Sweet Smell, bitter flavour

Animal references abound in Sweet Smell of Success, a deeply cynical film that makes the hard and glittery New York City into one of its characters. Protagonist Sidney Falco is called a dog, a snake and said to have the scruples of a guinea hen. Why the harsh treatment? All becomes clear when Sidney lies constantly and loudly, as if volume were equivalent to veracity. He'll bully, spy and sell his friends just to please the immensely powerful J.J. Hunsecker. Sidney is J.J.'s lapdog in what he calls a dog-eat-dog world.

J.J. is a mob boss and Sidney his henchman alright, but this criminal underworld is located firmly in show business. As the well-structured screenplay unfolds naturalistically, we witness newspaper columnist and television personality J.J. keep a tight grip on everyone from senators to cops on down. J.J. controls what's more important than money or power in the burgeoning media age--image. It's a savvy observation by screenwriters Clifford Odets and Ernest Lehmann that may be even truer today.

J.J.'s tight grip over his timid kid sister Susie is threatened when she decides to marry her boyfriend Steve. Obsessed with Susie, J.J. secretly schemes with Sidney, a publicity agent like screenwriter Lehmann. And to make sure that J.J. features his clients in the column, Sidney will do anything to break up the romance. As J.J.'s secretary Mary observes astutely, Sidney is "immersed in a theology of making a fast buck."

As dark and perverse as noirs are, most feature likable or sympathetic main characters: the wisecracking detective, the woman outsmarts her victimizer, the obsessed who will do anything for love. Sweet Smell ditches that. Sidney and J.J. are villains and there's nothing, save the few looks of guilt that surface on Sidney's face before vanishing, to make us feel sympathetic. It's a radical move that predates the Vietnam-era genesis of the antihero in films of the 1960s and 1970s.

Scheming Sidney is performed with great gusto by Tony Curtis, who's completely unafraid of appearing at his worst. What does creating such an image in an image-conscious world say about Curtis? Hiding his golden good looks behind thick-rimmed glasses and a crew cut, Burt Lancaster is stiffly imperious as J.J. Susan Harrison comes off best as her timid Susie's exterior masks a quiet and increasingly strong-minded will. Cinematographer James Wong Howe films nighttime New York with astounding clarity and depth.

Sidney is hard to take and harder to dismiss. All his lying and scheming are in service of his desire to get rich quick, to live the American Dream. Sure, we all want to live the dream. But we would never do what he does. Or would we? Primetime television is glutted with game shows whose contestants lie and scheme against each other. The best backstabber earns a huge cash prize and more importantly, earns great ratings from viewers. At a time when betraying your friends is a national viewing pastime, Sweet Smell's bitterness has lost none of its edge.

(July 10, 2001)

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