A stack of newsprint smacks down on pavement, bound, tossed off a truck, like a kidnapping victim, in synch with the final pow! of Elmer Bernstein’s hysterical jazz aria, and we’re off to troll two bracing mid-fifties Manhattan nights. New from Criterion, Sweet Smell of Success (1957), directed by Alexander Mackendrick and scripted by Clifford Odets and Ernest Lehman, is one of the great New York movies, with relentlessly imaginative location photography by the legendary James Wong Howe. It’s riddled with razor-sharp dialogue (“The cat’s out of the bag and the bag’s in the river”). There’s an edge of seething violence, most of it coming through language and music. It’s a mercilessly cynical story where everybody’s stepping on everybody to get to the top of something. But that mercilessness has its costs.
We follow Sidney Falco (Tony Curtis), a press agent hanging by a thread. He leaves his topcoat in the office to save on coat checks. It’s unclear if he sleeps or ever finishes a hot dog. At least he has more than one suit: in a beautifully composed early scene the frame’s divided by a door, on one side Falco changes his pants, on the other his secretary lingers with concern. Falco’s frantic to suck up to J.J. Hunsecker (co-producer Burt Lancaster), the towering columnist who can make or break anybody, who can save Falco from ruin with a sentence about a client in the evening edition. Hunsecker has a sister named Suzie (Susan Harrison) who’s in love with a guitar player. She could be in love with a monk for all he cares. He wants her for himself, though for what purpose it’s ambiguous (if unambiguously repulsive). He assigns Falco the task of destroying the romance. Everything hinges on that.
Curtis is brilliant, nervous yet intensely focused, a dog that can bark and plead in the same sentence, twisting himself into pretzels to work magic, seated, in a key scene, just behind Lancaster as though perched at the heels of his master—or moments away from pushing him off his pedestal. Something in Curtis’ performance looks forward to Ray Liotta in Goodfellas (90). His Falco starts with his soul already sullied, yet as his actions become more appalling we can’t help holding out for his return to sanity, though the bit where he pimps out the cigarette girl is tough to get past. Of course, we keep watching, riveted to the bitter end, even if by that point the artifice is showing.
The only true innocent in Sweet Smell is, of all people, a (white) jazz musician. Suzie, psychologically frail, shivering in her furs, is ostensibly innocent too, though with Hunsecker as her brother, and a final twist revealing her capacity for manipulation, we have to presume something seedy deep within. Anyway I can go along with these ingénues, but there’s something about Hunsecker I confess I never completely believe—though he’s precisely the sort of symbol of corruption and power Odets seemed to need to believe in.
Hunsecker’s based on real-life gossip columnist Walter Winchell, who was unhealthily obsessed with his daughter rather than his sister (which might explain why Suzie’s less than half her brother’s age). Hunsecker’s basis in Winchell inevitably recalls Citizen Kane (41) and Kane’s basis in real-life media titan William Randolph Hearst. We he cast in the role, Orson Welles surely would have identified with Hunsecker, smiled a little, had some fun, and for moments make us want to be Hunsecker, however uneasy the thought. Though rigidly compelling, Lancaster by contrast seems no fun at all. His contempt for Hunsecker’s all too clear. He seems uninterested in conveying much inner life, save a few moments involving Suzie, like that glance he casts through a crack in the curtains while she sleeps.
Turns out Welles was actually Lehman’s first choice to play Hunsecker, something I learned from the audio commentary by author James Naremore (whose More Than Night is one of the strongest books on film noir). The highlight of Criterion’s superb supplements, Naremore’s is a model commentary track. Without ever snowing us, he moves nimbly between historical context, production anecdotes, technical data and performance analysis, outlines which writer was responsible for what, and draws attention to so many subtle and terrific little bits of behaviour.