Sweet Smell of Success (Mackendrick, 1957)

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Alex:

I am choosing this film for you simply because I love it (and its probably one of the coolest films that you haven’t seen that I have, so it makes me look like a cool film buff!) Though I am also worried about writing about it- What can I say about a film that every film critic has weighed in on, none least than the late Roger Ebert who says that the 1957 classic is “one of those rare films where you remember the names of the characters because you remember them–as people, as types, as benchmarks.” How am I supposed to beat that insight?

Most of things I like about this film are simple, the beautiful, silvery black and white, the feverish jazz music that runs through it, the setting! (one of the my favourite representations of New York in film- low angle shots caging the inhabitants within the concrete bars). What sets The Sweet Smell of Success apart, however, is its pessimism, encapsulated by Tony Curtis’s Sidney Falco. He is mean, sexist, quick as whip and he says himself “I’m nice to people when it pays me”. Despite all this, you can’t help but admire Falco’s determination to get to the top. If Falco is the struggler, Hunsecker (Burt Lancaster) Is what he is struggling to become- a super powerful newspaper columnist; Falco shits on everyone and Hunsecker shits on Falco.

Anyway I’ll let you watch the film but I just want to mention that I find the film so relevant today- Steve (Martin Milner) represents the talented few (a jazz guitarist) who is ultimately outnumbered and overwhelmed by the powers that be (whomever they may be) who feed on the pure talent of others for their own ends. In a world where for every starry eyed talented youngster there are 50 leering middle aged men gagging to suck the life out of them, this film should come free in the post.

A scouringly funny, cold, damning tale about the dark side of the American Dream.

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Luke:

“Never will I go along with this column saying you smoke marijuana and belong to the reds,” Sidney exclaims defensively… pretty sure he just described me in a nutshell!

My immediate reaction to this was: how fitting a follow-up to Victoria. Although the two hail from different eras, continents and genres there’s a shared DNA in their commitment to real-time narrative. I’ve recently studied the deep-focus shot in my MA Film course; from its birth at hands of pioneers, such as Orson Wells and Jean Renoir, to its use as a substitute for rigorous cutting. Sweet Smell of Success uses it so effectively as a means of eliminating overly obvious editing and letting the scene play out, almost organically, in front of us.

I really had a fun time with this one. I was hesitant having heard nothing about it or its director. Considering the sheer volume of films produced at the time I was worried it was going to be forgettable. I’m very happy to say I was wrong. Like you say, the plot is timeless and had a real La Dolce Vita vibe to it. Burt Lancaster is ace as the intense, and genuinely intimidating, J.J. Hunsecker but Curtis steals the show. He is the king of cool (“If you’re funny, Walter, I’m a pretzel!” What does that even mean?!), whilst also embodying a candid desperation that at times strips away the cool and reveals a child-like vulnerability. And of course the Jazz soundtrack is a killer – rising, falling, and crashing all over the place making the whole thing one big spectacular event.

However, all that being said, I had a few qualms with some of the films more morally dubious parts and, in particular, its treatment of women – the scene in which Sidney essentially pimps out his own girlfriend for his own gain was hard to watch and very oddly realised.

What are your thoughts on this? Is it just a product of its time? Or is that a lame excuse?

Alex:

I feel completely the opposite about its treatment of women than you! Which is pretty cool really! I think that, like the rest of the films contents, its gender politics is ragingly progressive. I would even go as far to say that Susan (Susan Harrison) is the director’s moral voice of the film; she sees straight through Sydney and damns him for following J.J. like a “poodle”. I would suggest that we’re behind Susan when she says “Steve is the first real man I’ve ever been in love with”- a direct comparison to her brother, who she loves, but is not a “real man”. Steve and Susan represent a young, pure, perhaps naive couple who have not yet been morally compromised by the world around them.

Luke:

It’s interesting because this is something I went back and fourth on throughout watching the film. I wanted to be on its side but I felt it dealt with the treatment of Sidney’s secretary, his girlfriend and, to a lesser extent, Susan very carelessly. It’s truly a tragedy how they are treated in the film but the film glosses over it as if it were almost normal, especially considering most of the abhorrent behaviour towards the women was coming from the lead. The music was even oddly whimsical in the ‘pimping out’ scene. Perhaps I’ll need to revisit to see another side to it but my immediate reaction was that the women were either victims or powerless.

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Alex:

I think the thing about the film is that the lead is, perhaps a likeable character but you don’t want him to win. I think more than about the characters the film is a critique on a society of morally depraved people who are much more interested in succeeding than treating people correctly. Take the first scene with Sidney and his receptionist: we are placed with her as Sidney runs around getting ready to go meet the man in his life and she is so adoring towards him and when she says she wishes she could help he says, “So what’ll you do if I feel nervous, open your meady sympathetic arms.” The lighting in this scene makes Sidney look like Nosferatu or something, there is no doubt what the audience is supposed to think about this: he is a monster. I also feel as though we are supposed to find the Sidney’s plight kind of laughable- he makes it to the top for just long enough to be able to buy a round in for the losers at the bar.

I think one of the reasons I return to the film is because of it’s humour, perhaps not surprising as the director spent nine years working at Ealing studies. Most of the comic work is done by Curtis. Lets talk about his character for a bit; what do you make of Sidney? What do you think he represents? Do you find him likeable? etc., etc.

Luke:

The humour in this is on fire and comes at you a mile a minute. I was completely conflicted on Sidney throughout – he was at once charming, funny and tragic and then completely vulgar, misanthropic and disgusting. I believe we are supposed to both pity and detest Sidney as a product of his profession, and I think he is supposed to be the personification of the American Dream, this attractive, enticing notion that at its heart is really corrupted, selfish and unforgiving. Like Hunsecker says, “Don’t remove the gangplank, Sidney – you may wanna get back onboard.”

This juxtaposition of character is a testament to the incredible performance by Tony Curtis, in anyone else’s hands would he even be remotely appealing?

Alex: 

Curtis has so many classic lines, doesn’t he? I find it really odd and brilliant that the our antihero has so few redeeming features.

Luke’s final word:

This is truly a timeless film. In a world of Trumps and Murdochs, of media conglomerates and the one percent, it’s as relevant today as it was in 1957. With these characters we have modern day archetypes, and that will always be fascinating and relatable. Although not a perfect film in my eyes, I believe it is one to be studied as a filmmaking, and storytelling, triumph.

9/10 Alex    8.5/10 Luke

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One thought on “Sweet Smell of Success (Mackendrick, 1957)

  1. “Match me, Sidney”.
    “The cat’s in the bag, and the bag’s in the river”.
    This is a simply marvellous film, and one of Lancaster’s best performances. (Along with ‘Atlantic City’, (1980), ‘The Leopard’, (1963) and ‘The Swimmer’.(1968)
    Thanks very much for following my blog. It means a lot.
    Best wishes, Pete.

    Liked by 1 person

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