…what does success smell like?
Thank goodness for the movies, ey? We can see how the other half lives withOUT literally jumping in the cesspool with them.
I would program “SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS” on the same movie marquee with “Ace in the Hole” and “A Face in the Crowd.” They have the same feeling, tone. ( Let me throw in “Network” as a bonus which was my choice for the 2015 version of 31 Days of Oscar Blogathon. ) I find these four movies absolutely timeless because their commentary, criticism and cynicism seems ripped from today’s headline. They shine klieg lights on politics and television and journalism. “Sweet Smell of Success” takes the cake. And to paraphrase J.J. Hunsecker, it’s a cake filled with arsenic. What a fantastic movie.
Venom never went down so smoothly.
I’ll have you know I tried. I searched and wracked my brains for something in a positive vein to write for 31 Days of Oscar – 2016, hosted by Aurora of Once Upon A Screen, Kellee of Outspoken and Freckled and Paula
of Paula’s Cinema Club. For all you Oscar-philes…this blogathon is the place to be. I wanted to be more positive this go round and cheer for the choices the Academy DID make. Yet here I am again, singing the praises of a movie that should have won an Academy Award on so many fronts: Best Actor (Burt Lancaster), Best Supporting Actor (Tony Curtis), Best Supporting Actress (Barbara Nichols ), Best Picture, Best Director
(Alexander Mackendrick) and Best Cinematography ( James Wong Howe. )
Here are the actual Academy Award winners for 1957. I know it’s all apples and oranges. And I’m not saying that some of these winners and nominees weren’t deserved. But I could swap out several of these oranges for my apples, which you can see ——> here.
Did’ja see what I mean?
I’ll take this movie on in its totality. You may know this story already, and if you don’t…there will be spoilers. If you want, see the movie first and then come back to me. I’ll wait for you on the Couch.
Tony Curtis as Sidney Falco
When we’re introduced to Sidney Falco, we see his name on the office door. Taped on. Straightaway….so tacky and so temporary. It says a lot about Mr. Falco. To see Sidney in action is truly a thing of destructive beauty. He’s like a runaway train careening towards a cliff. Sidney is like a shark searching for prey, ever-moving. I think of the great job Edmond O’Brien did in “The Barefoot Contessa” as the sweaty and jittery agent. But our Sidney is played like one cool cat.
I would put Sidney Falco on a double bill with Widmark’s Harry Fabian ( in “Night and the City” ) and call it: “CADS, WEASELS and FAST TALKERS.” Harry Fabian and Sidney Falco are both “ideas” guys; users and manipulators. But if I had to choose one I’d go with Tony Curtis. Sidney is awfullllly good-looking. I like the meta aspect of the film commenting on Sidney’s / Curtis’ good looks. Curtis also imbues Sidney with charm and boyishness. He’s a beautiful shark…a survivor who thinks quick on his feet in any situation. You can see his neurons popping and sparking as he rubs his thumb over his forehead or wrings his hands, or bites a fingernail.
Sidney jumps into cabs like disposable limousines and breezes into 21 or Toots Shor like he’s going to the corner bodega for milk, yet he’s too cheap to check his coat. He knows everyone and everyone knows him. He knows the lingo ( he doesn’t say “Daddy-O” though) and it suits him. He lives in a ring-a-ding ding way ( a one-man Rat Pack ) and walks amidst the nightlife like a prince…of fools. He sucks up to whomever. He’s a sycophant.
He…will…use…anyone. And does.
Burt Lancaster as J.J. Hunsecker
His aphorisms. His veiled threats. His manufactured molehill so he could create a mountain in his confrontation with Steve Dallas ( Martin Milner ) the musician who likes J.J.’s sister. His veiled and not so veiled reminders to everyone that he has some dirt on ’em. His symbiotic relationship with Sidney…like a marriage gone bad, but he stays in because he likes to torture and dominate. When J.J. says “I love this dirty town,” it hearkens back ( for me ) to Robert Duvall saying “I love the smell of napalm in the morning” in “Apocalypse Now.” New York as a wasteland of war. Lancaster plays Hunsecker very still as opposed to the kinetic energy of Sidney. There’s much power in his stillness. He doesn’t even have to break a sweat to get his cigarette lit.
