Blog Directory CineVerse: A cookie - and a film - full of arsenic

A cookie - and a film - full of arsenic

Wednesday, May 8, 2024

Looking for a noir without the bullets or brutality but that still packs plenty of bang? Take a closer look at Sweet Smell of Success, directed by Alexander Mackendrick, produced by James Hill, penned by Clifford Odets and Ernest Lehman, and released in 1957. Drawing inspiration from Lehman's novelette, the film delves into the murky depths of journalism and publicity and the relentless machinations of a formidable newspaper columnist, J.J. Hunsecker, portrayed by Burt Lancaster, and the conniving endeavors of Sidney Falco, played by Tony Curtis, a sycophantic press agent yearning for Hunsecker's favor. As Falco maneuvers to curry favor with Hunsecker, he finds himself entangled in the columnist's personal vendetta, ensnared in a web of manipulation, deception, and ethical compromise.

Click here to listen to a recording of our CineVerse group discussion of this film, conducted last week.

What makes Sweet Smell of Success distinctive, surprising, and memorable? It resembles a noir with its high contrast lighting scheme, caustic tone, pessimistic worldview, and fall-from-grace narrative, but doesn’t involve murder, detectives, wrong-man themes, or femme fatales like proper noir films do. Additionally, the characters, while often rotten, still smell sweet thanks to their complexity. The film presents personalities who are richly layered, flawed, and quotably articulate—especially Hunsecker, who emerges as a compelling antagonist whose manipulation and dominance propel much of the plot forward, and Falco, his obsequious acolyte.

Criterion Collection essayist Gary Giddens wrote, of Tony Curtis’ performance: “He refuses to play the part as cute or malleable, so that a perversely fantastic purity graces Sidney’s relentless grubbing…he secretes energy. We see him as a blackmailer, pimp, fixer, stooge, liar, and betrayer of everyone, but he bewitches the film with the agility of a magician or dancer.According to Roger Ebert, “Although Falco is in exile as the story opens, Hunsecker cannot quite banish him from his sight, because he needs him. How does the top dog know he rules unless the bottom dog slinks around?...The film stands as the record of one of the most convincing and closely observed symbiotic relationships in the movies. Hunsecker and Falco. You can't have one without the other.

No doubt about it, the screenplay is exceptional. Odets and Lehman crafted a narrative that’s celebrated particularly for its incisive and biting dialogue. The rapid exchanges between characters infuse the story with a palpable intensity and tension, drawing viewers deeper into the story's intricacies. Sample some of the great lines and exchanges in Sweet Smell of Success: “I’d hate to take a bite out of you. You’re a cookie full of arsenic.” “You’re dead son. Get yourself buried.” “My right hand hasn’t seen my left hand in 30 years.” “It’s a publicity man’s nature to be a liar. I wouldn’t hire you if you wasn’t a liar.” “The cat’s in the bag and the bag’s in the river.” “Match me, Sidney.” “Harvey, I often wish I were deaf and wore a hearing aid. With a simple flick of a switch, I could shut out the greedy murmur of little men.” “Sidney, conjugate me a verb.” And: “Do you believe in capital punishment, Senator? A man has just been sentenced to death.”

The look perfectly captures The Big Apple in 1957, showcasing the nightclub scene, the prime period of jazz, and the fashions and styles of New Yorkers. Cinematographer James Wong Howe employs inventive techniques, such as low-angle shots and stark lighting, to enhance the film's noir aesthetic. These methods effectively evoke feelings of claustrophobia and moral decay, enriching the viewing experience.

It further feels like a time capsule zeitgeist movie thanks to the jazzy Elmer Bernstein score coupled with the music played by the Chico Hamilton Quintet, who also appear in the film as Steve Dallas’ band.

This is a rags-to-riches story offscreen. Initially met with mixed reviews, Sweet Smell of Success has since earned acclaim as a quintessential example of the film noir genre. Its enduring influence is evident in subsequent works that explore similar ideas of power dynamics, corruption, and betrayal within the entertainment industry.

There’s a hint of an incestuous relationship between Hunsecker and his sister Susan, making for an even more despicable characterization. The Hunsecker personality and his plot to smear sister Susan’s fiancĂ© is loosely based on old-time columnist Walter Winchell. Fixated on the romance between his daughter Walda and her lover, Winchell, with the assistance of FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, exerted pressure on the boyfriend to leave the United States.  

Its fatalistic themes and cynical tone help the movie maintain an evergreen sheen in the modern age. Despite its 1957 vintage, the film's exploration of the downsides of fame, success, and ambition and its examination of the darker aspects of human nature resonates across generations.

Hubris and karma dominate as key themes. Like Icarus,  Falco flies too close to the sun in his ambitions to get to the top and be famous like Hunsecker. He makes a devil's bargain in agreeing to ruin the jazz musician boyfriend of Hunsucker’s sister, which also involves pimping his match girl part-time lover to a rival columnist – compromising any positive virtues he has left and metaphorically selling his soul.

Sweet Smell of Success spells out the corrupting nature of power and influence, certainly. Hunsecker demonstrates how absolute power corrupts absolutely, wielding the popularity of his newspaper column as a cudgel with which to beat down anyone he disfavors and control others. His ruthless arrogance, smug attitude, and lack of empathy, compassion, and human decency create one of the most formidable and loathsome bad guys in film history. In fact, Hunsecker places #35 on the AFI’s top 50 movie villains list. The film lays bare the grim underbelly of celebrity status and the media exposing the cutthroat world of entertainment and gossip where ambition reigns supreme.

Loyalty and betrayal are key subtextual signposts, as well. The characters in this morality play navigate their relationships in pursuit of personal gain. Falco sacrifices his friendship and romantic ties with Susan as he strives for success, while Hunsecker's controlling demeanor strains his bond with his sister.

Similar works

  • All About Eve
  • The Barefoot Contessa
  • Night and the City
  • The Hucksters
  • The Great Gatsby
  • Wall Street
  • Bombshell
  • Young Man With a Horn
  • Pete Kelly’s Blues
  • Broadway Thru a Keyhole

Other films by Alexander Mackendrick

  • The Ladykillers
  • The Man in the White Suit
  • Crash of Silence
  • Whisky Galore!

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