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Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Review: Sweet Smell of Success (1957)

* * * *

Director: Alexander Mackendrick
Starring: Burt Lancaster, Tony Curtis

“I’d hate to take a bite out of you. You’re like a cookie full of arsenic.” So says columnist J.J. Hunsecker (Burt Lancaster) to publicity agent Sidney Falco (Tony Curtis) in this hard-edged, deeply cynical film. There’s no one to root for in this movie - not the two pretty on the outside, poison on the inside villains, and not the two one dimensional victims; and yet the film itself remains compelling. Not only do movies like this never get made anymore, but movies like this never got made in the first place. That this exists at all is something of a miracle.

The story begins with Falco already on the outs with Hunsecker after failing to follow through on a promise to break up the relationship between Hunsecker’s sister Susan (Susan Harrison) and her musician boyfriend, Steve Dallas (Martin Milner). Hunsecker is the most powerful columnist in New York and to be on his bad side is a fate worse than death for Falco, something which could ruin his already struggling career completely (“You’re dead son,” Hunsecker tells him, “get yourself buried”). Hunsecker is willing to give him a second chance and Falco sets about destroying Steve and his relationship with Susan, bribing a rival columnist to plant an item about Steve being a pothead and communist. When this, too, fails to get the job done, Hunsecker asks Falco to go even further, to do something that even someone as immoral as Falco thinks is wrong.

The greatest strength of the film is its script, which is written in such a terse, no-nonsense kind of way by Ernest Lehman and Clifford Odets. There’s no sugar-coating in this movie, it’s full of both physical and social brutality. The two main characters are finely etched: Hunsecker revels in his power, loves to wield it to harm others and bend them to his will, and has an unhealthy attachment to his sister; Falco is a desperate smooth talker who wants nothing more than to be Hunsecker. There’s a sadomasochistic element to their relationship, something latent (Falco, certainly, would sleep with Hunsecker to get what he wants, but Hunsecker seems more or less asexual... or perhaps just wary of exposing himself to anything that might be used against him later), and everyone seems to know the score. Other characters consistently liken Falco to a dog – the implication being that Falco is Hunsecker’s “bitch” – which upsets Falco even though he’s the first character in the film to make the analogy when he assures his secretary that “every dog has its day.”

Lancaster and Curtis deliver wonderful, no holds barred performances, while Harrison & Milner deliver exactly what the story requires of them, which is very little. Susan and Steve are nothing but pawns in a larger game, star crossed lovers who are consistently victimised by those around them. The only point at which Susan becomes a character of any interest whatsoever is towards the end, when she plays both Hunsecker and Falco and brings about the film’s bitter resolution. Ultimately this isn’t a world for lambs like Susan and Steve, but for lions like Hunsecker, who may have lost a battle but will no doubt continue to win the war beyond the film’s edges.

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