I’m still stuck on Sidney. I want to watch him think; watch him maneuver, connive, flatter and dump. It’s a little tough for me to take my mind off of Tony Curtis’ performance.
THE WOMEN OF “SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS”:
Edith Atwater as Mary, J.J. Hunsecker’s Secretary
Sidney tries to get a sneak peak at J.J.’s next column. But she won’t let him. After she turns down his playfully bribing dinner invitation, he tells her:
“Now why should I bribe the woman that holds most of my heart.”
Her response to Sidney describes him best. Her delivery as she berates him is in such a pitch perfect, matter-of-fact way. ( Love her. )
“You’re a real rascal Sidney. Amusing boy, but you haven’t got a drop of respect in you for anything alive. You’re so immersed in the theology of making a fast buck. Not that I don’t sometimes feel you yearn for something better. Oh I don’t mind you looking at the column in advance so long as J.J. doesn’t know. But don’t do it like a little boy stealing money from a gum machine.”
Look at Sidney’s reaction. He’s not upset. He’s not insulted. ( Hell, you can’t even INSULT the guy ). He just wants what he wants. Are ya gonna be mad at a two-year old for whining? And don’t tell me THAT scene doesn’t remind you of James Bond and Miss Moneypenny. She’s just as confident as J.J.
Jeff Donnell as Mary, Sidney’s Secretary
A bit of a sad sack, maternal, caring, very efficient. Sweet lay. Why’s she still with him? Oh, because you know…Sidney. ( Check out Donnell’s performance in “In A Lonely Place.” Very different, right? ) She tries to be his conscience but that’s a losing battle. I want better for her.
Barbara Nichols as Rita, The Cigarette Girl
Your 50’s blonde bombshell. A smart girl just a little dumb around the edges. She’s been used, but she knows the score. She wants Sidney. And that is her misfortune. Barbara Nichols brings a sadness and pathos to the cigarette girl. I think she longs to escape but knows she can’t. The movie treats her with sympathy. She may be that proverbial ‘dumb blonde’ but I don’t think the movie treats her that way. She has feelings. I think Barbara Nichols did a lot with this small role. You’re telling me they couldn’t have swapped out the virginal good girl Diane Varsi for a good-time girl with a heart of gold for a nomination? Tsk! Tsk!
Lurene Tuttle as Loretta, The Columnist’s Wife
Smart, cynical, astute. She plays the horses and takes a nip or three as compensation for what’s NOT happening at home. She’s a pragmatist. The great character actress Lurene Tuttle takes on this small part. See, she’s so much more than her cute turn in “Psycho.” In “SSS” she turns on a dime. Playing cynical at first, look how she turns on a dime after her character’s husband comes clean and confesses to playing footsie with a cigarette girl. I believe his sincerity… he takes all the power away from the blackmailing Sidney. You should see Sidney’s face.
I love the gravitas Tuttle lends the scene when she says to her husband:
“That’s the cleanest thing I’ve seen you do in years.”
Thrilling to watch. It’s a gift to be able to do drama and comedy convincingly. Lurene nails it. ( Don’t get me started on Thelma Ritter in “Pick-Up On South Street.” Grrr! )
Susan Harrison as Susie Hunsecker
J.J.’s SISTER…is Snow White in this monstrous fairy tale. And the big bad wolf is her own brother. What big eyes he has… for her. She walks a tightrope of being the damsel in distress…without being all fey and cloying. She was scared of her big brother. Scared of his feelings towards her. ( Can you say “Scarface”? ) She had to find a way to break away
from him. This role and could have gone horribly wrong if played by the wrong actress. I’m not saying Sarah Berhardt should be afraid of Harrison, but she’s fine in this part. You don’t want someone as gentle and breakable as Yvette Mimieux. I don’t see the tremulous Sandy Dennis. Maybe Shirley Knight could have done it though I don’t see a blonde. In any event Harrison does a good job as Susie found her power. Do you remember when Susie finally leaves? She has a raging, impotent raging bull stand in her way; but he couldn’t even hold the door against her as she pulls it slowly open. She could practically brush past J.J. with a feather and he would crumble.
