Sunday, June 30, 2019
On Account of Darkness
Let’s slow this down for a minute. Because I recently went up for a job that in some ways I was perfect for but in others made me want to splash cold water on my face in terror, not because of the hours or what I’d be doing but because of the place itself. You’ve heard of this place, you might even be a fan of it, but you definitely have an opinion about it. And I wasn’t offered the job, I didn’t even hit it out of the park at the interview but if I’d decided to pursue it just a little more, who knows. Still, there was the angle of feeling like I’d be making a deal with the devil and I’ve worked in this world before so the language they spoke was one I recognized. And it made me wonder what sort of person I want to be from day to day, along with the realization that this might literally be a case of admitting you can’t pay me to give a shit about certain reality personalities out there in what we call the world. That’s the truth. I’ve gotten so far away from it already.
I can’t imagine watching SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS during the day. The vibe is just wrong. So much of it is made for the night, the later the better, the right time to be lingering in smoke filled bars with jazz playing as you wait for your next drink, wait for the next chance to make your move. The New York in this 1957 film was already long gone by the point I spent any time there but the world it presents is still as ferocious as ever. I understand that feeling of desperation while you’re in the middle of it all, knowing deep in the pit of your soul that you might be willing to do anything to get ahead. It’s a nastiness that you can identify with whether you like it or not for all those words in the script, for the performances found in that black and white nastiness of the New York night that makes up its world. The night, after all, is where the greatest betrayals take place, where the strongest desires feel closest, where the most traumatic endings are forced on you. It’s where this movie belongs.
New York press agent Sidney Falco (Tony Curtis) is on the outs with ultra-powerful New York Globe columnist J.J. Hunsecker (Burt Lancaster) after failing to break up J.J.’s sister Susan (Susan Harrison) with rising young jazz guitarist Steve Dallas (Martin Milner). But he has one more plan to put into effect before the night is through to get him back in J.J.’s good graces and continue his ascent to the top, the only place he wants to be. But when the plan actually goes into effect Sidney finds himself having to do one too many favors for J.J. and it might be more than even he’s prepared to do.
The world in SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS is Times Square, or at least it’s just about the only part of the world that matters, the only place we see that New York Globe delivery truck driving around during the opening credits to send the latest J.J. Hunsecker column out into the atmosphere. It’s a world of those bustling masses teeming with life that Sidney Falco is a part of, a world that he wants to rule but for now he’s still one of them as he waits for that bundle of papers to drop down on the sidewalk to hopefully give him some good news before going back for his hot dog. All these people are crowded together but it feels like everyone we meet in the insular universe of this film is directly connected somehow, even down to Sidney Falco being the nephew of Steve Dallas’ manager, a reminder of how everybody you know somehow knows everybody already and eventually it all closes in on you. “I’m no hero,” Sidney Falco flat out states near the beginning, just in case anyone who has bought their ticket to this film thinks otherwise, practically meta dialogue announcing to the screaming fans of Tony Curtis that they shouldn’t wait for him to be a nice guy, no matter how many dialogue references there are to him being pretty. Sidney Falco keeps a temporary sign taped to his office door, maybe waiting for the day he can put up a permanent one that’s gold plated, and one suspects it’s been there a while as he waits for just the right bonus check to finally come in and pay for all his dreams. He revels in those moments where people point out his insidiousness and he does what he wants with that simmering anger he has at the world when the film opens and he doesn’t deny it, forever intent on making people think he belongs there in Manhattan and not whichever outer borough he likely crawled out of. He goes after that ancient comic Herbie Temple with the story of passing along a line to J.J.’s column just to prove that he can, intent on making people crawl to him, over broken glass if necessary. It always feels like there’s a balancing act to the script (screenplay by Clifford Odets and Ernest Lehman from the novelette by Lehman) in the ice cold way it doles out the information we need to know and what it doesn’t hold back in the way things are said, the nastier the better, the more vicious the better. Sidney Falco’s “The cat’s in the bag and the bag’s in the river” to reassure J.J. about his plan taking effect is likely one of the most famous examples of this dialogue to go alongside J.J.’s own “You’re dead, son. Get yourself buried,” heard over the phone before we even meet him and the film is packed with these phrases, even down to the tossed off asides I wish I were clever enough to think of in my daily life. We hear those words mixed in with the black and greys provided by cinematographer James Wong Howe in how he shoots the film through those low angles that make the characters even more imposing, standing over each other out on the street so we get lost in that darkness ourselves.
