50 years, 50 films Vol II: Sweet Smell of Success (1957)
Moving back into a great era for US film, we happen upon a masterclass in theatrical dialogue
When, following the success of The Ladykillers, Alexander “Sandy” Mackendrick made his way from England to the US, contemporary observers might have expected him to do good work. He had, after all, been one of the great British directors of the era. The Man in the White Suit and Whiskey Galore also emerged under the Mackendrick brand. But few can have guessed that he would deliver a film like Sweet Smell of Success. Scripted by Ernest Lehman and Clifford Odets, the picture was an endlessly sharp dissection of contemporary media dynamics. Featuring great location work, it conveyed the true rhythms of Manhattan better than any contemporary film. This from a man who had made his name directing the most British of British comedies. How did that happen? Well, it is worth remembering that, though a proud Scot, Sandy was born in Boston and lived in that city until he was seven. More to the point, there was a hint of menace in those British films. The Man in the White Suit (featuring Ernest Thesiger at his most gauntly camp) and The Ladykillers (concerning maniacs scheming to murder a sweet old lady) were very much at the darker end of Ealing’s comedy spectrum. Arch-reactionary Leslie Halliwell, writing about the Ladykillers in his Film Companion, described it as “dislikable”. There can be no greater recommendation.
Let us first address one glaring problem with Sweet Smell of Success. The romantic subplot involving Susan (Susan Harrison) and Steve (Martin Milner) is something of a disaster. Both actors are unspeakably drippy and it is little wonder that neither did much film work in subsequent decades (though Milner was seen on prime-time telly). The relationship that matters is that between lupine newspaper columnist J J Hunsecker, Susan’s sinisterly over-protective brother, and the cynical, machiavellian press publicist Sidney Falco. Burt Lancaster was never more imposing as Hunsecker. Tony Curtis combined oily charm and prickly desperation as Falco. Falco believes himself to be in a symbiotic relationship with J J — he feeds him the stories he needs — but, by the close, the power imbalance is made depressingly plain. Feeding at the bottom of the reef, Sidney is just as likely to be consumed by Hunsecker as is any dope-abusing entertainer.
The film has a terrifically twisty plot. Eager to break up Susan’s relationship with Steve, a jazz musician, Hunsecker (Is there an equivalent of “oedipal” relating to brothers and sisters?) encourages Falco to insinuate helpful rumours about the city. The scheme doesn’t quite work and J J topples into full Shakespearean madness. Even the ghastly Falco begins to question Hunsecker’s machinations, but, when it is suggested that he might get to take over J J’s column while the senior man is on vacation, Sidney falls guiltily into line. We suspect he will be the one that ends up with the grubby end of the lollipop stick.
Is there a film in the English language with better dialogue? You could argue for All About Eve. You could make a case for His Girl Friday. You could even make a decent fist of battling for Withnail and I. But, for me, Sweet Smell of Success take the prize. Of course, nobody actually speaks like this. The beautifully honed lines are every bit as theatrical as anything in John Webster or Ben Jonson. Though the film is shot with great energy in real clubs and on actual streets, Mackendrick and his writers are happy to reveal artifice in the exchanges between the increasingly desperate characters.
“Harvey, I often wish I were deaf and wore a hearing aid,” J J says. “With a simple flick of a switch, I could shut out the greedy murmur of little men.” There’s more where that came from. Among the many things that make this monster so fascinating is the suggestion that he really does believe himself to be observing a code. That is the main difference between Sidney and J J. Falco is merely an operator; Hunsecker is crazed idealist in the vein of a great dictator (though cleverer than most of those real-life villains). Such beasts existed in every corner of the American republic.
We should also mention that every department is working at full-tilt in Sweet Smell. James Wong Howe’s deep-focus cinematography is deservedly legendary. Elmer Bernstein’s jazz score is blistering. Mary Grant’s dresses the cast with supreme elegance. Oh, it is such a shame about Susan and Steve. Otherwise, this is a perfect motion picture.
For 1957, we also considered The Incredible Shrinking Man, Nights in Cabiria, Paths of Glory, Throne of Blood, A Time to Love and a Time to Die, The Cranes are Flying and Wild Strawberries.