Friday 14 March 2008

Sweet Smell of Success (1957)

Here's one I've heard mentioned a lot. It's a film noir, a classic one, and people have raved about it enough to land it on a few Top 100s. It's even popped its way into the IMDb Top 250, though as I write, it's languishing in 250th place. I knew precious little about it but did know a few of the names involved. The stars are Burt Lancaster and Tony Curtis, who I'm getting to know pretty well. The cinematographer is James Wong Howe and the striking score is by Elmer Bernstein, hardly minor names in the business. The director is alexander McKendrick who made a few of the greatest Ealing comedies: The Man in the White Suit, The Ladykillers and Whisky Galore!

The story is really about J J Hunsecker, who writes a newspaper column called 'The Eyes of Broadway'. Young and ambitious press agent Sidney Falco calls him the 'golden ladder to where he wants to get' and is perfectly willing to do anything to get in his good books. The immediate problem is that J J's sister Susan has just got engaged to guitarist Steve Dallas and J J was relying on Falco to break it up. Because he fails, Falco's clients are conspicuously absent from Hunsecker's column. Now it's up to him to fix it again.

It's solid for a while with the camera and the script following Falco flustering around. Then we meet Hunsecker at a dinner table and are cold cocked by the dialogue. Hunsecker simply exudes arrogant power and the words that describe him are not polite. There are many of them too. Even the senator he's dining with comments that everything he says sounds like a threat and he's not mistaken. One long scene and Burt Lancaster is gone again but he's not forgotten for one moment, his shadow looming strong over everything else that goes on.

Lancaster is truly awesome here, a really towering presence. He dominates the film while appearing only in key scenes, reminding of both Brian Cox and Anthony Hopkins in different Hannibal Lecter adaptations, especially as he's also inhabiting a world of his own creation. He's gifted with some even more awesome dialogue but amazingly he wasn't nominated for anything for his trouble. It certainly deserved something more than just people fifty years on keeping his performance and the film itself alive.

Curtis, in a career making role manoeuvering around every twist and turn in the book, was nominated for a BAFTA for Best Foreign Actor. It's a peach of a part but he makes the most of it, reaching the success he so wanted but finding it isn't what he expected to be. He and supporting actress Barbara Nichols, who has a small but highly memorable role early on, both received nods for Golden Laurels, but that was it for the film. There wasn't a single Oscar nod, not even for the script which is blistering.

Then again 1957 seems to have been the biggest year ever for film on a global scale, mirroring Hollywood's golden year of 1939. Ernest Lehman (who also wrote the source novelette) and Clifford Odets co-wrote a gem here but they were up against things like Paths of Glory, Nights of Cabiria, Run of the Arrow, Night of the Demon, The Seventh Seal, Wild Strawberries, Witness for the Prosecution, Elevator to the Gallows, The Cranes are Flying, The Incredible Shrinking Man... and that's just a list of other films that weren't nominated either. The winner for best adapted screenplay was The Bridge on the River Kwai, beating such others as 12 Angry Men. What a year!

There is a good guy in the film, though it's certainly neither character played by Lancaster or Curtis or even the cop in the picture, a sleazy corrupt cop played by Emile Meyer. The only one with honesty, integrity and old fashioned goodness is Steve Dallas, the young guitar player who ends up on the wrong end of everyone else's stick through nothing more than falling for the wrong girl. I didn't recognise him at all, either by looks or name, though my wife knows him well. He's Martin Milner, here credited as Marty, and she knows him from a series called Adam 12, which I haven't heard of either. I've seen him before, in things like 13 Ghosts but didn't remember him. He fits his part here wonderfully and so does Susan Harrison, Sam Levene and everyone else in the film. What a gem.

1 comment:

jimmie t. murakami said...

"J.J. YOU`VE GOT SUCH CONTEMPT FOR PEOPLE IT MAKES YOU STUPID", i`m not sure why but i always used to enjoy hearing that line.