Director Alexander Mackendrick’s other films include the likes of THE LADYKILLERS and A HIGH WIND IN JAMAICA which don’t have much to do with this one but there was also the late 60s beach comedy DON’T MAKE WAVES starring Curtis, Claudia Cardinale and Sharon Tate which I’ve long had a crazy fondness for (it was also his last before a 24-year tenure at CalArts, including serving as Dean of the School of Film/Video there), maybe more than I should. The two films really have nothing much in common—and no way am I saying that DON’T MAKE WAVES comes anywhere close to being the masterpiece SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS is—but if I want to reach I’d say that spoof of the southern California lifestyle almost has a comparable sense of place and of the mood in the air, the nastiness of New York held up against the arch promise of a new tomorrow out in California. Interestingly, the director is buried just a few yards away from Burt Lancaster at the same cemetery in Westwood and, come to think of it, Ernest Lehman is there too (Tony Curtis rests in Vegas, alas). Just like the characters in the film, they’re all connected and always will be but maybe because he’s the least known of anyone here Mackendrick becomes the odd man out in history but what he brings to the film is a sense of total control in every shot. In a way it feels representative of the personalities of both male leads, the way J.J. Hunsecker’s every movement is calm as opposed to how jitteriness felt from Sidney but regardless the direction keeps us close to the conversations and it’s always about what’s in the frame, paying close attention to the distance between characters even if just a few inches and remembering to give us a chance to observe the silent reactions to the horrible things being said. The ferociousness of the frame is always vivid as the camera follows Sidney’s own interest in what’s around him, even down to a subtle shift in shots moving in closer to the characters while keeping the same angle, forcing us to be closer to how that nastiness takes hold whether we like it or not. And in the way it knows how much the plotting of the film is in the abstract with the words spoken becoming its own form of jazz, which that music student eager to quiz Steve Dallas on his quartet is so eager to hear about but this is a world where no one explains themselves. You either know the language already or you don’t and the film always understands the meaning in those words, pausing to observe the silences as they take hold.
Unlike about a hundred other New York films that you can think of, there are no glorious scenic vista shots of Manhattan from overhead at the start of SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS. We’re right there in the middle of the island from the very first moment, seeing it just as the people in the movie do and the closest we ever get to a god’s eye view of the city from above is from the penthouse apartment terrace belonging to J.J. Hunsecker in the Brill Building (does the Brill Building have apartments? Did it ever?) as he overlooks his domain, fitting since he is, after all, god to this world that he rules. It still takes 20 minutes into the film before the character turns up in the flesh and it fittingly has to go to him, holding court at 21, as if he isn’t even in any rush to grace the film with his presence. And how many J.J. Hunsecker scenes are there in total, anyway? Nine? Ten? Whatever the number is, we see the full breadth of his character in that time and once in the film he takes full control even when the scene still technically belongs to Sidney, moving through it with the force of a jackal not quite ready to pounce on his prey and without a worry since no one is ever going to question him, glaring at everything through those glasses he uses as a shield. “I’ll clean my glasses for a better look,” he says at one point to mollify Suzy’s concerns over Steve but it’s those glasses that make him, the few times we do see him remove them it’s like he immediately has to move into darkness, his very being somehow incomplete. He keeps his ever-present sense of calm right up to the edge of physical violence and he knows that he barely has to move a muscle, a man so powerful that he barely puts on pretenses of politeness with people, cutting anyone who wants something down with all the honesty he cares to express. If he allows a peon like Sidney Falco to shine his shoes it would be out of the sheer goodness of his heart. ”Match me, Sidney,” J.J. threateningly tells him early on after cutting him down in front of others and maybe the only thing that keeps Sidney in good graces is declining at that point but he does eventually light that cigarette later on, right at the moment when J.J. casually threatens to take a baseball bat to his skull, the perfect phrasing to keep them totally in synch. As Sidney puts it, J.J. happens to be one of his best friends, after all.
