Tuesday, May 12, 2009

The Great Movies: "Sweet Smell of Success"

Sweet Smell of Success
Alexander Mackendrick, 1957

It is hard for a modern viewer to suspend disbelief in Sweet Smell of Success, which is set in a world where all power is concentrated in the hands of that most powerful and feared of all great men: the newspaper gossip columnist. Well, everyone knows that the print journalist has been laid low by the mighty blogger. Yet even in our glorious age of allegedly decentralized access to information, there persist people with a great deal of power and other people who eke out a living by brokering access to them. So although its specific referants are obsolete, Sweet Smell of Success can still be read as a general study of the ancient and eternal craft of toadying.

Unlike Ebert, though, I don't find the relationship between the two main characters -- the columnist and the publicity agent desperate to remain in his favor -- particularly interesting. What I liked about this movie instead was its immersion in the popular culture of the early 1950s. The setting is the night clubs of New York at the last moment in American history when the cool, trendy kids weren't actually kids; they were adults. They put on formal clothes to go out to expensive clubs and listen to sophisticated jazz combos. Within a few years, the beatniks would wrest the torch of hipness from their elders and hide it away in the dress-down dives where various strands of rock music and other forms of radical behavior would incubate and from which the youth-obsessed popular culture we know and love today would eventually emerge. But Sweet Smell of Success revels in its dying moment of postwar jazz sophistication, its cameras prowling the clubs as if they, like the lead characters, were on a first-name basis with every waiter and doorman.

The supporting characters in Sweet Smell of Success are often more interesting than the somewhat one-dimensional leads. Pay attention to the movie's best scene, in which a rival columnist discovers to his own great surprise that he'd rather admit an infidelity to his wife than be blackmailed into ruining a stranger's career. That three minutes of screen time is worth the price of your ticket.

Plot: A powerful newspaper guy doesn't want his sister, with whom he has a decidedly creepy relationship, to get married. He commands a press agent who depends on his patronage to break up the relationship. The movie is not, as you might expect, about the moral choice that the press agent must make -- he feels vaguely bad about splitting up the happy young couple, but barely hesitates in fulfilling his commission. It's more about the practical problems he encounters in contriving to make people miserable. Put another way, you could say the movie is about the limits of power when applied against people who are fundamentally decent.

Visuals: Slick! Mackendrick's New York City is stark neon light against deep black night. Filmed on location, it looks as picture-perfect as any set ever could.

Dialog: Straight out of the noir tradition, heavy on the wisecracks and the hard-bitten cynicism. Plenty of casual cruelty to the womenfolk, which to the film's credit is clearly portrayed as such. Underlain by a fabulous steamy jazz soundtrack composed by Elmer Bernstein.

Prognosis: Hardly a must-see, but a good pick for fans of jazz, the 1950s, the history of the New York club scene, or, you know, the dynamics of power as enacted at the level of lived experience. If we have any sociologists in the house.


Chance said...

On the other hand, I was bowled over by the acting of the two leads in this film. Lancaster in particular, I thought, plays one of his most charismatic roles, which is saying a lot for the guy who played the heavy in Seven Days In May and the con man Elmer Gantry.

Bill from NJ said...

Tony Curtis and Burt Lancaster were at their very best in this movie. But it is not the leads but the milieu that got to me. A 30s movie made in the 50s created a kind of time warp.

I am in my early 60s and I have no direct experience with anything in this movie but this bygone past still resonates with me. To some people the yearning for some aspect of the past like the Old West or the Round Table moves them,
something a little more concrete than this era.

Maybe it is the set of ideas that move me.