized time capsule of New York in the 1950s, very noirish and one understands when J.J. says "I love this stinking town."

The guys of The Social Network have nothing on Falco and J.J, but I'm only saying that facetiously. It's easy to see the spirit of Sweet Smell of Success in David Fincher's film, with it's sharp dialogue, quick pace and cynical nature, and it's indicative of the lasting impression of this film. Tony Curtis and Burt Lancaster created iconic characters and their performances are higly enjoyable and capture both the cruelty and corruptibility
of the human spirit. Essentially, it's an honest film about dishonest people.

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