Alexander Mackendrick's "Sweet Smell of Success"
April 14, 2012 7:23 PM   Subscribe

"A Movie Marked Danger" - a Vanity Fair article on Sweet Smell of Success (1957), directed by Alexander Mackendrick, screenplay by Clifford Odets and Ernest Lehman, cinematography by James Wong Howe, soundtrack by Elmer Bernstein. (previously)

Steve's band is portrayed by the real life jazz quintet led by drummer Chico Hamilton. To hear what they truly sounded like at the time of the film, listen to this recording of "Topsy" from Chico Hamilton Quintet in Hi-Fi.
posted by Trurl (22 comments total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
There are only two stars who are stars from the neck down, and they are [George C.] Scott and Burt Lancaster. Both of them somehow give the feeling that if you say the wrong thing to them in an irritating enough way, they will kill you. Lancaster would kill you with grace and speed; Scott would brute-strength you to death. - William Goldman, The Season: A Candid Look at Broadway
posted by Trurl at 7:23 PM on April 14, 2012 [1 favorite]

This is one of my most favorite movies ever. It is like a magnificent cocktail of cynicism and despair.
posted by Sidhedevil at 7:26 PM on April 14, 2012 [7 favorites]

I have the script for this, signed by Ernest Lehman. When I had Lehman sign it, I told him how much I liked the dialogue, which is full of gems like these:

Watch me run a 50-yard dash with my legs cut off!

You're dead, son. Get yourself buried.

Son, I don't relish shooting a mosquito with an elephant gun, so why don't you just shuffle along?

The cat's in a bag and the bag's in a river.

I'd hate to take a bite outta you. You're a cookie full of arsenic.

Lehman seemed nonplussed. I later found out that he had been unable to complete the script due to illness, and Odets had been brought in to finish it in what everybody assumed would be a quick fix. Instead, what happened was that Odets took four months to completely rewrite the script, using the basic structure but revising every single scene, to the point that the film began shooting before the script was completed. This was especially disheartening for Lehman, because the film was based on a short story he had written about a press agent he had worked for, who had not spoken to him for a year and a half after the story was published, and then suggested he might make a good screenwriter, which led to his work in Hollywood.

I can see why it stung for him to see what was, essentially, somebody else's script presented to him. But he was very gracious and signed it, and I still treasure it.
posted by Bunny Ultramod at 7:32 PM on April 14, 2012 [12 favorites]

One of the greatest of the great films. Pretty sure the "cat's in the bag" line was written by Odets just minutes before being shot. I think Curtis gives that anecdote somewhere.
posted by You Should See the Other Guy at 8:04 PM on April 14, 2012

The first time you see Lancaster it's just an image of his eyes looking out at you from the side of a newspaper truck. It's a great introduction to the character, one of the best in film history. Still one of my favourite films of all time.
posted by Phlegmco(tm) at 8:08 PM on April 14, 2012 [1 favorite]

Oh, and one of my favorite anecdotes about Lehman comes from Edward Albee. Lehman did the adaptation of Albee's play Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?. Due to length and "racey" content, a number of lines had to be cut from the play. Regarding these changes, Albee said: "Yeah, and two lines were added by Lehman. Both bad."
posted by You Should See the Other Guy at 8:09 PM on April 14, 2012 [1 favorite]

I love this movie. It was the first Blu Ray I bought when I got my Blu Ray player. It is, for my money, the single greatest film noir ever made. Tony Curtis turned in the performance of his career as Sydney Falco in this movie. And Burt Lancaster! J.J. Hunsecker is the single most terrifying villian ever put on screen..
posted by KingEdRa at 8:25 PM on April 14, 2012

Wow, that 7-page Vanity Fair article is fantastic, Trurl; thanks for the great find. It's filled with fascinating detail about the making of the film - Lehman's original short story, which caused press agents to get up and leave places like The Stork Club and '21' when Lehman entered the room, the violence- and sex-drenched atmosphere of Burt Lancaster's production company ("They were the most corrupt group. I really sank into the depths when I decided to work with them"...Instead of using the project to atone for "having done some pretty terrible things as a press agent," Lehman felt he’d entered a whole new level of corruption), the struggles to get Odets to finish writing the damn thing before they stopped filming it, Odets giving Tony Curtis the key to Sidney Falco ("Don’t be still...Don’t ever let Sidney sit down comfortably. I want Sidney constantly moving, like an animal, never quite sure who’s behind him or where he is"), the asshole reaction of the film's obvious target Walter Winchell....tons and tons of great stuff.

It's a brilliant, scabrous, beautiful and (often overlooked) darkly hilarious little film. For what it's worth, I watch a lot of movies but feel the need to own very few - Baraka, Smiles of a Summer Night, Style Wars and a couple others. But I will always have a copy of Sweet Smell of Success around the house. It's one of the greatest Hollywood films I've ever seen.
posted by mediareport at 8:44 PM on April 14, 2012 [2 favorites]

I love this film. The dialog is a drawer full of razor blades flung recklessly open in the heat of a domestic dispute. Mrs. Creature won't watch it with me because it is just a little too bleak for her. Of course for me that is part of its charm. Scorching. Breathtaking. Blistering beauty and withering rage.

