Noir-vember Day 28: Sweet Smell of Success (1957) - Can't Stop the Movies
Can't Stop the Movies
28Nov/100

Noir-vember Day 28: Sweet Smell of Success (1957)

Here it is.  After my long search for a film that doesn't have a single identifiable "positive" moral core, I finally found the noir that fulfills every little dark longing that my mind and body can muster.  There's murder, incest, sensationalism, lies, violence, vandalism, libel and all the other multitude of sins that one little body can dream up.

Best of all, they're mostly kept off screen, letting our minds do the dirty work that the characters so love to relish about in delectable detail.  This is the world of Sweet Smell of Success, a film noir so simultaneously bitter and delicious that it's impossible to think it a guilty pleasure, just a joy for the senses.

For those of you hoping that Sweet Smell of Success is about PI's and dames with hidden pasts, you will be sorely disappointed.  This is a film that doesn't need to take the obvious route to exploit the inner workings of noir.  It is about the people that make their living reporting the darker dealings of the murderers and thieves that prowl the city scape.  If you think the people that actually do the deed are bad, imagine how rotten the people who want to make a profit out of their deeds can be.

Sweet Smell of Success taps into one of my favorite noir tropes, the barely concealed BDSM relationship.  In this film, we get a healthy (if you want to call it that) mix of homosexuality and incest between a trio of main characters that have a complicated relationship.  This is putting it charitably of course, it's hard to mix homosexuality, incest, and bondage into a 50's film without it being presented as anything less than "complicated".  But that's the task that Sweet Smell of Success sets out for itself, and by unholy debauchery does it acheive it.

Sidney (on the left) is forever the faithful lap dog to the power and appeal of J.J.

The central relationship in the film circles around two gossip paper entrepreneurs who know where the butter is spread between the two of them.  There's Sidney Falco (Tony Curtis), a fast talking hustling sort of writer who is finangling his next story from the cocktail waitress.  Then there's his mentor/dominator J.J. Hunsecker (Burt Lancaster), a more reserved man that knows the score far better than Sidney ever will.  J.J. and Sidney are joined by J.J.'s sister Susan (Susan Harrison), who is in love with a jazz singer and may be making the worst mistake of that poor musicians life as J.J. is forced to confront the incestual feelings he'd rather stay private.

Part of the diabolical joy of Sweet Smell of Success is in seeing how J.J. and Sidney's relationship works.  For the first twenty minutes or so, it seems like Sidney is the man with the name to get in good with.  He gets leads, tracks down dirty dealings, and arranges unsuspecting women to sell their bodies without a single twinge of guilt.  Then we meet J.J., who isn't nearly as loud as his uniquely devoted partner, but carries an aura of clout and fear that Supreme Court Judges can't muster up the gumption to go against.  These are two men that are willing to do anything to get their way, and are not interested in who they have to take down to make sure they keep climbing.

There's hardly a soul harmed on-screen during it's tight hour and a half run time.  The violence that causes so much moral turbulence in other noirs is missing, as is a lot of the self-questioning and doubt that comes with those moments.  These are two bottom feeding people, and the only thing that sets them apart is the fact that J.J. holds the power that Sidney wishes he could.  Having the ability to hurt others is one thing, but being able to twist it so that individual becomes a villain or hero is another power altogether - and one that they relish in wielding.

The only figure of "real" authority in the film is a cop that may be more corrupt than either J.J. or Sidney.

The acting from Lancaster and Curtis is top notch as each feeds into the other's desperation and anxiety for more news than either is willing to admit.  But the overall craft of the film is such that few noirs can attain the breakneck pace it does without losing control of the gritty underbelly.  Director Alexander Mackendrick hurtles from one location to the next as Sidney and J.J. track down their leads without losing the noir touch in a single frame.  No matter where you pause the movie, the stylistic view of the film nevers strays far from the harshest contrast of dark, light and restless shadow courtesy of photographer James Wong Howe.

All of this is strung together by the most nerve wracking of jazz scores set to a noir.  Susan has fallen in love with a blistering jazz musician, and his notes provide the subtext to every scene.  Whether it's J.J.'s low angled desk carrying a solitary picture of his sister, her lustful embrace of the poor musician, or Sidney's frantic dashing about town for the next sleazy lead; the jazz score never strays beyond the palpable menace that these people can enact on a moments notice.

Best of all is the script.  Film noir has provided some excellent zingers in the past, but few stack of to the acidic observations that many of the characters make over the course of the film.  Their moral fiber is thrust into direct light with lines like "To tell you the truth, I never thought I'd make a killing on another guy's integrity", or when Sidney is faced with a potential suicide victim and says, "That body of yours deserves a better fate than tumbling off some terrace".  Then there's one of my many personal favorites, "Don't do anything I wouldn't do, and that gives you a lot of leeway".  The dialogue comes fast and hard, leaving little room for interpretation, and a lot of time to bask in it's seedy glory.

The night has to be ruled by someone, and in the real world that someone is a shadow king like J.J.

Sweet Smell of Success is the quintessential noir for people that know what noir is trying to accomplish.  Light is shown on the darkest sides of town without a moralistic do gooder in sight, and little thought left about how horrible these people are.  If it weren't for the last ten seconds of the film this would be the perfect noir.

But, alas, a happy ending had to be tacked on - even if the happy ending is more the idea of what better skies may await than what the truth actually is.  Thankfully, we have the completed film as a reminder of how original noir can be, and the depths that the characters are willing to go to show us just how much we love the darkness surrounding our supposed "better" instincts.

Sweet Smell of Success (1957)
Directed by Alexander Mackendrick.
Written by Clifford Odets and Ernest Lehman.
Starring Burt Lancaster, Tony Curtis and Susan Harrison. 

Posted by Andrew

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