SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS (1957) – a timeless classic.

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SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS (1957)                                           

After deliberately punishing myself by recently sitting through the lamentable 1956 soap opera Written on the Wind, I felt I owed myself a treat, so I sat back and watched the brilliant Sweet Smell of Success (1957) for the umpteenth time. And it was still wonderful. The two pictures were made within 12 months of each other yet the quality and craftsmanship were literally light years apart. Whereas I struggled to find anything of merit in the 1956 offering, I found myself running out of superlatives for the other. How in blazes could Written on the Wind earn three Oscar nominations (including a win for Dorothy Malone) and Sweet Smell of Success be completely ignored?

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Director Alexander Mackendrick and Burt Lancaster on the set.

The pluses for SSOS are everywhere. One of the great travesties in the movie industry lies in the deplorable lack of opportunities afforded to British – born director Alexander Mackendrick. This was his first American film and it is a knockout, yet he only received a handful of projects after it and, in 1969, opted to leave the industry to become Dean of the Film Department at the California Institute for the Arts, later teaching until his death in 1993. Critics did not think much of SSOS back in the fifties and audiences did not flock to see it either. Maybe Mackendrick lost confidence in himself. Perhaps, he became disillusioned, or did he simply fall out of favor with the decision-makers? Whatever the reason his loss was the industry’s loss. These days, of course, the movie is considered to be a classic and rightly so. All the more reason for us to question how it could possibly have been so universally misjudged in the first place.

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                                  Ernest Lehman                                                         Clifford Odets                          

The screenplay was written by Clifford Odets and Ernest Lehman and it is sublime. Even the worst of actors would find it difficult to speak the dialogue poorly. Nevertheless, the writers’ efforts went unacknowledged at Oscar time. Not a nomination in sight – for anyone. Lehman’s resume of screenplays is most impressive and is worthy of mention here, if for no other reason than to highlight the fact that he never won an Oscar for any of them. In his 85th year he did receive an Honorary Oscar for ‘lifetime achievement’, the belated sliver of recognition doled out by the Academy to those whose individual achievements have somehow been overlooked for too long. A kind of ‘Oops! Sorry’ award. A quick glance at some of his screenplay credits will indicate how remiss the Academy and its members had been over the course of his remarkable career.

In no particular order of merit, here are a few of his works: Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966), The Sound of Music (1965), From the Terrace (1960), Executive Suite (1954), The King and I (1956), Somebody up there Likes Me (1956), Sweet Smell of Success (1957), Sabrina (1954), North by Northwest (1959), West Side Story (1961). And there were others, yet he was nominated just four times. And lost four times. Back in the thirties he used to collect gossip for Walter Winchell’s column. One of his first jobs was as a copywriter for another Broadway publicist which led to his novella titled ‘Tell Me about it Tomorrow’ and the film’s eventual screenplay. He knew his subject matter inside out and produced a screenplay of exceptional quality that deserved to be praised. Instead, it was barely acknowledged at the time. Lehman based his character on America’s most powerful columnist, Walter Winchell, and the release of the picture itself worried hell out of the man. Winchell was greatly relieved when the movie bombed. Audiences hated it and the critics assailed it from every angle. Had he used his enormous clout to influence some of the reviews? Possibly. It does seem strange that a film that is universally lauded today was universally condemned on its release. Surely somebody liked it in 1957?

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              cinematographer James Wong Howe                                             New York City at night – Sweet Smell of Success

James Wong Howe’s cinematography is also outstanding. It captures New York City at night like no other movie has ever done. He gives us a time capsule of the Big Apple of the 1950s and it is marvelous. Elmer Bernstein’s fabulous jazz score (and I am not a fan of jazz) fits the mood of the picture and the cinematography like a glove. The combination is dazzling and unforgettable.

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                                      Elmer Bernstein

And then there are the players. It is Tony Curtis’s picture all the way and he delivers. It is hard to feel sorry for a guy gifted with Tony’s looks, but one can’t help but wonder if the powers that be categorized him as nothing more than a pretty face. How else could they not be impressed by his terrific performance as the sniveling, lying, immoral Sidney Falco? It was his greatest ever performance and it slid by unheralded. The guy could act when the right script came along, as he proved, not only here but in The Defiant Ones (1958), Some Like it Hot (1959) and The Boston Strangler (1968).

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Barbara Nichols and Tony Curtis in Sweet Smell of Success                 Sidney Falco and J J Hunsecker aka Tony Curtis & Burt Lancaster

I have never much liked Burt Lancaster. Too toothy for me. Too over-zealous, too ‘in your face’ most of the time. But this performance is different. SSOS is my second favorite Lancaster performance. He portrays arrogance, ruthlessness, power and vindictiveness effortlessly, yet rarely raises his voice. He is malevolence personified. The decision to wear the ‘coke-bottle’ spectacles somehow added to his cold character. It was a clever touch. There were just two other Lancaster performances that I have thoroughly enjoyed over his long career. One was his portrayal of the sergeant in From Here to Eternity in 1953 for which he richly deserved his Oscar nomination. The other was his riveting characterization of the Indian scout Mackintosh in the grossly under-rated western Ulzana’s Raid (1972).

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                                     Susan Harrison                                                                                     Jeff Donnell

Susan Harrison made her big screen debut as JJ Hunsecker’s sister, Susan, and showed genuine promise. However, just 7 years later she chose family over career and more or less retired from the screen. Barbara Nichols was excellent as Rita the cigarette girl, Jeff Donnell was convincing as Falco’s dowdy secretary and Emile Meyer was his usual memorable self as Lieutenant Harry Kello. Martin Milner was good as Susan’s love interest and Sam Levene was perfect as his manager. And a special mention to the under-rated Lawrence Dobkin. He played Bartha, the columnist Falco unsuccessfully tried to blackmail in one of the most memorable scenes in the film.

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Emile Meyer                                                                               Lawrence Dobkin

Sweet Smell of Success has remained in my top 20 pictures of all time since I first saw it decades ago. Indeed, I only have five black and white movies in my top 20 – SSOS, Double Indemnity (1944), From Here to Eternity (1953), Since You Went Away (1944) and Casablanca (1942). Just outside are Beau Geste (1939), Five Fingers (1952) and Twelve O’Clock High (1949).

2 Comments on SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS (1957) – a timeless classic.

  1. We’ve talked about SSOS before and I agree w/ everything. Curtis, the perfect lap dog.
    Lancaster, w/ that quiet enunciation. is scary. The music, photography; all works perfectly
    with the acting.

    • Hi Sheila. I just got back from spending a week in Queensland chatting with a wonderful lady named Elaine Hollingsworth (formerly a fifties actress named Sara Shane). I will be writing her biography shortly, based upon the 60 hours or so of interviews. I think I might call it ‘From Hollywood to Health Crusader’, to encompass both halves of her extraordinary life. We talked about ‘SSOS’ because it is also one of her favourite films. She dated Tony Curtis and Lancaster (nasty tale of her encounter with Burt), and the screenwriter, Clifford Odets, lived directly across the road from her and was a good friend. And Barbara Nicholls (she played the cigarette girl) was one of her closest friends as well. Anyway, we are most excited about the book which should be out in under 6 months.

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