Tuesday, June 07, 2005

Sweet Smell of Success

Sidney Falco is one of the least redeemable heroes in motion picture history. He's a snake, pure and simple, a low-level PR man who would do anything for a fast buck or a kind word in the press. As portrayed by Tony Curtis in one of his best performances, he's a completely insufferable slimeball, occasionally charming but only just enough to not get punched in the face.

And he's not even the most interesting character in the movie.

Sweet Smell of Success has one of the greatest screenplays ever written, a ceaselessly wry, witty and immensely sharp takedown not just of public relations or gossip journalists but of an entire way of life. It's based on a novel by former PR man Ernest Lehman, who had grown disgusted with a business he saw as hopelessly corrupted by greed and cronyism, and scripted by playwright Clifford Odets. The 1957 drama that resulted is an amazingly satisfying entertainment, a scathing indictment of elitism and one of the best films of its decade.

It also happens to contain not just the scariest performance of Burt Lancaster's career, but one of the greatest movie villains of all time. His perverse, ego-maniacal, short-tempered demon of a columnist, JJ Hunsecker, was based in part on Walter Winchell, but is elevated by Lancaster into an impressionistic fever dream of cruelty, a taskmaster who treats Falco and anyone else dependant on him financially or emotionally, with the utmost disregard and contempt.

Falco depends on getting his clients mentioned in Hunsecker's daily gossip-and-society column. A few kind words from Hunsecker can turn a zero act into a massive hit, and Falco's clients hire him in the hopes of a little publicity from his famous friend. Unfortunately, Hunsecker lords Falco's dependency on him like a schoolyard bully, extracting all manner of personal favors in exchange for future articles.

By far the biggest favor requires Falco to interrupt the courtship of Hunsecker's comely young sister Susan (Susan Harrison) to jazz musician and all around swell guy Steve Dallas (Martin Milner). The reasons for JJ's objections to this union are never made clear, but there's definitely a creepy subtext to the entire subplot. One could argue that Hunsecker protects his sister out of a sense of sexual jealousy, or merely that Hunsecker would view any man's claiming of his sister as a display of dominance, threatening JJ's sociopathic need for control.

But there is one scene, with Lancaster staring at Susan's sleeping form through a veiled window, that points me more towards the former interpretation. Sidney's forced to get very creative in trying to disrupt this couple, cause these kids really like each other. Throughout his misadventure, he'll repeatedly refuse opportunities to get out from under JJ's thumb, to reject his scummy way of doing business. And again and again, he refuses. The chance to make it as a top New York agent, the dream of living the high life with JJ and all the other swells...well, it's just too great to resist.

So he descends deeper and deeper into a cesspool of corruption, jealousy and anger. And the dialogue! Really classic tough guy dialogue is so hard to write, in many ways because so much of it has already been written by so many massively talented screenwriters, guys like Clifford Odets. At one point, Falco is begging Hunsecker for a second chance, and JJ responds: "You're dead, son. Get yourself buried."


And Alexander McKendrick's smooth direction ratches up the tension. McKendrick really excels and depicting the chaotic buzz of the city at night. The location photography of Manhattan is absolutely stunning, beautifully inky black and white set off by the stacatto lights of Broadway.

I could go on and on about this one, but it's all up there in that picture, isn't it? Hunsecker chats away on the phone, oblivious, while Falco sits behind him and seethes. Human nature at its most depraved, and yet its most vulnerable. This movie is brilliant. Rent it immeidately.


Charlie Babbitt said...

It's one of the best films ever made. Though, I'd argue Lancaster is even more frightening in Seven Days in May....he's very good at playing evil bastards....

Charlie Babbitt said...

Lon, you need to nominate this fucker for your worst person alive awards. Ratner is just such a fuckmook.

"I'm not Joel Schumacher," he said of the fan-despised director behind "Batman Forever" and the even more poorly received "Batman & Robin," "and I'm not ... um ... who did the third Superman?"
That would be Richard Lester. "I'm Brett," Ratner said, "and all I know is what I know, what I can do and what I have to work with."

"Bryan Singer and Brett Ratner are in that age range who grew up on comics," Ratner said, referring to himself in the third person. "Well, I don't know if he grew up on comic books, but in that generation where comic heroes are part of our society and part of our pop culture.
"Bryan Singer left ['X-Men 3'] because he didn't like the material," Ratner insisted. "But I don't think this movie is tainted; I think it is fantastic and the script is amazing.

And...he wants X3 to be a funny movie.

A fellow AICN chatter gave me this link.