There are films you admire because they’re profound as well as well-made: Vertigo, Persona, 2001. Some you admire for their sheer near-perfection. Two I cite for the latter quality are Dr. Strangelove and Sweet Smell.
I won’t spend much time on the plot of Sweet Smell—I’ll refer you to the Wikipedia article, which is pretty good. Bottom-feeding press agent Sidney Falco wants attention from the most famous and feared of gossip columnists, J. J. Hunsecker. (The names evoke the characters.) Sidney will do anything, betray anybody, to climb the ladder—though there is a small but nagging mumur of conscience. J. J. has nothing but contempt for Sidney and his ilk, but he’s also dependent on them for his items. He has a younger sister, Susie, who lives with him in his penthouse. Their relationship may not be literally incestuous but is psychologically so. She has a boyfriend, a jazz musician, whom J. J. wants out of the picture. “You’re all I’ve got, Susie,” he says to her. It’s the only honest and human thing J. J. says in the movie. He wants Sidney to wreck the relationship and preferably the musician too. Sidney has qualms, but he beats them back. The rewards of serving J. J.’s corruption can be great. I’ll leave the plot at that.
What I mean by near-perfection is the way the elements of the film work together. All the elements have earned boundless praise individually. Start with the script, begun by Ernest Lehman based on his own story, thoroughly reshaped and rewritten by Clifford Odets. The latter has been largely forgotten, but in his day he was celebrated as a lefty playwright whose immediate disciples included Rod Serling and Paddy Chayefsky. Odets’s plays of the 30s include Golden Boy. By the end of the decade he was in Hollywood, and he spent most of the rest of his life there, writing screenplays and drinking himself to death. His reputation as a socially conscious writer tanked when he sold out in the House Un-American Activities Committee hearings. Those contemptible events tended to ruin or derail both those who caved—Elia Kazan, Sterling Hayden—and those who didn’t—Paul Robeson, Orson Welles.
Tony Curtis remembered Odets pounding at the typewriter with an open bottle of whiskey next to it. Some of the script was filmed hours after the lines were written. Director Alexander Mackendrick would lay out the pages on the floor, trying to make sense of them. Yet in the end it’s one of the greatest scripts ever to come out of Hollywood. It’s most famous for its zingers, legendary in themselves: “You’re dead, son. Get yourself buried.” “The cat’s in the bag and the bag’s in the river.” “Everybody knows Manny Davis—except for Mrs. Manny Davis.” “Here’s your head. What’s your hurry?” And above all: “I’d hate to take a bite outta you. You’re a cookie full of arsenic.” But the script is a great deal more than a collection of dazzling lines. Every one comes out of its character and amplifies that character. The story is beautifully shaped, with a rising line of tension and corruption that threatens to overwhelm everything in its path. In the end, everybody loses: Sydney beaten up by the police, J. J. losing his sister and only real human connection, his sister heading out to nowhere to see if she can find a life, and the prospects don’t look so good.
The performances. Nobody at the time knew that certified big-boxoffice stars Tony Curtis and Burt Lancaster could actually act. Least of all that they could take on parts of repellent characters. The film flopped with audiences because they didn’t want to see their favorites covered in slime—though the reviews were prescient and glowing. Tony Curtis was at that point the leading pretty boy in movies, familiar in sword-and-sandal epics, romantic stuff, light comedy. He was felt to be limited by his dropdead looks and his Brooklyn accent. His line delivery in the cheesy historical Taras Bulba is notorious: “Yondah lies da castle of my faddah.”
But Curtis had a lot in him, and with Sweet Smell he knew he had something meaty and wanted to show his stuff. He fought for the part. The fact is, in the relatively few roles Curtis got in movies with strong scripts and directors, he usually nailed it, whether in Sweet Smell or Some Like it Hot. His Sidney in Sweet Smell is astonishing, all burning eyes, kinetic energy, searing sarcasm and a brilliant gift for improvised manipulations and betrayals—though never brilliant enough to move him one rung up the ladder. Now and then, though, in his eyes in the most subtle way you see regret and the gnawing of conscience, though you know it won’t last. Curtis is onscreen most of the movie. In his eyes, his face, his voice, his body, he’s never less than exhilarating and horrifying to watch. It’s one of the great performances in all film, unsurpassed by a lot of the supposedly classier actors including, say, Olivier and Guiness.
