Monthly Archives: January 2013

Sweet Smell of Success (1957): Trapped Film Series No. 7

Sweet Smell of Success 1

‘The man in jail is always for freedom.’
‘Except if you’ll excuse me J.J. I’m not in jail.’
‘You’re in jail Sidney. You’re a prisoner of your fears, your own greed and ambitions. You’re in jail.’

While the key features of noir as genre, aesthetic and attitude have been exhaustively defined (anyone unfamiliar with Paul Schrader’s ‘Notes on Film Noir’ is hereby encouraged to break off and attend to it immediately), the pervasiveness of the noir mode is surely due to its very elasticity, its evasion of any absolute rules one cares to throw down. Those looking for an example of noir’s ‘I know it when I see it’ breadth of definition need look no further than Sweet Smell of Success. The film is full of elements likely to exclude it from being the noir classic it undoubtedly is: it was made at the very edge of the supposed golden era of noir, largely unconcerned with criminality and stars a major heartthrob star rather than the weather-beaten character actors so commonly in the noir limelight (apparently, location shooting in New York was frequently stalled by the hordes of teenage Tony Curtis fans). Yet, every frame and line of dialogue drips with noir, chiefly its attitude of cursed, enclosing fatalism.

Fate’s victim is Sidney Falco (Tony Curtis), a press agent. ‘All publicity men are liars…’ opines one of his increasingly disgruntled clients, ‘but you are a personal liar.’ For Falco, cynicism is vocational and avocation, and he reckons himself a master of the ‘glib and oily art, to speak and purpose not’. Yet our time with him ominously begins as his clients start to get wise to his machinations and double-dealing, doors closing on his face and chances dwindling to none. Desperately needing to regain favour in the court of brutal gossip columnist J.J. Hunsecker (Burt Lancaster), Falco agrees to destroy the partnership between Hunsecker’s sister Susan (Susan Harrison) and Steve Dallas (Martin Milner), a promising jazz guitarist. How Falco is to destroy the young man, and exactly why Hunsecker wants to have him destroyed, proves to be a hauntingly dark tale that starts jet black and fades only darker.


MacKendrick was one of the Ealing family of directors, a creator of cheery fare with a sting in the tail like Whiskey Galore! and The Ladykillers. With the financial dissolution of the studio, he sought work in Hollywood. After his first project with the highly successful Hecht-Hill-Lancaster productions fell through, he subbed to direct the bleak drama written by former Hollywood Reporter writer Ernest Lehman. Mackendrick steeped himself in the New York skyline, placing silhouettes of the Broadway cityscape around his room in preparation. The use of location exteriors is highly effective: the skyscrapers loom over the scurrying acts of men, making the city seem more like a prison colony than the place where the streets are paved with gold.


New York as a trapped room


This shot is one of the film’s last and the street sign seems like an ironic comment on Falco’s eventual fate

Although Sweet Smell of Success was the production company’s first flop, the years have only made the story of bitter backstabbing and trampling ambition all the more worthwhile. The film’s origins are however marked by a specific historical context. The columnist Walter Winchell, upon whom J.J. Hunsecker was based, was a huge cultural figure and draws in all the power and paranoia of the 1950s in America. For decades, he had been the most influential gossip columnist, to the extent he could be said to have created the form. Syndicated to 2,000 papers nationwide and read daily by 50 million people, by the late 1950s his crown was falling, nibbled by younger columnists. ‘Nothing recedes like success’, as one of his own most famous bon mots put it, but before Winchell retired from journalism he was the scourge of many leftists, and rumoured leftists.


The film is not written from a naive perspective in this regard. Clifford Odets, the film’s co-writer, was one of many called to question by the House UnAmerican Activities Committee, and backsliding, double-dealing and paranoia of the period runs through the film like a dagger through a heart, as you’ll see in this scene.

Sweetening the pill with democracy and peace whilst encouraging a near-fascistic denoucement of subversive elements, J.J. prepares for his TV show, practicing his rhetoric by stop watch. It’s a chilling scene, the first time we have a hint of the dark desires driving J.J. Tellingly, the scene goes down behind the curtains, playing closely to the film’s leitmotif of clean façades and the dirty dealing behind them. Lancaster’s slightly wooden, overlarge quality is put to good use in the film: he is only ever paying lip service to his true desires and Lancaster’s actorly style succeeds.


While Odets’ portrait of Hunsecker is deeply rooted to the time, the dialogue has a Shakespearean allusiveness that transcends any particular moment. Despite being a gutter tale of a ‘dirty town’, there is a cracked poetics in almost every line: ‘The greedy murmur of little men’, the ‘theology of making a fast buck’, ‘a cookie full of arsenic’. Two men bound by mutual hate and disgusted with the parasitic reliance of the other, Falco and Hunsecker are electric duellers of dialogue. The charismatic combination begins to unsettle the film at times, as the structuring relationship between Steve and Susan seems thin and sketched in comparison. The two seem insipid and unaware rather than untainted and evincing ‘integrity, acute, like indigestion.’ Yet it’s not enough to dim the film’s appeal: scabrous as the day it was struck, there’s nothing sweet about it, but the smell is still gloriously rank.


