We’ve all done it. At one point or another, on a fairly regular basis, conversation turns to the movies. What was the last one you saw? Did you enjoy it? What kind of movies do you like? And the Million Dollar Question: What do you think is the best movie of all time? It’s a loaded question, weighted unfairly by Hollywood and popular culture. Thanks to an endless parade of Top 100 lists, the movie-going public has been flooded with titles that have supposedly constituted greatness.
But those lists are all the same and unfair.
Regardless of which one you look at, there are numerous constants in naming the top American films of the past century: The Godfather, both parts one and two; Gone With the Wind; The Graduate; Wizard of Oz; Psycho; Star Wars; Casablanca; Citizen Kane; Some Like it Hot. Not to take anything away from those films; they’re all wonderful, exciting, beautiful, groundbreaking triumphs that belong to be touted until the end of time. But are these the be-all, end-all of what represents the best films America has ever offered?
History is loaded with great films that rarely get their just due. Kiss Me Deadly, Robert Aldrich’s sadistic take on Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer; Robert Altman’s updating of the Philip Marlowe character in The Long Goodbye; Martin Scorsese’s King of Comedy and After Hours; the list is endless. And for every one movie you can think of that fits this bill forgotten gem, cult classic, whatever you want to call it there are a good five or ten that you haven’t heard of or seen.
Leading that group is Alexander MacKendrick’s 1957 adaptation of Ernest Lehman’s novelette, Sweet Smell of Success. A stark, brutal exploration of the seedy underbelly of New York in the McCarthy ‘50s era where most men are mice and the rest monsters that go bump (regardless of the time of day), the film is one of the most acerbic to ever come out of Hollywood. And like all things brutally original in La-La-Wood, Sweet Smell of Success was derided on its initial release by critics and insiders alike because of its unflinching and judgmental gaze on the disreputable press agent-columnist symbiotic relationship.
Audiences didn’t react much better. On one hand, you had a beautiful example of noir cinema arriving at the peak of the genre’s popularity. But on the other, you had matinee idol Tony Curtis playing scumbag press agent Sidney Falco and screen legend Burt Lancaster inhabiting every frame as festering, bitter bastard columnist J.J. Hunsecker. People really didn’t want to see their heroes brought down to reality, which is ironic, especially since Falco’s goal in the film is go “way up high, where it’s always balmy.”
‘Ironic’ is also one of the best ways to describe the film, especially in its characterization. Hunsecker, for example, is the all-seeing, all-knowing pulse of Broadway. His columns build up careers, restaurants, nightspots, as easily as it breaks them. Hunsecker doesn’t even require a reason to do either the building or destroying. If he’s having a bad day, if the wind is blowing in a certain direction, nothing and no one is safe. Hunsecker is also a television personality. His TV show is meant to promote patriotism and American ideals. Yet, in his writing, he is destroying the American dream for countless people and for no good reason. Sure he’s a parody of Joe McCarthy in this sense, but what was McCarthy but just a ball of incongruous contradictions? Hunsecker is the same type of persona: contradictory, monstrous, and ironic in existence.
Irony can also be found in the film’s current status. Sweet Smell of Success isn’t something you’ll see broadcast on NBC on Thanksgiving or Christmas unless it’s one of those ‘holidays in Hell’ specials and it’s not a regular fixture on the cable movie channels. If you take a film class, the chances are pretty slim that you’ll ever encounter it. Although it was in said forum that I first experienced Sweet Smell of Success, I only did so in an advanced senior seminar, not the general, “here’s what’s great about film as art” classes. No, those classes were reserved for the French New Wave, Hitchcock, Chaplin, Bogart, and other established movements and moviemakers.
It’s interesting to point out that Sweet Smell of Success is one of the most noted films highlighted by filmmakers as being a primary influence on their work. Barry Levinson, Paul Thomas Anderson, Scorsese they’ve all referenced or “quoted” the film in their efforts. And why not? James Wong Howe’s cinematography is some of the most beautiful you can experience, and Elmer Bernstein was never better than when he scored the film. MacKendrick’s direction is inspired (some of the best of the ‘50s) and Lehman’s script doctored a bit by Clifford Odets is one of the most naturalistic you’ll encounter. It’s a tall, stiff drink of a screenplay infused with a healthy dose of arsenic.
Then there’s the acting. Lancaster has rarely been this good, while Curtis never was. Sweet Smell of Success is Tony Curtis at his most triumphant. Gone is the affable comic character, replaced instead by an overly ambitious scoundrel. Lancaster, too, was playing against type as he took on the looming goon that is J.J. Hunsecker. His resume is rife with larger-than-life characters who are more than imposing, but his turn here is rare: a dirty, rotten motherfucker. And that’s being generous.
Perhaps that was one of the reasons the film went over like a lead balloon upon its initial release. Audiences didn’t want to see their gorgeous clowns and hunky heroes reduced to crashing reality. Perhaps they saw too much of themselves in the film. After all, at some point or another, we’ve all scraped the bottom of the barrel, the way the characters do in this film, to get something we want. It doesn’t matter if it’s wrong or right, we do it out of sheer survival instincts. Usually.
But what would filmgoers think if Sweet Smell of Success, completely unchanged, was released today? Press agents are still among us (now called ‘publicists’) and it seems as though they are more prominent than ever. Take a look at the newsstand and tick off the magazines you see: Us, Star, People, InTouch, InStyle, and on and on. A lot of these publications are full of paparazzi gobbledygook, but there is just as much publicist pap. Who cares about Ian Ziering’s home and what he has in it? He hasn’t been relevant for a decade (if he was even relevant at all). Who’s interested in some C-lister’s facial crèmes and workout tips? Who would honestly care about which reality TV personality snogged another reality TV huckster off-camera?
The answer, of course, is the “stars” themselves care. And the people who give them the ink are their publicists, their Sidney Falcos, the character types that will stop at nothing to earn their take from an on-the-rise or on-the-decline entertainer looking for good press. Shouldn’t a story like this, exploring just what goes into getting people their name in print, be more of a draw to our current celebrity-drunk culture? Probably. But answering “yes” to that question is like saying you want to know what goes into that Big Mac you’re about to take a bite of. Frankly, some things are better left to the imagination.
Unlike that fast food we craved, now sitting at the bottom of our stomachs like a cinder block, consuming Sweet Smell of Success is like hitting back a double Jack Daniels. It stings like acid and renders an almost bitter aftertaste going down. But once it’s in your system you feel warm and satisfied, left with a bit of a glow at the end. And like that inevitable morning-after, when you finally come to realize what it was you witnessed, you’ll feel angry, confused, lovely, full and eager for more. You’ll want to experience it again, warts and guts and arsenic and irony and all.
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