Tuesday, February 03, 2015

Sweet Smell of Success

Based on the novelette by Ernest Lehman, Sweet Smell of Success is the story of a newspaper columnist who decides to ruin the love life of his own sister due to his opinion of her new boyfriend by getting a press agent to help him. Directed by Alexander Mackendrick and screenplay by Lehman and Clifford Odets, the film is a stylized noir-drama that plays into a man trying to impose his own ideas about what is best for his family as he decides to ruin the lives of his sister and her new boyfriend. Starring Burt Lancaster, Tony Curtis, Susan Harrison, and Martin Milner. Sweet Smell of Success is a chilling and captivating film from Alexander Mackendrick.

The film revolves around the work of a press agent who is asked by a powerful newspaper columnist to ruin the life of his sister and her jazz musician boyfriend. Much of it is told in the span of two days in New York City where Sidney Falco (Tony Curtis) has to use his connections and wit to do whatever to break-up a young couple’s relationship as he’s also eager to get in the good graces of the powerful columnist J.J. Hunsecker (Burt Lancaster). It’s a film where a man is at the bottom of his rope as he’s dealing with debt as well as losing clients as he works with Hunsecker to do this deed. Along the way, Falco confronts Hunsecker’s sister Susan (Susan Harrison) into breaking up with her boyfriend Steve Dallas (Martin Milner) as things get more troubling during the course of the film.

The film’s screenplay by Ernest Lehman and Clifford Odets definitely play into a sense of morality which comes much later in the film as it relates to everything Falco is doing for Hunsecker. Falco may not be a good man as he does very bad things to people in order to gain something as he is also very unsentimental. While he starts off being someone that is willing to help Hunsecker, Falco realizes that Dallas is someone that they underestimate as it leads to questions of morality where Falco has done his job without any sense of remorse. Part of the script’s success is the dialogue and how it has this sense of rhythm where characters like Falco and Hunsecker use words as weapons as well as a way to get what they want. Another aspect of the script is the usage of power where Hunsecker is a man who can do anything and be influential as he would drive Falco to do what he wants. It becomes something that is prevalent in the third act where it’s about everything these two men have done and the implications of their actions where one of them realizes the severity of what was done.

Alexander Mackendrick’s direction definitely has elements of style as much of the film is shot at night and around Time Square in New York City. It adds this sense of a world that feels very amoral where it’s about getting ahead and do whatever it takes to get ahead. Mackendrick uses a lot of medium shots to convey this new world where he captures something that feels lively and dangerous in the jazz clubs and bars where there’s also some unique camera angles to play into that world. Especially in the sense of chaos where Falco would meet Hunsecker and see if he can win him over. Mackendrick’s use of compositions definitely play into the drama as well as the exchanges between Hunsecker and Falco where there’s a lot of reverse shots and other stylistic moments to play into two men having a conversation.

Mackendrick also manages to display bits of melodrama as it relates to Susan and her relationship with Dallas as there’s very little close-ups in the film but it relates to people that Hunsecker and Falco both have done damage to. Most notably in the latter where Falco asks a lady friend to spend some time with a columnist whom she had been with a couple of years ago which she reluctantly does. Yet, it’s Hunsecker’s actions into breaking up his sister’s relationship with Dallas that is far more damaging where Falco is involved as the third act becomes a film about morality and power. The direction becomes slightly detached in terms of where the camera is placed and how the actors are framed as it adds to the dramatic tone of the film. Overall, Mackendrick creates a very unsettling and haunting film about a man being asked by another man to do damage to a young woman’s life.

Cinematographer James Wong Howe does brilliant work with the film‘s black-and-white photography to capture the eerie and mesmerizing look of the scenes set at night with its lights along with elements of smoke for the interior scenes. Editor Alan Crosland Jr. does fantastic work with the editing as it’s mostly straightforward with some stylish usage of rhythmic cuts and dissolves to play into the drama. Art director Edward Carrere and set decorator Edward Boyle do amazing work with the set pieces from the look of Hunsecker‘s lavish apartment to the jazz club where Dallas plays.

