Saturday, February 20, 2016

Barbed Dialogue At Its Sharpest: Sweet Smell of Success

"Maybe I left my sense of humor in my other suit." 
~ Sidney Falco

This week I decided to watch Sweet Smell of Success again, the 1957 stinger starring Burt Lancaster and Tony Curtis. The genre is film noir, the story of an unethical Broadway columnist and his conniving press agent. Lancaster excels as the heavy, J.J. Hunsecker, with Tony Curtis clothing himself in the role of the slimy and unscrupulous Sidney Falco.

There are three features of this film that make it exceptional. First is the sizzling dialog. Second is the evocative cinematography. Third, a taut storyline that crackles with tension.

The four main characters here are Sidney Falco, J.J. Hunsecker, J.J.'s sister Susan, played by Susan Harrison, and her boyfriend Steve Dallas, a jazz guitar player played by Martin Milner (better known for his role in the TV show Route 66. Essentially, J.J. doesn't want his sister involved with a jazz musician but uses Falco to do the dirty work lest he sully his own reputation. It's a sordid game that Falco is willing to play because his only ethic is what it will get him for himself.

For Hunsecker, everyone is a pawn, including his sister. He has to control all the pieces on the board. There are no people in his world, only pawns to be manipulated. He's a beast who can't see his own beastliness, and for this reason is a very scary character. Susan sees this, sees how toxic her brother is, and must escape to keep her sanity and sense of self intact.

The power of the dialog is noteworthy, like professional prizefighters jabbing, parrying punches with flurries of smashing body blows and right hooks to the side of the head. When I saw that Ernest Lehman had written the screenplay I had an "Aha" type of recognition. His other Hollywood scripts included the explosive Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, North by Northwest, West Side Story, Hello Dolly!, The Sound of Music, and The King and I. The guy is good and worth further study.

The names of the two main characters are noteworthy.  J.J. Hunsecker combines the word Hun with the soundalike Bloodsucker. It was Attila the Hun who forced the Eastern Roman Empire to pay tribute to the Huns in exchange for the use of trade routes. J.J. is just this kind of power in the New York arts and culture scene. Bow before him or become meat for the lions.

Sidney Falco is an equally interesting name. One immediately thinks of the Falcon, carnivorous bird. In point of fact, the falcon is one of 37 species of raptors in the genus Falco. Unlike hawks and eagles that kill with their talons, falcons kill with their beaks. Falcons also have exceptional visual acuity. They are swift, and dangerous. The pathetic Sidney is also without conscience. From the opening he is established as a schemer.

When you read some of the great lines, you realize it isn't just what was written but how it's delivered that gives it its force. "You're dead, son. Get yourself buried." Hunsecker's tongue is a stiletto to the gut. Of his 67 films Sweet Smell Of Success was his highest rated performance by the critics on RottenTomatoes.com. The film did not do well at the box office when released, in part perhaps because it was ahead of its time.

The smell here isn't sweet, but it is intense. I recommend the book as well, more of a long short story than a short novella. You can also find the original screenplay here.

Five stars out of five.

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