It might be stretching it a little to say that we’ve lured you here tonight under false pretences, but it should be noted that, unlike the other five films in the festival line-up, the jazz themes that run through tonight’s offering Sweet Smell of Success (1957) are tangential, rather than central, to the finished movie. The film, however, does feature actual footage of the Chico Hamilton Quintet on stage and it even spawned a couple of soundtrack albums, which saw the Quintet sharing a recording credit with the Oscar-winning composer Elmer Bernstein. In addition, the film’s downbeat plot revolves around the forbidden romance of a damaged New York socialite with an up and coming Jazz guitarist. In an attempt, therefore, to broaden out the reach of the festival beyond the Jazz biopic and the Jazz documentary, festival curator Dan Thomas has generously created a space in the programme tonight for this classic film noir.
The excellent reputation that a Sweet Smell of Success enjoys today is largely due to its fluid, street-smart camera work, courtesy of acclaimed cinematographer James Wong Howe, and its razor-sharp screenplay (voted the 34th best of all time by the Writers Guild of America, nonetheless!). Adapted by Ernest Lehman (from his own novella) and then heavily re-written by the celebrated playwright Clifford Odets, the visceral, distinctively stylised script, in which each scene is trip-wired with explosive dialogue, drew unforgettable performances from Tony Curtis as the sycophantic ‘two-time loser’ Sidney Falco, and Burt Lancaster as the merciless demagogue J.J.Hunsecker. Set slap-bang in the heart of Broadway, this, the most hard-boiled of New York movies, in which you can almost smell the graft and the double-cross rising up off the sidewalk, was in fact the stateside debut of Scottish director Alexander Mackendrick, best known for his quintessential Ealing comedies Whiskey Galore (1949), The Man in the White Suit (1951) and The Ladykillers (1955).
The central character of Hunsecker was based on the all-powerful gossip columnist Walter Winchell, a vindictive control freak who ran a nice little sideline blackmailing personal enemies and political opponents by threatening to smear them in his mass-circulation showbiz columns and radio broadcasts. A friend and ally of F.B.I Chief J.Edgar Hoover and the red-baiting Senator Joe McCarthy, Winchell used the burgeoning power of celebrity to destroy the careers of those who didn’t conform to his idea of an all-American patriot. For the left-leaning Lancaster and the radical firebrand Odets, (fatally damaged by his “co-operation” with McCarthy’s House of Un-American Activities Committee), Sweet Smell of Success was payback time for those “comrades” banished from Hollywood during the blacklist years, and they were in no mood to pull their punches either; the muckraking Hunsecker emerges from this acid-tongued, screwball tragedy as a cold fish with a cruel streak as wide as the Brooklyn Bridge.
Although the film has become critically revered over time, Sweet Smell of Success took a bath at the box office, losing Lancaster’s production company HHL the best part of $2 million. Mackendrick had seen the writing on the wall at the film’s San Francisco preview, noting that Curtis’s young army of fans, used to seeing their idol in a more sympathetic light, were ‘not only going to dislike it, they were going to resent it’. Interestingly, the tenth biggest grossing movie of ’57 was Jailhouse Rock, which raises the possibility that if Sweet Smell of Success had been made just a year or so later, the character of Jazz guitarist Steve Dallas might well have ended up on the cutting room floor, upstaged by a new cultural bogeyman in the shape of a hip-swivelling hillbilly from Tupelo, Mississippi.
Watching Mackendrick’s movie today, it’s impossible to witness Lancaster’s chilling portrayal of the malodorous Hunsecker – an authoritarian, megalomaniacal media celebrity casually luxuriating in the power he has to make or break a career – without reflecting on the disturbing fact that sixty years later his populist heir apparent Donald Trump is about to take possession of America’s nuclear codes. A particularly nightmarish thought and completely in step with one of the most pessimistic movies about the human condition ever to make it out of Hollywood’s dream factory.