Costume designer Mary Grant does excellent work with the costumes from the suits that Falco and Hunsecker wears to the low-key dress that Susan wears. Sound recorder Jack Solomon does terrific work for the sound to capture the atmosphere of the clubs, bars, and restaurants the characters go to. The film’s music by Elmer Bernstein is superb for its mixture of eerie orchestral pieces as well as somber and more dramatic pieces while the rest of the music features songs by Chico Hamilton and Fred Katz that play into the world of jazz that Dallas is a part of where Hamilton and his band make an appearance in the film as the club house band.

The film’s marvelous cast include some notable small roles from Edith Atwater as Falco’s secretary Mary, Sam Levene as Dallas’ manager/friend Frank D’Angelo, Barbara Nichols as bar waitress in Rita, David White as a columnist that Falco works with to spread lies on Dallas, and Emile Meyer in a terrific role as the corrupt policeman Lt. Harry Kello. Martin Milner is excellent as Steve Dallas as a young jazz guitarist who just wants to have a good life with Susan as he despises Falco as he also meets with Hunsecker as he gives his real opinion on the man without any sense of fear. Susan Harrison is amazing as Susan Hunsecker as this young woman who is in love with Dallas as she is unaware of her brother’s immense disapproval as she also despises Falco despite his attempts to help her.

Finally, there’s the duo of Burt Lancaster and Tony Curtis in absolutely incredible performances. Lancaster is the more restrained of the two but maintains a very dark and menacing presence as he is a man of great power which he uses with such terror as he can get anyone to do anything. Curtis is the shower of the two as he manages to talk with such a fast pace as he displays a charm but one that is also very dark as he is a character that is a real son-of-a-bitch. Lancaster and Curtis both display great rapport in their scenes together where Lancaster does get moments to be the dominant while Curtis is content with doing what he’s told until his character begins to question things where both men become equals as they’re major highlights of the film.

Sweet Smell of Success is a remarkable film from Alexander Mackendrick that features two masterful performances from Burt Lancaster and Tony Curtis. The film is definitely a very powerful and chilling film about what a man is willing to do to get his way with the help of another as it is a very dark exploration into the world of power. In the end, Sweet Smell of Success is a sensational film from Alexander Mackendrick.

Alexander Mackendrick Films: (Whiskey Galore!) - (The Man in the White Suit) - (Mandy) - (The Maggie) - The Ladykillers - (Sammy Going South) - (A High Wind in Jamaica) - (Don’t Make Waves)

© thevoid99 2015


Anonymous said...

Exceptional review! I absolutely love Curtis here. One of the greatest performances of the 50's. He's just IN THIS!

Luke said...

A perfect film in every regard. Cinematography, direction, acting, script. In my top 50.

thevoid99 said...

@Fisti-Thanks. Tony Curtis was great as I enjoyed every moment he is in.

@Luke-Truly amazing and very dark. I wish it was longer.

Brittani Burnham said...

Great review! I've never gotten around to watching this, but you make me want to now.

Ruth said...

This sounds like a great one Steven. I'd be up for this just to see Lancaster and Curtis together on screen. I haven't seen him in anything but somehow I thought that Lancaster is more of an action star, but clearly I'm wrong :P

thevoid99 said...

@Brittani-See it now! It's really one of the finest films in noir as well as very seedy in what it wants to do.

@Ruth-There's so much about Burt Lancaster that makes him so interesting. This along with Novocento and The Leopard reveals why he's one of the best. The man is willing to use his start power to play characters people wouldn't think of him playing.

keith71_98 said...

Fabulous review! I'm really anxious to see this. In fact it is on my Blind Spot list for 2015!

thevoid99 said...

@Keith71_98-Oh, then I hope you enjoy it. It's such a great film.