By: Henry J. Fromage (Two Beers) –
I just watched Some Like it Hot for our first Classic Brewvie Podcast, so I was intrigued when I drew Sweet Smell of Success in my weekly raffle because I’d heard it presented a very different side of Tony Curtis as an actor. So different, apparently, that test screening audiences covered their eyes and squirmed in their seats in discomfort at how their golden boy was acting.
Much like myself in any Al Pacino film these days
In this film, Curtis plays Sidney Falco, a seedy Press Agent under the thumb of powerful gossip columnist J.J. Hunsecker (Burt Lancaster, also playing viciously against type). When tasked with breaking up the romance between Hunsecker’s younger sister Susan (Susan Harrison) and a clean-cut jazz musician (Martin Milner). Falco must use all of his wiles, while deciding what is going to far.
In reviews these days, most of the laurels for this film go to Ernest Lehman and Clifford Odets’ crackling, acerbic, incredibly fast-paced dialogue, and it is indeed more full of biting bon mots than a Joan Rivers Friday night. This was Lehman’s first script, and was based on his real life experiences working for a Hollywood press agent, and the reason shows through.
However, while this would be Lehman’s big break that would lead to high profile work like North by Northwest and The King and I, it was disgraced screenwriter Odets who was called in to finish it. Hunsecker was always based on gossip columnist, muckraker, and McCarthyist Walter Winchell, but I think it likely that Odets, who had named names for the McCarthy’s House Un-American Activities Committee, added the distinct anti-McCarthy themes. The only truly good, guileless character in the film, the jazz musician, gets right to the heart of the matter in a confrontation with Hunsecker, and his condemnation feels like the voice of the people in the waning days of McCarthy’s rein. It also feels like an apology.
This is a dirty, skuzzy Hollywood story, and shows a bit of how the 50s fame sausage was made. Then, as now, publicity was King.
Today’s E! News version is more foppish Louis XVI than Ivan the Terrible, though.
Curtis and Lancaster inhabit this world with aplomb, and both deserve every accolade for their performances, not the least because they subvert their images so much. Curtis’s quick-witted comic chops prove ideal for his conniving, unscrupulous fixer character here, and he gets to stretch his dramatic wings as he struggles with what conscience he has left. Lancaster’s strong-jawed integrity that he showcased in so many heroic roles is also perfectly subverted by his strong-willed character whose integrity takes the form of honestly believing he knows what’s best for everyone, and deserves the power he wields to make his will so. It’s a performance that checks in at #35 on AFI’s Top 50 Movie Villains list. Also not to be forgotten is Harrison’s transformative, innocence-losing turn, in many ways the heart of the film.
A last raise of the glass to American-born Scottish director Alexander Mackendrick, working in his first Hollywood production after a distinguished UK career. His sumptuous black and white images and strong New York noir vision contend with his handling of his actors in making this film the classic that it is today.
The script may be just a tad too machine-gun and full of witticisms for its own good. It’s easy to miss things, especially if you’re trying to decipher one colorful 50 year old putdown before the next one hits. Also, I had a chuckle at the smear campaign against the jazz musician (ha, I forgot to mention his name. It’s… Steve Dallas). He smokes marijuana AND he’s a Commie?
Justin Bieber calls that Tuesday.
Sweet Smell of Success may challenge much of what you know about 1950s Hollywood filmmaking- a racy as hell for its time, bitter, scathing, and incredibly acted all time classic.
Take a Drink: whenever the older sister acts like a complete nutjob
Take a Drink: for every radio speech or news report
Take a Drink: whenever someone else does
Take a Drink: for adorably British cursewords
Do a Shot: for every bombing