We never quite know how far J.J.’s feelings for his sister go which is probably for the best, just as I’m never entirely clear on what’s up with their significant age difference. When we meet her Suzy seems proud to see Steve Dallas up on that stage and even relaxed enough around Sidney to joke with him but the way Susan Harrison plays her it’s like she shrinks as the film goes on, gradually becoming more fragile as if made of tissue paper to the point where it barely seems like acting. Seeing the film when younger I always got a little impatient whenever the film stayed with Steve and Suzy for too long as if they were lovers in a Marx Brothers movie taking time away from the good stuff. Now all these years later I know how essential they are to this world, their confusion held up against the greater forces they can’t control. Steve Dallas never comes off as the friendliest guy in the world to me but his integrity, as Sidney calls it, is always there, it’s just that he has no interest in playing anyone’s games so it’s clear what Suzy sees in him. He’s not her brother, after all. It still feels like the world around Steve Dallas has seeped into that stoicism, the way he throws around the “That’s fish four days old, I won’t buy it” phrasings but he still has to hold back his true feelings until Hunsecker gives him no choice. There’s not a shred of flippancy to him, ready to use everything he has to protect Suzy and her fur coat that he hates so much with the way Susan Harrison plays certain moments it’s as if she genuinely might not make it to the end of a take without collapsing.
The unrelenting darkness of SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS makes it at least noir adjacent although maybe it’s even nastier since the reasons for messing with people’s lives here are truly dark and complex, not for simple desires like love or money but for their own selfish glory and shot at even more power than they need. In other words, it’s more connected to the world we actually know and, besides, people destroy other people all the time and no one cares. Set over less than a day and a half and not even a particularly long film anyway, SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS is these characters, these words, the cold in the air that’s felt when Sidney doesn’t wear a topcoat to save on tips. It’s the way Burt Lancaster answers the phone late at night and places the receiver down, leaving the caller waiting even longer for the privilege to exchange a few words with him. And the way the glorious Elmer Bernstein score seemingly never stops except maybe for when Steve Dallas plays his guitar with Chico Hamilton and the film bristles with that pounding feeling, moving as fast as a shot from one point to the other. It never holds back on what Sidney Falco, a man looking to win at chess without realizing he’s playing checkers, might be willing to do but the film lets almost no one off the hook, even Barbara Nichols’ cigarette girl Rita who protests over what Sidney expects her to do is just as much a part of that world as he is. It’s just Rita wants Sidney to think she’s not that bad. And he probably doesn’t even care anyway.