Lancaster is on the same level, in an opposite way. Here’s where the relationships and balances of the movie come in. Sidney is ablaze all the time, J. J. as cold and calm as a snake. He’s on top of the world and he knows it, expects it as his due. To insult me, he tells Sidney, is to insult sixty million people, my readers. (He’s based on the corrupt columnist Walter Winchell.) J. J.’s face is impassive, but his rage and revenge and corruption are revealed in little moments, little tics of eyes and lips. Curtis is over the top, Lancaster all subtlety, and that’s why they play off each other so well. Director Mackendrick had Lancaster wear his own heavy glasses, which look somehow threatening. But he smeared the lenses of the glasses with vaseline, so Lancaster could not focus on anything, and that contributed to his look of scary detachment. Often when J. J.’s talking to you, saying terrible things, he’s not looking at you.
Director Alexander Mackendrick. I don’t know how he did it, because neither before or after did he do anything like it. This most echt-New York, echt-Broadway, echt-American movie was directed by a Scotchman, whose most celebrated film is the immortal Alec Guiness/Peter Sellers comedy The Ladykillers, among the most British of movies. Mackendrick managed to hold together a chaotic situation in which the script was being written day by day and some scenes were filmed without a script. Lancaster as producer was touchy, interfering. At the premiere Lancaster blamed the commercial failure on Lehman and threatened to beat him up for getting sick and leaving the production. (“Go ahead,” said Lehman. “I can use the money.”) In the end Mackendrick shaped a classic of clear arcs and gathering gloom, with a script like a stream of bullets.
The cinematography is where it all comes together. It was done by James Wong Howe, who came from China and somehow by the 1930s had risen to the top of the profession in Hollywood. One of his Oscars was for Hud. He remains one of the greats of cinematographers, with Gregg Toland and a handful of others. Sweet Smell is usually called a film noir, but I don’t think it’s really part of that genre. It’s a one-off, a genre unto itself, though its influence has been enormous. Noirs are classically dark and grainy, like Double Indemnity and The Naked City. Sweet Smell has two lighting modes, both of them unforgettable, neither of them grainy and dark. Many of the scenes have a weird lucidity, crystalline in lighting, icy in effect. Some of the interiors look like they were shot in glaring fluorescent light. Somehow that look makes the darkness they depict more unnerving. The other lighting mode is used mostly for J. J.: he’s lit from the top, casting long chilling shadows down his face. I suspect this had a big influence on the top-lighting of The Godfather, among later movies.
The music has two aspects too, both of them involving mid-50s jazz in its prime. The actual Chico Hamilton Quintet is in residence, providing cool jazz (the guitarist boyfriend is in the group). And there’s a blaring, hairy, brilliant big-band element by Elmer Bernstein, an old hand as Hollywood composer, best known for big scores like The Ten Commandments and The Magnificent Seven but also delicate ones like his work in To Kill a Mockingbird. Bernstein’s big-band stuff for Sweet Smell welds itself indelibly to the story and images and lighting: big, glaring, scary. It’s the ancestor of a lot of intense jazzy themes to come by among others Henry Mancini: Peter Gunn.
Helping out are the secondary performances—some excellent, like Emile Meyer’s grinning, crooked cop and Barbara Nichols’ abused cigarette girl Rita--others at least good enough, such as Susan Harrison as the helpless Susie. (Her acting career didn’t go far after this.)
The perfection is in how all these elements work together, amplify each other. You can’t imagine the film without any of them: story, script, acting, lighting, music are welded together in a seamless, brutally effective whole. It’s what all movies aspire to but few reach at this level. You come out of Sweet Smell of Success feeling like you’ve been dipped in slime, but no less exhilarated, partly by the inexhaustible energy of the whole thing (you end up feeling at least a little sorry for Sidney) and by the mastery of the filmmaking.