Sunday, January 10, 2016

Alexander Mackendrick | Sweet Smell of Success

poison pen

by Douglas Meserli

Ernest Lehman and Clifford Odets (based on a novelette by Lehman), Alexander Mackendrick (director) Sweet Smell of Success / 1957

Public relations man Sidney Falco (Tony Curtis) is suffering a fall in business; having not lived up to a promise to newspaper gossip columnist J. J. Hunsecker (Burt Lancaster)—an only slightly distorted Walter Winchell—he cannot get any of his clients mentioned in the newspaper’s well-read column. One might almost feel sorry for Falco, if, through the film’s quick-moving, gloomy early images, we didn’t soon discover that in order to get that review attention, he has become a kind of lackey to the powerful Hunsecker, fawning over him, stroking his ego, even lighting up his cigarettes (one of the famous lines of the film is Lancaster’s demand: “Match me!”), and, several times, doing dirty work for the highly despicable, staunch anti-Communist bigot—who, like Hedda Hopper and others of their kind, destroyed many a career to make themselves famous.
       Roger Ebert’s 1997 review of Sweet Smell of Success summarized the relationship between the two men quite perfectly: 

               The two men in "The Sweet Smell of Success" relate to each 
               other like junkyard dogs. One is dominant, and the other is a 
               whipped cur, circling hungrily, his tail between his legs, 
               hoping for a scrap after the big dog has dined. The dynamic 
               between a powerful gossip columnist and a hungry press agent, 
               is seen starkly and without pity. The rest of the plot simply 
               supplies events to illustrate the love-hate relationship.

       This time around, Hunsecker has sent Falco out to break up the relationship between his beloved sister (with who he has a festering, slightly incestuous relationship) and a young guitarist, Steve Dallas (Martin Milner), perhaps best known for his childhood portrayal of a young son in Life with Father and the later TV series Route 66 and Adam-12, but in Sweet Smell of Success plays the lead performer in the Chico Hamilton Quintet, which provided, along with composer Elmer Bernstein, this film its memorable jazz musical themes. 
      Falco has so far failed in his attempts to separate the timid Susan Hunsecker (Susan Harrison) when the film begins, and J. J. makes it clear that if he doesn’t immediately get results Falco will be, in the film’s parlance, “burnt toast.” And when Falco receives a hint from Susan that she is about to announce her engagement to Dallas, the clever publicist plots a new plan that involves nearly everyone in his creepy New York world, where nearly everyone has already sold their souls to whatever they define as “success.”

      Strangely, about the only one who remains somewhat out of the fray, while being behind the entire dirty series of events, is the famed columnist. Despite his fraught brother-sister relationship, Hunsecker seems the only one to remain basically out-of-reach of the everyday blackmail, since he appears in his isolated moral high-ground to be free from the temptations of the flesh. Clearly he gets his thrills from the male companionship of people like Falco, without actually playing his brutal romances in sensual contact. Hunsecker lives through his poison pen.
     Falco, however, knows everyone’s secrets, promising to help a 21-club cigarette girl, who having had a quick sexual fling with another columnist, is in danger of losing her job. Falco’s blackmail attempt, however, goes sour, when the guilty rival refuses to go along with his request, that he plant an item in his column that Dallas is a dope-smoking Communist; but another columnist is willing to use the piece if Falco hooks him up for a fling with the same cigarette girl, Rita (Barbara Nichols), waiting in Falco’s room for him to return home.

      These quick manipulations, involving nearly everyone in Hunsecker’s and Falco’s lies, fully demonstrates just how thoroughly corrupt their gossipy world is; a bit like West Side Story, no one is able to free themselves from the hate and suspicion, not even the innocent lovers, that this world engenders.
      The columnist’s plant temporarily works, giving Hunsecker a way to deny involvement and express his largesse by getting the boy’s job, from which he is fired, back, while at the same time questioning Dallas’ intentions. Dallas, who hates Hunsecker for his pretense and his phony patriotism, gets sucked into an argument with the masterful wordsmith that ends badly, with Hunsecker proclaiming that he cannot allow someone who calls him and his readers into question—as if he, himself, was an American institution beyond criticism. Susan, torn by her love of Dallas and her blind obedience to her brother, remains mute, sealing the end to any happiness she might find in her relationship with Dallas.
     Yet, even here, with the possibility of the couple’s reconciliation, Hunsecker insists Falco go for the juggler, planting dope in the pocket of Dallas’ coat so that his stooge police friend, Harry Kello (Emile Meyer), can take him in for questioning and, commonly, a severe beating. Hunsecker appears to be willing to award Falco a brief tenure at his own job—while he plans an ocean-liner voyage with his sister—for his loyalty.

      Everyone in this world is trapped, and Susan, calling Falco to his apartment, is determined to escape through suicide. Arriving just in time, Falco saves the girl from throwing herself of her balcony, only to have Hunsecker return to find him in his sister’s room, she dressed only in her slip and obviously distressed. His presumption, of course, is that Falco is assaulting her, and quickly begins to beat him, ultimately calling Kello to tell him that Falco has betrayed him with regard to Dallas. 
      The last time we see the now-destroyed publicist is in a long shot of a dark New York street, where we observe the police moving towards him with the obvious intent on getting even.
      Susan, finally regaining her voice, determines to leave her brother forever as she rushes to the hospital bedside of Dallas, revealing to Hunsecker that indeed she had contemplated suicide and that Falco had saved her. Perhaps she now can save herself—although given what he have observed throughout the film, we can only imagine that Hunsecker might probably arrange for another “accident” to occur to either her or Dallas—but surely hardly anyone else in this brilliant noir is still standing, unless you see Hunsecker’s tottering hulk of body as a tower of implacable strength. And in real life, Winchell was brought down by night host Jack Paar and hostess Elsa Maxwell, along with his strong support of Joseph McCarthy.

      Oddly enough, the left-leaning playwright, Clifford Odets, who wrote this script with screen-writer Ernest Lehman, was partly redeemed (after naming names to the Joseph McCarthy-led committee) by the power and wit of the characters’ language.
     The fact that this powerful Hollywood drama was directed by Alexander Mackendrick, formerly director of the great Ealing British comedies, Whiskey Galore!, The Lady Killers, and The Man in the White Suit, is quite astonishing, and reveals, certainly, just how great Mackendrick might have been given half a chance. His next project, The Devil’s Disciple, got him fired, in part due to feelings by the producers of this film (Hill-Hecht-Lancaster Productions) that he was too much of a “perfectionist.” But given the restrictions of this film, wherein Odets was laboring over the script as they were already shooting, and, the  always quick emotional fuse of actor-producer Lancaster, it appears that Mackendrick was somewhat of a magician in creating such an unforgettable work, which was selected for inclusion in The National Film Registry and has been highly touted by almost every critic since it first premiered.

Los Angeles, January 10, 2016

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