Patron Pick – Sweet Smell of Success

This special reward is available to Patreon patrons who pledge at the $10 or $20 monthly levels. Each month those patrons will pick a film for me to review. If they choose, they also get to include some of their thoughts about the movie. This Pick comes from Matt Harris.

Sweet Smell of Success (1957)
Written by Clifford Odets, Ernest Lehman, and Alexander Mackendrick
Directed by Alexander Mackendrick

Possessing a title that drips with as much irony as grease seems to exude from its central character, Sweet Smell of Success is a bold reminder that America in the 1950s was not some picket fence, sunny side wonderland. It was the same festering sore before, and it remains a place where no one gets ahead because they have talent or have cultivated a skill. Nope, the only skill that counts is how well you can lie, cheat, and steal your way to the top. Success is defined as power, and you get that power with money. How do you get the money? Well, with power. See what a con job it is? Some gatekeepers sit on makeshift thrones, not in throne rooms but in nightclubs where they humor desperate politicians and desperate talent who want a kind word thrown their way in tomorrow’s paper. But what will they do for that bit of ego-boosting fluffery, hm? There seems to be no bottom.

Sidney Falco (Tony Curtis) is a sniveling little shit. He’s also a desperate press agent trying to worm his way into the good graces of media kingpin J.J. Hunsecker (Burt Lancaster), a nationally syndicated columnist who makes and breaks lives every day. Hunsecker has Falco in a bind, refusing to publish blurbs about the agent’s clients until the younger man does the esteemed one a favor. You see, Hunsecker’s sister, Susan, is sweet on Steve, an up-and-coming jazz guitarist. J.J. has an uncomfortably controlling relationship with his younger sibling but doesn’t want to harm what goodwill is still there. So he solicits Falco to spoil the milk while keeping his hands squeaky clean. It’s just that Falco sucks at pretty much everything and only manages to drive the lovers closer. With Falco’s career on the line and Hunsecker more than happy to let the toad rot in the gutter, time is running out.

At its core, Sweet Smell of Success is an Icarus story, a “be careful what you wish for” allegory. Falco keeps taking risks that don’t pay off or in the most modest crumbs but keeps coming back to the table to bet it all. Luck runs out, as it always does, and he’s left further down the ladder than he started with an explicit promise that he’s never getting back up there again. None of this is fantasy; it is all thinly veiled and based on actual figures. Ernest Lehman was a press agent and lived Falco’s life; he knew precisely the seedy ins and outs of the career. 

J.J. Hunsecker was a direct nod to Walter Winchell, a columnist whose cultural reach is terrifying, the sort of influence craven men like Tucker Carlson and Ben Shapiro desperately wish to have. Winchell also held a creepily overprotective hold on his daughter, Walda. The real-life newspaperman even pulled strings with J. Edgar Hoover to get one of Darla’s beaus convicted of tax evasion so he could keep the girl all to himself. The more you look at American culture, especially the history of those in power, the more you notice a disturbing throughline of incestuousness. 

Despite being an iteration of our culture many decades removed from the present (its slang, fashions, and music all something from a bygone era), the politics and cruelty feel all too relevant. The current mode of social media influencers, clout houses, and hustle culture are all here, folks. The flavor may have changed, but it’s the same rotten ingredients cooking in the pot. Falco is alive in many a short-sighted young man trying to “break in” to whatever industry he’s decided will be his path to success. And like most of our current crop of impressionable grind-set youngsters, they too will find themselves on the way to ruin, a rude awakening to the brutal reality of America.

A collaborator in this project who deserves a standing ovation is cinematographer James Wong Howe. Howe was a Chinese-born American whose father worked on the Northern Pacific Railroad in 1899. A Kodak-made Brownie camera sparked the fire for images in Howe’s childhood mind. As a teenager, bantamweight boxing seemed like a good path forward, but he wasn’t too good at it. Then on to aviation school but ran short on money. A series of odd jobs in Los Angeles followed, including the sort of service work that put Howe in the same nightclubs that Hunsecker and Falco frequent. Being an Asian person, Howe wasn’t getting a lovely stage-side table; he was bussing them, giving him the perfect perspective for a project like this, one where we get up close to some nasty characters. A chance meeting with a former boxing colleague called Howe back into pictures, this time the moving type. The work kept coming, and his resume grew, as well as his talent.

But America has a lovely way of shitting all over even the hardest-working BIPOC. After returning from shooting a documentary on rickshaw boys in China, Howe found himself “gray-listed” in the industry. No one ever named his name in the HUAC hearings, but it was known he and his wife, Sanora were members of the Communist Party. As the Red Scare panic created an open festering wound that has still never healed in the United States, Howe and his wife departed for Mexico. Sam Fuller, a cantankerous director who habitually bucked the system, got Howe back on a major motion picture in 1950. By 1956, he’d won his first Academy Award for The Rose Tattoo. Sweet Smell of Success was his follow-up, and boy, can you see the confidence on screen. Every shot oozes with film noir shadows, New York City captured in all its ugly beauty.

Howe contributed an extraordinary detail to the production by suggesting vaseline be smeared on Burt Lancaster’s glasses. He knew the result and was right. Lancaster’s eyes try to look through the vaseline and, as a result, give Hunsucker that hollow vacant stare, an absence of empathy or even humanity. Men like Hunsucker stare through people like us; we’re wisps, ghosts to them, unworthy of their attention. That, combined with Elmer Berstein’s jazzy score, place us firmly in this world. You may not know every word coming out of their mouths, but we know how these sharks trawl. We see them on our T.V. screens, smartphones, and computers daily. Nothing smells nastier than the success these people offer up to us

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