‘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.
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.