The Sweet Smell of Success – The Chain Reaction Film Club

The Rules

My chum Tim and I watch a film every week, taking it in turns to pick. The only catch? Each film has to be linked to the previous one by a shared actor. We’re on the hunt for classics we’ve missed, hidden gems and films to reappraise now we’re, uh, getting older.

Previously On…

We watched Susan Sarandon wash herself with a lemon, and felt skeevy about it.

The Choice

This year I’m trying to only link via female actors, though I’ve yet to tell Tim that. It nearly all came unstuck this week, as he was very close to choosing My Dinner With Andre, which stars only two male actors and two male waiters. Fortunately (TBD!) he changed his mind and went with The Sweet Smell of Success instead.

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My Dinner With Andre looks good though, and there would be a nice synergy watching a film about two friends having dinner and chatting while me and Tim have dinner and chat. Also, I’m aware that Wallace Shawn (who would’ve been the link) is a serious writer, but we only really know him from The Princess Bride, Toy Story and other brilliant comedic turns. I’d like to see another side of him at some point.

The Link

Burt Lancaster.

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Burt (right) with Susan Sarandon in Atlantic City, USA 

It’s Tim’s choice, so he’s not bound by picking a female actor (when he twigs what I’m doing perhaps he’ll join in, who knows?).

I only know Burt Lancaster from that famous From Here To Eternity image and Atlantic City USA. So it’s not been a great introduction. Having looked him up he seems to have been a relatively good egg, politically speaking – he was on Nixon’s hate list alongside Paul Newman, so must’ve been doing something right.

The Sweet Smell of Success and me

It’s a Burt Lancaster/Tony Curtis double act. And I really don’t know what to expect from this pairing. I’m reckoning it’ll be light-ish, or fast-talking at least. The screenplay is by Clifford Odets, a notable playwright (though I don’t think I’ve actually seen any of his plays), so I’m also hoping for some peppy dialogue. I don’t think we’ll be in Tennessee Williams territory, but we can dream.

IMDb says

The Sweet Smell of Success (1957): Powerful but unethical Broadway columnist J.J. Hunsecker coerces unscrupulous press agent Sidney Falco into breaking up his sister’s romance with a jazz musician. 8.1 stars.

I says

Well the clue that it wouldn’t be particularly light is right there on the IMDb page: ‘Drama, film-noir’. It took us surprisingly long to twig though, and I blame the Coen Brothers. First up, Burt Lancaster plays a character called J J Hunsecker, and it really sounds like they’re pronouncing it ‘Hudsucker’. Secondly, he’s a fast-talking gossip columnist who has a slightly mannered way of speaking, employing lots of jazz slang – similar, one might think, to characters in The Hudsucker Proxy. Yeah yeah, sure sure.

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The lighting may have been a clue that this wasn’t going to be a romp

And it really is not light. Both Lancaster and Curtis play absolute dickheads, the former a powerful gossip columnist who can make or break lives, the latter a press agent who’ll do whatever it takes to get a story in Hunsecker’s column. Will he pimp out a girlfriend? Sure. No big deal.

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“You like bald older men, right?”

What’s missing is a bit of a foil. The jazz musician who’s at the heart of things, the one Hunsecker wants his sister to stop seeing, is the closest thing the film has to a moral character, attempting to balance out some of the darkness (though being a film noir he is of course not successful). Robert Vaughn was originally cast, and would’ve been great – we’ve seen him deployed to excellent effect in The Philadelphia Boys previously in CRFC. Sadly he was drafted and the replacement is something of a non-entity.

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A maverick hot jazz musician being scintillating

I also remain unconvinced by Burt Lancaster. While he was an effective threatening presence here, I just didn’t particularly buy him as a gossip columnist.

This was absolutely a film marred by not being in quite the right mood for how dark it was – I was recovering from illness and Tim had had a stressful day. A little light Tony Curtis romping would’ve been just the ticket. Instead it was a descent into the inky depths of celebrity gossip and PR, and we all know how horrendous that is.

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Excellent eyebrow action from Edith Atwater

There was some good dialogue though, so props to Odets for that:

Sally: But Sidney, you make a living. Where do you want to get?

Sidney Falco: Way up high, Sam, where it’s always balmy. Where no one snaps his fingers and says, “Hey, Shrimp, rack the balls!” Or, “Hey, mouse, mouse, go out and buy me a pack of butts.” I don’t want tips from the kitty. I’m in the big game with the big players. My experience I can give you in a nutshell, and I didn’t dream it in a dream, either – dog eat dog. In brief, from now on, the best of everything is good enough for me.

The Verdict

Like Atlantic City USA last week, I was left feeling a bit icky after this. The difference is that it was definitely more intentional here.

Coming Attractions

There were four decent female roles here (decent in terms of more than a couple of lines, at least) – my favourite was the relatively brief appearance of Edith Atwater as Hunsecker’s secretary, who made me realise that my type is ‘arch’. So perhaps we’ll be seeing more of her…

2 thoughts on “The Sweet Smell of Success – The Chain Reaction Film Club

  1. Pingback: In a Lonely Place – The Chain Reaction Film Club | Born To Pootle

  2. Pingback: Tora! Tora! Tora! – The Chain Reaction Film Club | Born To Pootle

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