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All Angles Covered

by Shawn Stone on March 9, 2011

Sweet Smell of Success

delicious poison

Sweet Smell of Success (Criterion)

Clifford Odets’ dialogue for Sweet Smell of Success plays like it was written with, to borrow a line from another movie, “a goose quill dipped in venom.” Smell is a tale of old Broadway which luxuriates in sordidness. Here are three particularly piquant examples:

“I’d hate to take a bite out of you. You’re a cookie full of arsenic.”

“Start thinking with your head instead of your hips. . . . By the way, I got nothing against women thinking with their hips. That’s their nature.”

“The cat’s in the bag, and the bag’s in the river.”

Smell is the story of a vicious, all-powerful newspaper columnist (Burt Lancaster) and his press-agent flunky, a seductive climber who’d pimp his girl for a dirty favor (Tony Curtis). Set to a soundtrack of chamber jazz provided by the Chico Hamilton Quintet and a deliciously bombastic orchestral variant cooked up by Elmer Bernstein, the film is alive with high-stakes schemes driven by the basest of motives.

If the movie lays it on a little thick at times, at least the nasty spell is never broken. Director Alexander Mackendrick, who had made a series of memorable, increasingly dark comedies in England, shot the stunning exteriors in New York and the claustrophobic interiors in Hollywood without any loss of verisimilitude.

Odets developed the final version of the screenplay from an early draft written by Ernest Lehman, who adapted it from his own novella. How this happened is detailed in the booklet that comes with the new Criterion Collection editions (Blu-ray and DVD) of the film. As is standard with that company, the image quality is superb; midtown Manhattan, captured in crisp black & white images by cinematographer James Wong Howe, shines in all its vanished midcentury glory.

What’s truly special here is the backstory of how Sweet Smell of Success came to be, as revealed through the package’s essays, commentaries and documentaries. It’s a primer in the collaborative nature of the art.

The booklet includes ex-press agent Lehman’s original stories about these characters, columnist J.J. Hunsecker (based on the real-life Walter Winchell) and press agent Sidney Falco; an excerpt from Alexander Mackendrick’s book On Film-making; and a perceptive, joyous essay by Gary Giddins, who correctly tags Curtis’ performance as the heart of the film.

The documentary extras are choice. They include a portrait of Mackendrick made for Scottish TV in the 1980s; a primer on cinematography from the 1970s with Howe; and a new interview with Walter Winchell biographer Neal Gabler. Gabler puts the film in context, and levels the most trenchant criticism against it: Burt Lancaster’s columnist is too monstrous. We’re supposed to believe that Hunsecker is loved by millions of readers, when he’s truly repellant. The real Winchell was astutely fictionalized in the early ’30s play and film Blessed Event, starring motor-mouthed Lee Tracy. Tracy was still around when Smell was made, in 1957, and one wonders what he would have done with the part. (One also wonders when Warner Home Video will get around to releasing the great Blessed Event.)

Even with this problematic lead character, Smell is compulsively watchable; it’s a testament to Lancaster’s magnetism that he’s so entertainingly vile. And the film itself is, well, like a cookie full of arsenic.

shoot that varmint

Bargain Bin

Each month your dedicated collector will troll remainder bins for choice DVDs. These two offerings turned up, $3 each, at a Big Lots.

Frank D. Gilroy’s Desperate Characters is a pleasingly sour portrait of middle-age Brooklynites—passive housewife Sophie (Shirley MacLaine) and tightly-wound lawyer Otto (Kenneth Mars)—trying to pretend that their lives aren’t ruined. At 88 minutes, it’s a sketch with choice details: the abrupt dinner conversations; the tedious chore of turning a burglar alarm on and off; the weariness with friends and their problems. Released in 1971, it has a naturalistic presentation of sex that’s provocative now. The allegorical bits are unfortunate, like the stray cat who’s either a harbinger of doom or a hapless victim of privileged paranoia. The latter leads to a revealing moment, though; Otto’s so emotionally shrivelled, the only time he even fakes sympathy is when he’s rotten to the cat.

Desperate Characters was part of a package of Paramount titles released by Legend Films a couple of years ago; Henry Hathaway’s The Trail of the Lonesome Pine, part of Universal’s Legacy series, was Paramount’s first big outdoor Technicolor epic. It’s gorgeous. Set in the mountains of Kentucky, it’s unconvincing as a portrait of life among the hillbillies at the moment civilization, in the form of a mining company, arrives. It’s terrific, though, as a romantic melodrama peppered with action; radiant Sylvia Sidney was no hillbilly, but Hathaway makes it clear why Henry Fonda and Fred MacMurray would fight over her. And the story’s surprising emphasis on forgiveness and self-sacrifice rings true.