Night and Day Film Noir Series February 2013: Alexander Mackendrick’s The Sweet Smell of Success

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Continuing our ongoing conversation with Brandon Ryan, the Artistic Director of Man Alone Productions, half of the podcast team behind The Thrilling Adventures of Brandon and Shane which he co-hosts with Shane Regan, and the curator behind Central Cinema’s Night and Day: Classic and Modern Film Noir series, wherein we talk the copious trivia and ephemera in, about and around film noir classics in general. The conversation thus far has covered Carol Reed’s The Third Man, Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity, Christopher Nolan’s Memento, Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil, Howard Hawks’ The Big Sleep, and Rian Johnson’s Brick.

In this entry, Ryan and the Star’s José Amador discuss Alexander Mackendrick’s Sweet Smell of Success, the diverse nature of Tony Curtis’ career and personal life, Burt Lancaster’s artistic instincts, the role the HUAC had in the development of Film Noir, and, somehow, the lyrics to Chuck Berry’s “Johnny B Goode.”

SStar: What attracted you to Sweet Smell of Success?

BR: There’s an ongoing thread of moral corruptibility that flows through most film noirs. It’s an intriguing element that appeals to some dark side of me. Sweet Smell of Success is overflowing with it–you can actually watch Tony Curtis’s character slowly lose his soul throughout the film. It is a shocking and understandable thing to watch and process, made even more effective by the short and condensed timeline of the film. The entire film takes place over two hectic days of scamming and scraping by in the bright lights of the dark city.

I don’t know much about Curtis’s filmography, other than by reputation. But there is a trifecta of films where he really does shine. His pretty-boy-ness is funneled into a perfect cypher for Some Like It Hot. He does a frikkin’ Cary Grant impersonation for half of that film, and it’s awesome! His performance in the Boston Strangler is quite lovely. The quiet stillness of him is made even more effective because of the very fact that we’ve never seen or expected this type of performance from him, for that matter.
Kind of like Punch Drunk Love with Adam Sandler. Both of those performances, Curtis’ and Sandler’s, are shockingly beautiful and more heightened, simply because of the artist who is giving them has never shown the range or aptitude for sort kind of work before. Sandler gives us Punch Drunk Love, and then slaps us in the face with endless overgrown man child films. Frustrating.

Same could be said for Curtis to a degree. His bread and butter work were light-hearted comedies that required no more from him than a pretty smile and some kind of charming misunderstanding. But those two other films and Success proved that he could really dig deep and show us something amazing. I assume he did some quality work for his Oscar nominated performance in The Defiant Ones, though I’ve yet to see it.

SStar: Same here. I’ll Tony Curtis is one of my cultural blind spots. Much as I loved Some Like It Hot, the only real impression I have of him is based on his performance in Kubrick’s Spartacus and the thinly veiled homoeroticism of that particular role. So, I’m interested in seeing him in this.
Oh, and Stony Curtis, of course. How could I forget? I loved how Betty and Wilma went all gooey for Stony Curtis.

BR: Do you mean this?

SStar: Yep.

BR: Yeah, I just have pieces of him in my memory. The homoerotic snail references from Spartacus. His Brooklyn accent coming through in accidentally hilarious ways in Spartucus and The Vikings. His huge bravado when recollecting his films during interviews from the 90’s.

SStar: Did he ever come out of the closet, or am I mixing him up with someone else?

BR: He was very open about his bisexuality

SStar: Wonder if he ever had dealings with the kind of corrupt gossip monger he plays in this film.

BR: He seemed pretty open about it, from what I could tell–even proud of his virility. “Being able to conquer all sexes” kind of thing. From what I could gather, anyways.

SStar: Wasn’t he something of a force in making sure Success happened?

BR: I was unaware of Curtis having any sway in getting it made. As far as I knew he had to fight for the role because it was a huge break from his pretty-boy roles. Burt Lancaster, on the other hand, produced the film. Is that who you’re referring to? Ole Burty boy?

