- The Washington Times - Friday, January 6, 2006

“Sweet Smell of Success” was always an ironic title, alluding to principal characters who exemplified spite and malice. Sarcastic, manipulative comic grotesques Sidney Falco and J.J. Hunsecker, portrayed by Tony Curtis and Burt Lancaster as a terminally depraved protege and mentor, specialize in vendettas and unscrupulous career advancement within a setting of tawdry big-city journalism and show business.

Most of the film’s episodes occur between dusk and dawn. The action is confined to an area of Manhattan bordered by Times Square and a nightclub corridor around 57th Street, circa 1957.Broadway is the artery that links them, geographically and metaphorically.

Shooting began in December 1956 with night locations in New York, and the movie was released in the summer of 1957 to popular shock and distaste. But “Sweet Smell” transcended its initial commercial failure within a matter of years. Rebounding as a durable unsavory classic in the repertory circuit, it preserves much of the cynical humor and impact that appealed to original admirers.

I was one of them, a 15-year-old high school student at the time. As a pleasurable moviegoing experience of the sinister, amoral kind (the term “guilty pleasure” hadn’t been coined yet) “Sweet Smell” was rivaled in my estimation only by Orson Welles’ “Touch of Evil” a year later. I’m not sure there’s been any improvement on their stylization of vice in the act of outsmarting itself.

“Sweet Smell of Success” is being shown today, Sunday and Wednesday at the American Film Institute Silver Theatre.This brief revival is part of a posthumous career tribute to screenwriter and producer Ernest Lehman, who died in July at age 85. The material, which originated in his novelette published in Cosmopolitan in 1950, reflects his professional apprenticeship in the 1940s with a prominent Broadway press agent named Irving Hoffman, a close associate of the newspaper columnist Walter Winchell.

The author took some pains to identify Hunsecker as a fictionalized rival to such established columnists as Mr. Winchell and Ed Sullivan.Nevertheless, Mr. Lehman’s background was too well known to escape notice among insiders. It was assumed that Hunsecker — also described as a kind of Napoleonic half-pint before being embodied by the physically imposing Burt Lancaster — was a Winchell caricature.

“Sweet Smell” provoked a falling out between Mr. Lehman and Mr. Hoffman, who buried the hatchet a few years later by touting his former protege as a promising recruit to the movies when writing a column for the Hollywood Reporter.

Hollywood at large had shown interest in “Sweet Smell” from the outset, but Mr. Lehman remained leery about selling the film rights, largely because of his former boss’ resentment.

Hired by the surging independent company Hecht-Hill-Lancaster, in which the actor was linked with producing partners named Harold Hecht and James Hill, Mr. Lehman also sold them “Sweet Smell.” Originally, he intended to make it a debut directing project.

In the course of completing a first draft, he was stricken with a spastic colon (possibly aggravated by day-to-day contact with his new employers) and advised to take a rest cruise to Tahiti.

A Scots-American named Alexander Mackendrick (1902-93), noted for a trio of exceptional comedies — “Whisky Galore,” “The Man in the White Suit” and “The Ladykillers” — was assigned to “Sweet Smell.” The unfinished screenplay was entrusted to Clifford Odets (1906-63).

Although years removed from his fame as a Broadway playwright and Hollywood transplant, Mr. Odets used the opportunity to put an indelible, idiomatic stamp on the Lehman material.A new book that recalls Mr. Mackendrick’s post-Hollywood career as a film teacher, “On Film-Making,” also clarifies how much Mr. Odets contributed to the movie’s most dynamic and memorable sequences.

Moviegoers always took it for granted they were hearing a distinctive Odets touch in the salty and hyperbolic dialogue for “Sweet Smell of Success.”An exchange such as “Are you listening to me?” and “Avidly, avidly.” A rhetorical stroke such as “Conjugate me a verb, Sidney; for instance, to promise.”An overcalculated mouthful such as “He has the morals of a guinea pig and the scruples of a gangster.”

The Mackendrick memoir also cherishes Clifford Odets as a script doctor more intent on shoring up and complicating characterizations. The director recalls him confiding, “My dialogue may seem somewhat overwritten, too wordy, too contrived.Don’t let it worry you. You’ll find that it works if you don’t bother too much about the lines themselves. Play the situations, not the words.And play them fast.”

It was good advice.

The wrangles are played fast, and the quickness is reinforced on the pictorial side by James Wong Howe’s whip-fast black-and-white cinematography. In the days before zoom lenses, his camera seems to be on an expertly lubricated swivel while observing encounters and conversations. Sometimes it’s also in wonderful sync with Elmer Bernstein’s musical cues.At one point the coda of a jazz number played by the Chico Hamilton Quintet coincides brilliantly with the blink of auto headlights as a danger signal.

Mr. Mackendrick cherished the movie in particular for his association with Mr. Odets, whom he regarded as a creative revelation. “I slowly began to recognize,” he wrote, “that I was being given the privilege of watching the processes of a dramatic intelligence working out the intricacies of character interaction. … Retaining only the essentials of a scene, [Mr. Odets] would then switch points of view as he improvised the complementary reactions of another figure.Once more the scene would expand and once more Clifford would drastically cut it down. … It often required him to produce a number of drafts of dialogue that were progressively dismantled and then cannibalized. … At each successive stage [he created] a piece of writing with more and more density and sinew.”

TITLE: “Sweet Smell of Success”

RATING:No MPAA Rating (made years before the advent of the ratings system — adult subject matter and treatment, with systematic unsavory elements and occasional violence and sexual candor)

CREDITS: Directed by Alexander Mackendrick.Screenplay by Clifford Odets and Ernest Lehman, based on a short story by Mr. Lehman. Cinematography by James Wong Howe

RUNNING TIME: 97 minutes


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