Friday, January 17, 2020

Sweet Smell of Success Doesn't Skimp On Darkness Much To Its Own Benefit

You know the phrase "He'd sell his grandmother to get ahead"? Well, press agent Sydney Falco (Tony Curtis) is so sleazy that he'd sell both his grandparents if it got him the luxurious life he craves so dearly. In a constant state of petulance, Falco is especially aggravated as of late due to his recent struggles to appease his powerful boss, J.J. Hunsecker (Burt Lancaster). Hunsecker wanted Falco to break up a romance between Hunsecker's sister Susan (Susan Harrison) and a jazz musician, Steve Dallas (Martin Milner). Falco finally decides to break up this couple by planting a false rumor about Dallas in the papers.

Hunsecker won't stop there, though, and eventually, his desire to destroy Dallas takes on an even greater scope, one that Falco keeps on becoming a part of thanks to the allure of what Hunsecker could for him if their nefarious plots actually get pulled off properly. This specific part of the plot of Sweet Smell of Success actually reminded me of Uncut Gems in how it's a lot of morally seedy characters engaging in personally-motivated chaos that keeps building up and up over the course of the movie. Just when you think things can't spiral more out of control, suddenly Hunsecker wants to turn the rumor Falco created (that of Dallas being a pot-smoking Russian agent) into a reality and one that gets the cops to beat up Dallas at that!

Sweet Smell of Success shares more than just riveting mayhem and a New York City setting with Uncut Gems. Both films are also just top-quality cinema no matter how you slice it! Another superb feature Sweet Smell of Success reminded me of was The Big Heat in that both uber-dark motion pictures that I can't believe managed to exist in the era of The Hayes Code. Thank goodness they managed to emerge without their edges sanded off, though. The way Sweet Smell of Success so thoroughly commits to depicting a dark tone helps to lend chilling bite to its world run on personal self-satisfaction at the expense of others. No half-measures in terms of a gruesome tone to be found here and that's made evident right from the start.

From the moment Sydney Falco emerges on-screen going on a self-pitying rant about his life, you can tell Sweet Smell of Success won't be holding back in its depiction of the kind of nastiness people are capable of. In the context of this story, such nastiness can take many forms, which is one of the best parts of the screenplay penned by Clifford Odets and Ernest Lehman. You've got the overtly crooked Sydney Falco who can't wait to blab about what hideous behavior he's scheming up next but you also have J.J. Hunsecker whose a societally-acceptable version of the most depraved kind of person. He's such just as selfish as Falco but the fact that he keeps his hair combed over and his voice calm means he's taken much more seriously be people from all walks of society, including some of its most powerful and influential figures.

Hunsucker doesn't need to punch somebody or even shout to make his power clear and that makes for one of the most chilling parts of Sweet Smell of Success. It's a character whose eerie nature is enhanced by Burt Lancaster's wonderfully assured performance. Lancaster's performance is pitched in the direction of a toxic upper-class dude, he's a guy who doesn't blink at the idea of being creepily possessive of his sisters while being likely to chastise someone for using the wrong soup spoon at the dinner table. Through all the fascinating control emanated by Lancaster's work on-screen, you vividly understand the warped mindset of this guy with so much power at his fingertip. Just the way Lancaster delivers a line to Falco about not "...tearing apart the ship, you might want back on!" captures that essence of Hunsucker beautifully.

By contrast, Falco is a grimier but no less morally fractured individual, one brought to life by Tony Curtis in a role that was apparently a massive departure for Curtis who was well-known in the 1950s for playing likable characters. Curtis is so effortlessly believable that you wouldn't believe for one minute that this was a departure from his normal on-screen roles. On the contrary, Curtis plays the role with such a lived-in "woe-is-me" quality, you can clearly understand the years of wear & tear this press agent has seen in chasing after every possible big break there is in NYC. The performances and the writing for both lead characters in Sweet Smell of Success are so endlessly rich in details and prove to be just as engrossing as the direction of Alexander Mackendrick.

"Ah, I love this city!" Hunsucker says at one point in Sweet Smell of Success and Mackendrick's direction ensures that the location Hunsucker loves so much is rendered in an abundance of darkness and shadows to match the morally bleak outlook of the characters. Mackendrick's direction is especially impressive in terms of visually representing this sense of inevitable doom. A moment where Falco is shown to be expressing a silent moment of hesitation (just before something terrible is supposed to happen to Dallas) at the top of these exterior stairs is a perfect example of this. Falco is framed in between an intimidating police officer (one that's firmly on Hunsucker's payroll) in the background and a mass of rushing cars in the foreground. Maybe Falco's having a glimmer of conscience now, but he's already in too deep. His misdeeds are as overwhelming mentally as the objects that physically surround him. It's a beautifully-rendered shot and one of many instances where Sweet Smell of Success truly astonishes in its contemplation of the price of pursuing personal glory at any cost.

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