He’s a fascinating dude too. He was definitely one of those personality actors. But he made some really cool films and randomly stretched himself away from his macho-wide-shouldered-tough-guy roles. He was one of the first actors to form his own production company and produce things. Side note: He actually produced the film Marty as a way to gain a tax break/write off in an effort to raise capital for his 1956 Carol Reed film Trapeze. And then, Marty went on to win the Best Picture Oscar in 1955. I’m sure it was more than just a write off, but that’s a fun fact that has been floating around for awhile.

SStar: Perhaps I am thinking of him, did he end up purchasing the rights to the book right from the start?

BR: Yep, that was Lancaster.

SStar:What other flicks did he produce?

BR: He most notably produced Run Silent, Run Deep, The Unforgiven, Separate Tables, along with Success and Marty.

I’m not sure of the purchasing history for Success, but I know that the source material was based on a novellette that appeared in Cosmopolitan by Ernest Lehman. Lehman also went on to adapt his story with the help of Clifford Odets for the final screenplay.

SStar: The Cliff Odets credit is pretty interesting; he was finally getting paid work again after being blackballed by the House of Un-American Activities Committee. Not that he ever hid his left leaning ways, but I imagine some of that tension worked its way into the script.

BR: Totally. It was his first screenplay since the HUAC. His other credits at the time were just adaptions of a few of his plays that made it to the screen in the early 50’s. Those were by other screenwriters, though. He was just credited as the source material.

SStar: It would be interesting to see the film careers of those who were affected by that committee. Also to see how much of that work is Noir or ambivalent in nature.

BR: Yep yep. “Atmosphere in the air” and so forth. Look at what Elias Kazan did with On the Waterfront. Perfect example…

SStar: High Noon, Invasion of the Body Snatchers.

BR: Arthur Miller writing The Crucible, or The Caine Mutiny, the entire 1950’s b-film sci-fi movement. Paranoia was in the air.

SStar: All the better for us, though it surely sucked at the time. Especially in the midst of the “wholesome 50s.” Not surprising then that the stylish moral ambiguity returned in full force during Reagan’s 80s.

BR: Yeah. That really sucked the optimism out of the world. The entire reason we have film noir to begin with. A social reaction to the disillusionment caused by World War II. Which turned into paranoia, which turned into fear, which led us into the 60’s. A huge melting pot of emotions which cried out for change and revolution.

SStar:…heh, can you think of a better tune for these times than Peggy Lee’s “Is That All There Is?

BR: Maybe “Johnny B Goode?”

People passing by they would stop and say/Oh my that little country boy could play/Go go/Go Johnny go, Go!/Go Johnny go, Go!

Wait…that doesn’t work at all. [Laughter] No, you’re totally right, Mr. Amador. Peggy Lee’s the way to go.

SStar: Almost, though.

BR: So close…

SStar: So, with this month’s slate, combining Success with the Coen Brothers’ Fargo, you have two stories of men who will do anything to get ahead.

BR: I have actually partnered up every single one of my films to have some sort of common thread going through them. So, that is exactly what this month’s theme is. Sidney Falco and Jerry Lundegaard are both men who will go through with extreme plans to get what they want. Money, fame, respect. Interchangeable vices that lead them to commit horrendous acts.

SStar: Difference being the level of hubris seems much steeper for Lundegaard than for Falco.

BR: Success is just a magnificent, tense and well-crafted film. From the second Sidney Falco is introduced, we see a man in crisis. Constantly shucking and jiving. Every scene has a present purpose and conflict, as well as serving to dispense more and more back story. Culminating in a brilliant Third Man-Orson Welles-esque character introduction of JJ Hunsecker. We hear so many sides of who he is, until there is no other angle of him to show us, other than finally revealing him in the film. Such a powerful performance from Ole Burty boy.

The symbiotic nature of the film’s two leads is just heartbreaking. You really can’t have one without the other. A soul-less power hungry man who dispenses away with people simply by using his words in print, and the lackey who aspires to be him. Who is worse? It’s such a tragic tale.

SStar: According to Wikipedia, Welles was once considered for the Hunsecker role, which would have been nifty. To have him play with the Kane persona for different purposes.

BR: That would’ve been amazing!

Sweet Smell of Success; tonight at 7:00p.m. and 9:30p.m. // Central Cinema, 1411 21st Avenue // $6 in advance, $8 at the door