film

Old School Review: "Sweet Smell of Success" (1957)

Written by Ernest Lehman and Clifford Odets and directed by Alexander Mackendrick, “Sweet Smell of Success” is a noir thriller that focuses on the cutthroat world of New York City Columnists and the Press Agents that supply them with articles designed to praise or attack their subjects to the whim of those in power. This is the third film of Mackendrick’s that I’ve seen thus far and while he may not have been the auteur “personality” filmmaker of his day, he was a damn good filmmaker that got the job done with efficiency and skill, and I admire that. This film, is a different caliber of quality than “The Ladykillers” or “The Man in The White Suit” however, it’s got an edge to it that his previous films lacked. There’s an urgency about our protagonist Sidney Falco (Tony Curtis), a press agent whose voracious appetite for power and status propels the film’s momentum along swimingly. However it isn’t Falco alone that holds our interests, for Falco is but one half of one of the more interesting symbiotic relationships in film history. That other half is J.J. Hunsecker (Burt Lancaster), the most powerful columnist in Broadway whose ability to crush or knight stars, musicians, and performers alike keeps him atop the throne.

The crux of the conflict in “Sweet Smell of Success” is a fascinating evolution between both Falco and Hunsecker who both admire and despise each other. Sidney starts the film trying to recapture J.J.’s favor- as he’s failed to disrupt the relationship of the powerful J.J.’s younger sister Susan (Susan Harrison) and a local Jazz Musician Steve Dallas (Martin Milner). Renewed with fresh tenacity Sidney gets to work from his apartment/office by biting at leads and brainstorming a way back into Hunsecker’s column, if he can’t get his clients work into Hunsecker’s column, his bills don’t get paid. Eventually Sidney gets creative and blackmails J.J.’s rival to publish a character assassination on Dallas by claiming that he’s a marijuana user and a commie, but Sidney goes one step further and plants a joint in Dallas’ jacket to further complicate the young lovers’ predictament. Once J.J. hears of Sidney’s plan, the two work together with their slimy aggression in the third act and it’s almost scary how efficient and ruthless the two men are when they have shared goals. In the end though both men lose, with Sidney getting a beatdown in the streets for his sins and J.J. losing the only connection to his family left when his sister utterly rejects him. Sidney’s “Dog-Eat-Dog” mantra comes full circle by the time the film’s final scene ends, quite fitting for world established in the film.

What really stood out to me with this film wasn’t just the stellar direction choices (everything feels highly analytical but yet authentic for the later 1950s), but rather the characterization paired with the writing. These characters aren’t only memorable, they’re realistic. Burt Lancaster’s J.J. Hunsecker is only a Column organizer on Broadway- but the way he’s depicted and how he manuvers through his world makes him feel as threatening as a mob boss or a calculating killer. Not to mention Sidney Falco, Tony Curtis’ acting choices and snappy, snarling, nature make him feel both charming and yet as dangerous as a sniper in war. You may not see him from his point of attack, but his accuracy is deadly. I also have to take the time to mention Mackendrick’s particularly sharp blocking choices. Even when he’s got Falco darting through his office like a shark as he’s working the phones, he has Falco’s secretary working as the foil character, asking him all of the questions any audience perspective character might be asking- but Falco barely acknowledges her questions as he works, giving only half answers and nods. It’s like Mackendrick’s telling the audience, “Don’t worry, I know you’ve got questions but just trust me”.

If you’re after another classic American film and haven’t caught this one yet, I highly recommend it. As with most of my older film watching habits, I caught this one through the Criterion Collection’s streaming service as they had a recent collection of Burt Lancaster films, and I again must endorse the Criterion Channel and their many offerings. It’s an especially fun film to throw in the mix if you’re going through a Noir phase. Check it out!

Final Score: 1 Press Agent, 1 Columnist

film

Old School Review: “The Man in the White Suit” (1951)

Written by Roger MacDougall, John Dighton, and Alexander Mackendrick, and directed by Mackendrick, “The Man in the White Suit” is a satirical comedy set in the laboratories of several textile-based companies in early 1950’s London. Alec Guinness stars as Sidney Stratton, a chemistry genius working on the latest applications to fibers in the textile industry, though he prefers to work back in the corners, unseen. Sidney is initially fired from the first laboratory we encounter him in once the accountants find his costly receipts. Once he’s gotten a job over at the Birnley mill, albeit as a lowly laborer initially, he makes friends with the blue collar workers such as Bertha (Vida Hope) as well as Daphne (Joan Greenwood) the daughter of the industry mogul, Alan Birnley (Cecil Parker) himself.

Sidney eventually becomes an unpaid researcher at Birnley by gushing over new machines arriving in the laboratory, exposing his knowledge and skill. It isn’t long before he’s back at work on his everlasting fiber theory, and after a series of explosive attempts he succeeds in creating a fabric that never wears down, repels dirt, and is unrealistically durable. Both the heads of industry and the blue collar workers initially believe the eureka moment to be innovative, groundbreaking, grand even– until they realize what a perfect clothing fiber would mean to their industry and livelihoods. Sidney then crafts a suit, with a luminous white glow, to showcase his miracle. The rest of the film is devoted to the hi-jinks that befall Sidney as he attempts to contact the press and move his product to sale.

With both the Industry titans and the mob of the masses initially suspecting each of revolting against the other, it was quite entertaining seeing Sidney attempt to sidestep each group and outwit them. The industry titans try bribing and tricking him to sign away his rights to the fiber while Sidney’s working-class friends try to talk him out of this to save their jobs. With only Daphne on his side Sidney almost gets away with his miracle of fabric, until both the kings of industry and the working class realize that for once, they’re on the same side. The last few scenes are of Sidney literally running through the streets in his white suit being chased by mobs of people until he’s cornered. Someone from the crowd grabs at him, and tears a piece of the suit off. To their shock and relief the crowd of rich and poor alike burst into boisterous revelry as dozens of hands reach out to rip off pieces of Sidney’s suit. After the revelation that the chemically enhanced fiber deteriorates over time, Sidney is fired from Birnley’s Mill and seems down on his luck as he’s leaving the mill. That is, until he looks back at his notes one last time, his eyes widen, and he smiles as he defiantly remarks, “Of Course!” before running off down the street- presumably to find a new laboratory to perfect the latest correction to his everlasting fiber.

Final Score: 1 White Suit and 1 Man’s ambition