It's like a single malt scotch of misanthropic malificence. So good.
posted by Doleful Creature at 9:06 PM on April 14, 2012 [2 favorites]

Lehman felt he’d entered a whole new level of corruption

To be fair, Hill/Hecht/Lancaster didn't think much of him, either. I can't say for certain but I believe I've read that they preferred Odets to Lehman and that Lehman's exile was not quite as self-imposed as he's always tried to put out there.
posted by You Should See the Other Guy at 9:13 PM on April 14, 2012

Yeah, that's in the Vanity Fair piece:

When the doctor called to say that Lehman was leaving the picture, two of the partners turned to each other and said at the same time: “I hope the son of a bitch dies.”
posted by mediareport at 9:18 PM on April 14, 2012 [1 favorite]

Of course I meant maleficence. With an e, like evil. BLARG EDIT WINDOW
posted by Doleful Creature at 9:20 PM on April 14, 2012

Burt Lancaster always seemed always on the verge of overtheatricality to me (I'm watching him as swashbuckler right now in "The Crimson Pirate," which with its over-the-top histrionics and physicality is the ideal role for him) -- that's why I always admired him but never quite loved him as an actor -- that is, until I saw "Sweet Smell of Success," one of the most perfect movies ever made -- a movie in which he mostly does very little business other than sitting or standing still, glowering, seething, or killing with one strategically placed glare.
posted by blucevalo at 9:34 PM on April 14, 2012

To hear what they truly sounded like at the time of the film, listen to this recording yt of "Topsy" from Chico Hamilton Quintet in Hi-Fi.

Bizarrely the image on the youtube video is of a Quintet album, but the actual recording is clearly a quartet date (as the description indicates, as well)—no cello.
posted by kenko at 10:51 PM on April 14, 2012

(Relevant in part because when wossname playing the guitarist fobs off the curious audience member on Katz, early on, saying "he writes all this stuff", it was true in real life of much of the Quintet's material.)
posted by kenko at 11:32 PM on April 14, 2012 [1 favorite]

Fantastic movie. And it shows-up on TCM quite regularly!

One of the big stars of the film is the absolutely gorgeous b/w location photography. Everything at night...when the vermin come out.
posted by Thorzdad at 4:55 AM on April 15, 2012

the actual recording is clearly a quartet date

Yeah, I was puzzled over this. However, according to AllMusic, that song does appear on that album.

So either:

- This isn't that song.

- It's a song on which one of the musicians sat out.

- It's a quartet recording used as a bonus track for the CD.
posted by Trurl at 6:56 AM on April 15, 2012

I make little one-paragraph mini-reviews of all the films I watch over at Critickerand this is what I wrote when I saw Sweet Smell of Success a few months ago:

"Grabs you by the throat during the opening credits and doesn't let go for 96 minutes. A cynical and damning satire on celebrity, greed, ambition and power, it has two of the most ruthless characters in film history, immensely quotable hard-boiled dialogue, an amazing jazz score by Elmer Bernstein and cinematography that makes New York look even sleazier than it did in Taxi Driver. A film noir that depicts every kind of darkness you can think of."

Still, it's only my second favourite noir, behind Double Indemnity.
posted by afx237vi at 6:57 AM on April 15, 2012 [2 favorites]

How awesome is this movie? Let me count the ways. You will be astounded at the infinite variations the screenwriters came up with to have Burt Lancaster insult Tony Curtis. There are so many memorable lines in the film that the film's devotees can all have different favorite lines. And, when you say these lines, you feel so badass that it's like a Chico Hamilton soundtrack is playing along with you as walk badassedly down the street.
posted by jonp72 at 8:50 AM on April 15, 2012 [1 favorite]

It's funny---when writing under his own name, Odets produced so many crappy scripts, full of dialogue that's too on-the-nose and thuddingly faux-poetic. But this script is very clearly his voice, and it's perfect. I think Odets may be one of those writers who does better work the less he cares.
posted by ThatFuzzyBastard at 9:08 AM on April 15, 2012

wow, interesting film, would never have gotten around to looking at it if not for this post.

nearly the final shot, Hunsecker's sister walks out of a building, apparently Hunsecker's apartment building, near Times Square. You can read the door lintel: "Brill Building," it says.

I was also struck by the difference in urban place seen n this film with comparison to Kiss Me Deadly, recently seen by me and released only a couple years later. Los Angeles looks like the city of the distant future in contrast to the New York of Sweet Smell of Success.

Finally, there was a thread around here recently could not put my finger on about various noirs in which someone noted that a film character in the context of a specific noir described as an art dealer with an appreciation for Chinese antiquities was a character intended to be perceived by the audience as gay. I note in passing that Hunsecker's apartment is entirely decorated and architecturally themed in Chinoiserie. Is that specific association an intentional one, meant to apply to Hunsecker in this film as well?
posted by mwhybark at 11:12 PM on April 15, 2012

oops, i got the release dates backwards for the films. Kiss Me Deadly still makes 1955 LA look like the Jetsons in contrast to this film.
posted by mwhybark at 11:15 PM on April 15, 2012

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