DIRECTION & CINEMATOGRAPHY
I know. Is it really fair of me to compare these two aspects of “Sweet Smell of Success” when I haven’t seen all of the Best Picture nominees? ( I’ve not seen “Sayonara.” ) Yeah, whaddya gonna do about it? I’m writin’ here! “Witness for the Prosecution” is pretty pedestrian looking. Lumet’s “12 Angry Men” is good and tense, but it’s twelve guys in a room sweating in white shirts. Everything looks matte and flat. The scale of “Bridge on the River Kwai” is massive, epic and they filmed on location. To be honest, I’m not really taking anything away from any of the nominees. All the films took effort and creativity. But the look and the feel of “Sweet Smell…” is just beyond beyond, for me. Alexander MacKendrick
puts us in a petri dish with his direction and James Wong Howe lights the dish. How fluidly Mackendrick moves that camera like a modern-day director. Remember the scene with J.J. and the Senator and his mistress? As for location…what better location than New York City. MacKendrick throws his cast right into the heart of the City that never Sleeps. And at night, to boot.
And who better to capture the night than the master…the great James Wong Howe. Puhleeze! His fellow nominees that year were:
Jack Hildyard …………. “The Bridge on the River Kwai”
William C. Mellor ……… “Peyton Place”
Ray June ………………. “Funny Face”
Milton Krasner ………… “An Affair to Remember”
Ellsworth Fredericks … “Sayonara”
Really? Was there any contest that year? He uses deep focus, his palette of black and white and fifty shades of grey reads like sterling silver nitrate dripping from the screen like Mercury. Oooh, I want to drown in those black and whites. He paints the pictures the director sees in his head. I think they were an unbeatable team that year.
A few years ago I suggested to my friend Lindsey to run, don’t walk, to her local video store and take out “Sweet Smell of Success” to watch with her mother. ( Yeah, this was a while ago when videostores existed! ) She had never seen the movie before. She texted me her reaction:
“Yes, I did get ‘Sweet Smell of Success.’ Great movie for sure! Although ‘Network’ to me is STILL cutting edge, the dialogue in ‘Success’ is priceless and irreplaceable. Can’t touch the banter between Lancaster and Curtis with a barbwire pole. Lancaster is absolutely steely and stoic with very little compromise, while Curtis is a pretty oil slick just waiting to happen. Still trying to get the residue off my eyes…”
Now folks….if that’s not a ringing, unsolicited endorsement for an Academy Award, then I don’t know WHAT is.
Sidney and J.J. are intrinsically locked together. I don’t know which came first
the chicken Hunsecker or the egg Falco. The see-saw of loyalties swings like a pendulum do. Definitely J.J. holds out a carrot of success for Sidney who chases it down for all its worth, just out of reach. This movie’s so incisive you can smell the rotting carrot. Hunsecker is willing to put his sister in a mental institution. It’s not that she’s crazy but if he can’t have her NO ONE will. Sidney will continue to feed off J.J.’s scraps, and wheel and deal his way through showbiz like Eve Harrington. Sidney will be there when he falls and Hunsecker is bound to fall. His sister leaving him surely will do him in. He stands on the balcony watching her walk out into the clean cold light of day, as powerless as Andy Griffith screams into the night at the end “A Face in the Crowd.”
I can very well understand why the Academy didn’t even NOMINATE “Sweet Smell of Success.” The moral compass of the movie is very skewed and no institution would reward shining that harsh a light on itself if it wasn’t going to come out smelling like roses.
There’s more Oscar talk where THIS comes from. Once Upon A Screen handles the Actors, Outspoken and Freckled features the Snubs. And Paula’s Cinema Club will show the Crafts of moviemaking. There will be a big wind up for Motion Pictures and Directors by both Kellee and Aurora. You’re in the thick of it now, folks. Thanks for reading my leg of the journey.
Here are three reasons to watch “Sweet Smell of Success.” WHY? Because Criterion says so:
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