This is the seventh of my notes about my now finished series of films at The Woodmill Studios in Bermondsey. To see the entire line up and get all the details go here.


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Cute Animals in Film 2012: The Year in Review

So it’s come to this again. Another year has passed and I’m still inexplicably taking screengrabs of cute animals in high cinema. I haven’t been as broad in my viewing as in years past. A big chunk of my watching was Dirk Bogarde, whom I wrote my master’s dissertation about. There was no shortage of cute animals in his films though, as you’ll see. The man himself was quite a dog lover. The picture directly above is of the man himself in his pad with his hound, mildly terrifying an interviewer on the eve of the release of Victim in 1961. Enjoy this selection and here’s to many more in 2013! (See last year’s selection of the cutest animals in film). If there was ever any doubt, I’ve concluded the donkey is art cinema’s animal of choice (perhaps tipping their hat to the ‘saint of cinema’). Pulp cinema loves a dog, as you’ll see.

Bogarde in Conversation

Despair 2

Despair (Fassbinder/1978)
Doctor in the House

Doctor in the House (Thomas/1954)

Elgar 2 Elgar 3 Elgar 4 Elgar

4 stills from the beautiful Elgar (Russell/1962)

Forbidden1 Forbidden2 Forbidden3

3 stills from Forbidden (King/1949), which follows British cinema’s abiding interest in the meddlesome scamp of a dog interfering in murder…

Partners in Crime?

…as here in the educational short Partners in Crime (1949)…

Man's best friend and man, in clinch

Man’s best friend and man, in clinch

…and here in Obsession (Dmytryk/1949) saving our hero from a dip in an acid bath

My Brother's Wedding 2 My Brother's Wedding

Dog washing in a bathtub in My Brother’s Wedding (Burnett/1983)

My Little Chickadee 2 My Little Chickadee

This goat stands in for Mae West against W.C. Fields advances in My Little Chickadee (Cline/1940)

Of Gods and Men donkeys

Donkeys=high cinema proven again in Of Gods and Men (Beauvois/2010)

Passe Ton Bac D'abord

A mournful pup towards the end of Passe Ton Bac D’abord (Pialat/1979)

Pett and Pott 2 Pett and Pott 3 Pett and Pott 4 Pett and PottGoing at it like cats and dogs in the short film Pett and Pott (Cavalcanti/1934)

Serpico 1 Serpico 2 Serpico 3 Serpico 6

Pacino and a hilariously incongrous range of pets for an undercover agent in Serpico (Lumet/1973)

Silent Running 2

One of the last survivors of Bruce Dern’s madness in Silent Running (Trumbull/1972)

Sleeping Tiger

Bogarde teases this pup in The Sleeping Tiger (Losey/1954)

The Blue Lamp

This dog tries to lodge a police complain in The Blue Lamp (Dearden/1949)

The Entertainer

Everyone loves a monkey in The Entertainer (Richardson/1960)

The Hole The Hole2

This little yapper raises the alarm in The Hole (Dante/2009)

The Killing

You can tell this is early Kubrick because he’s still got the heart to include a puppy in The Killing (Kubrick/1956)

The Letter

These pups react to Bette Davis’s shoot out in the opening scene of The Letter (Wyler/1940)…

The October Man

John Mills gets some puppy love in The October Man (Ward Barker/1947)Train of Events

Penguins offer a spot of variety in Train of Events (Cole, Crichton, Dearden/1949)Yield to the Night

Diana Dors finds comfort on death row with a kitty in Yield to the Night (Lee Thompson/1956)

Youth in Revolt

 Youth in Revolt (Arteta/2009)

There are two notable absences of cinematic animals that I would have loved to have included. I watched Ben Wheatley’s Sightseers and Martin McDonagh’s Seven Psychopaths  back to back at the London Film Festival and both have a central dog character (and both left me feeling greatness had been squandered but that’s another story for another time).

Best animal of my viewing of 2012 was The Awful Truth. An hilarious screwball comedy with Cary Grant and Irene Dunne from 1937. In most of the films I’ve selected here, the animals play an incidental, or at best a prop-like position. Mr Smith (played by one Skippy the dog) is a full character in this film, and is the focus of many brilliant set pieces. This is Mr Smith’s portfolio.

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Mr Smith is forced to choose in court between Grant and Dunne as their surrogate child. vlcsnap-2012-09-12-23h24m00s243 vlcsnap-2012-09-12-23h26m38s37 vlcsnap-2012-09-12-23h28m45s17 vlcsnap-2012-09-12-23h27m00s253 vlcsnap-2012-09-12-23h26m43s83 vlcsnap-2012-09-12-23h29m00s167 vlcsnap-2012-09-12-23h29m36s24

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January 1, 2013 · 5:54 am