Every moment of SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS is thrilling as it revels in that nastiness so much it becomes otherworldly, the story feeling cut to the bone, scraping away at it with no mercy and that pain is always felt since we see the hurt, we believe how far someone like Sidney will go for a shot at the brass ring. Even if it is one of the greatest screenplays ever put to film there are still a few places where it seems apparent dialogue was added after the fact to presumably clarify things (like early offscreen dialogue from Sidney to his secretary in order to explain the plot) but in some ways this reassures me that the people who made this film were still mortal. There’s still hope. Looking at the way Steve and Suzy are torn apart through all these machinations it feels like the start of the modern world, a lone man of righteous virtue bravely calling a demagogue using his power to chip away at anyone’s happiness he doesn’t personally approve of a “national disgrace” right to his face. “My big toe would make a better president” J.J. states after leaving his senator friend, a line in particular that I think of a lot in the past few years but I also suspect he wouldn’t mind doing it himself if it didn’t mean giving up that table at 21. When you live in this world, when you’re confronted with the hatred of those around you, it can force you to spend the rest of your life aware of the person you are. Even when Sidney Falco’s conscience finally nags at him he’s already too far gone for anyone, maybe even himself, to care. He’s just lost in the city up near the bridge, waiting, looking down but he’s still part of them and no better--this might be one of my favorite unsung moments in the film maybe just for the pure sense of New York in the shot with Sidney making his way up towards the bridge as traffic goes by, looking down at the club and what he’s putting into effect. Just as something bubbles up inside of me as Suzy walks off into the morning light of the film’s final shot, the frenzy of Elmer Bernstein’s masterful score reaching its conclusion. It’s impossible to avoid living in the world but when it comes to the life you’ve forced yourself into it can become clear that sometimes you just have to walk away.
And there’s the battle between the two phenomenal leads, Burt Lancaster and the sheer force of his imposing presence, unafraid to look people in the eye, intimidating them with just a few syllables. That feeling of pure ice he gives off is unforgettable and it’s as if you can see Burt Lancaster’s body shift when he realizes who he’s dealing with so when he spits out the legendary line “You’re a cookie full of arsenic,” it’s filled with that glorious combination of disgust and grudging admiration. The way every word slithers off his tongue is a form of perfection and Lancaster lives up to the poisonous legend that he is required to be. Through Sidney Falco’s nervousness and shallow veneer of confidence Tony Curtis gives what’s likely his best performance, snapping eagerly at every word he gets to speak and totally determined to keep himself in the ballgame, almost as if this press agent has been learning about his trade from seeing Kirk Douglas movies. The way he darts across shots plays like Sidney can’t go more than a few seconds without being noticed and staring people down as if daring them to call his bluff, unaware of how far the game he’s playing is going to go, forcing himself to look the other person in the eye as he tries to convince himself of his own awfulness. Backing them up is a remarkable cast with the nervous energy of Susan Harrison as Suzy, getting more and more fragile as the minutes tick b until all she has left is an ounce of determination that can save her alongside the more stoic conviction of Martin Milner and the way he keeps saying ‘smear’ as if the word rolling off his tongue is offensive to his very being. Plus there’s the self-loathing of Barbara Nichols as Rita telling Sidney off until there’s nothing left for her to do but give in, IN A LONELY PLACE’s Jeff Donnell as Sidney’s secretary, Emile Meyer as the cop Harry Kello calling at Sidney to come back so he can chastise him and the uncredited Lawrence Dobkin (endless credits in front of and behind the camera—his final role was a 2001 appearance on POPULAR) as rival columnist Leo Bartha pushed to his limits via attempted blackmail, particularly strong in his few minutes onscreen.
So may as well pick up the pace again. I’ve got some things I need to figure out. Just can’t lose sight. Even during the day. J. J. Hunsecker is mostly based on the legendary columnist Walter Winchell who in the world we live in now is largely forgotten (but if you’re interested, the 1994 biography by Neal Gabler is pretty great) but this film is still alive, powerful enough that it still has a hold, you still feel the desperation that comes through as the New York feel pulsates through every scene and it’s one of the most rewatchable films for those late hours where you can’t decide if you want to be in the center of the world or hide away from it as long as possible. There are few other films like it, few that have this sort of power. Just as Sidney Falco finally realizes, it’s a reminder of how close you can get to your dreams as you find out for yourself what you were willing to do, what some people around you actually did do and what all that means for the people they turned out to be. Maybe all you’re left with is the rush of those moments where you came close. That’s what the New York of SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS was, that’s what Los Angeles usually feels like now. Still, as always, I love this dirty town and as long as that’s the case the hold this film has on me will be one I completely understand.