555 Sweet Smell of Success

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Mr Sausage
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Sweet Smell of Success (Alexander Mackendrick, 1957)

#76 Post by Mr Sausage » Mon Sep 30, 2013 10:12 am

DISCUSSION ENDS MONDAY, OCTOBER 28th AT 7:00 AM.


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Criterion thread
Mackendrick thread
On Film-making by Alexander Mackendrick. Has a lot to say about the making of the film.



DISCUSSION QUESTIONS

I encourage members to submit questions, either those designed to elicit discussion and point out interesting things to keep an eye on, or just something you want answered. This will be extremely helpful in getting discussion started. Starting is always the hardest part, all the more so if it's unguided. Questions can be submitted to me via PM.


-Examine how the film's dichotomy of confidence and desperation becomes increasingly fragile as the narrative progresses downward. What if any larger observations or societal criticisms of the time period can be drawn from this approach?

-Explore the theme of corruption as it pertains to both the protagonists and antagonists. What can be said about the film's decision to push the only traditionally "decent" characters to passive roles for the majority of the narrative?

-Much has been made of the snappy dialog and memorable lines in the script, but what purpose do such witticisms serve within the larger function of the film?

-Sweet Smell of Success is known for its authentic depiction of the city streets and night life of then-contemporary New York City. In what ways does the film operate as a city symphony?

-Though like most noirs this is primarily a film concerned with masculinity, what does the film's treatment of the female characters reveal about the broader worldview of the society both sexes inhabit?




***PM me if you have any suggestions for additions or just general concerns and questions.***

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Drucker
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Re: Sweet Smell of Success (Alexander Mackendrick, 1957)

#77 Post by Drucker » Mon Oct 14, 2013 12:05 pm

I know this is a much-beloved film to many here, so I just want to make a few quick notes on Syndey and J. J. that I took down while watching the film.

Within the first few minutes of Sweet Smell of Success, much of the movie's dynamic is established. Sydney Falco is both a small fish in a big pond (as a press agent in the grand scheme of entertainment columns), and a big fish in a small pond (to his secretary and his friend the cigarette girl). In the world of the former, he's all talk but isn't coming through when it counts, and before we meet the legendary J J, he's disparaged by two different clients. For the latter, there are people who worry about his well-being and need his help, but he doesn't come anywhere near meeting their expectations. He seems to be on the top of one, very small world, and at the bottom of another. His negative reputation is constantly reinforced early on. The way Chico Hamilton's band blows him off, and misdirects him when he's looking for Dallas, makes it clear that this is a slimy guy not to be trusted.

J. J. on the other hand is a figure of almost mythic proportion. He's a larger than life figure, not afraid to wield power, and he's fully aware of his place in the world. J. J.'s eyes seem to be a really important part of the film. The logo for his column are those glasses, and it seems that JJ sees all, somehow, all throughout the film. He knows his kid sister and her boyfriend haven't broken up even before Falco does. The only time we see JJ supposedly working in a way that proves he doesn't need a press agent almost seems to be when he uses his connection with the police. But in a film full of brilliantly written and performed characters, I found one of the most intriguing things was J.J.'s eyes. There is almost no part of the film where his eyes aren't masked by the shadows hitting his glasses. Beyond that, when J. J. gets excited, his eyes seem to dart quickly around. This happens when he gets a call from Sydney that he's going to break the young couple up that night. It happens again when, after his confrontation with Dallas at the radio show, he says, "Am I supposed to wonder how that kid looked at me today?"

But J.J. really does seem to be as psychotic as he is omniscient. "Match me, Sydney" was for me the most merciless insult of all of J.J.'s. But in the end, he loses his grip on his sister. I don't know that it matters that he loses Sydney, a man he never respected and merely utilized as a tool. But it probably doesn't portend well for J J that a man he spends a good portion of the film insulting and looking down upon also happens to be the man he sent on this most important of errands, and things still fall apart at the end for him.

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Re: Sweet Smell of Success (Alexander Mackendrick, 1957)

#78 Post by matrixschmatrix » Mon Oct 14, 2013 1:25 pm

JJ's relationship with Sydney is vital to him in the same way a mob boss's would be with his lieutenants- without Sidney, or people like him, he has no means to exercise his will, and nobody to feed him dirt. I think the JJ we see probably could never have amassed the power we see him holding, as he's too inconstant and faithless to be worth doing favors for; only a nearly psychotically driven person like Sidney would continue believing his promises, and the Sidneys of the world can't last.

I think the difference between the two men, and the reason that we as an audience are capable of sympathy and empathy for Falco, is that he seems like a potentially good man caught up in a wave of madness- he's capable of moral horror (though ultimately he doesn't let it get in his way), we see that he has genuine personal charm and magnetism (though he's constantly alienating everyone that he attracts with it), and he seems to kind of hate himself for what he kind of knows he's doing. Falco's a scrambler, too, and I think there's something tragic about someone who's bought into the American myth of success so hard that all the evidence before his eyes won't stop him thinking it will make him feel better about what he's doing. It helps too that we don't get a lot of special pleading in his favor- he reminds me of an Abraham Polonsky character in that respect. JJ's a monster, with no redeeming qualities whatsoever- though I think it's easy to imagine a borderline case like Sidney tipping into JJ territory if he ever actually did achieve the things he wants. Success, as the title implies, is rotten, and while the movie doesn't sell it too hard (it's never as anticapitalist as Polonsky gets) the trappings of wealth and power seem to be deadly poison to everyone they touch.

I think the language in the movie serves several purposes- for one, it's sharp because it's a weapon, and we see it used to kill careers and destroy people throughout the movie. For another, it works with the cinematography to create the appeal of the nighttime world the movie inhabits, to get across why this society is so addictive- it's like court intrigue, and if you're engaging in court intrigue, you're practically an aristocrat. It also connects the movie to the ratatat newspaper tradition, and in a sense, the movie's almost a revisionist screwball comedy; The Front Page is cheerfully convinced that an amoral, invasive press is something to be, and while this isn't quite the world of crack reporters and tyrant editors, it's borne of the same institutions, and it's nothing but ugly.

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Re: Sweet Smell of Success (Alexander Mackendrick, 1957)

#79 Post by domino harvey » Mon Oct 14, 2013 4:37 pm

I'm teaching a two-part Genre Studies class this year (Noir in the Fall, Westerns in the Spring) and by pure happenstance I'd scheduled us to study this film last week. It's always great fun to observe how teenagers respond to Hollywood films, as they are at the ideal timeframe to properly digest them without pushback: young enough to be pliable to their emotionally manipulative structures and systems and not too old to feel superior to them out of hand. I can say without exaggeration that every film class I've ever taught to high school students has been filled with more intelligent observations and discussion than any college film course I ever took. So, I hope you enjoyed my high school students' discussion prompts above.

It's interesting to note that both responses so far have focused on the relationship between Sidney and JJ, as my students were far more taken with JJ's obsession with his sister, Susie. Rewatching it again with them I could see their point: this is a film where of the only two "good" characters-- one being helplessly bland, leaving only Susan Harrison's aptly named teenager to focus on, really-- and the film's continued attempts to ruin such innocents is given such heightened degrees of hopelessness that it's easy to root against both the protagonist and antagonist in the service of the coupla kids in love. It helps that the film has one of the all time great endings in noir or any genre, with Sidney caught in a misleadingly compromised situation with JJ's sister, the tenseness of which provides a wonderful sinking ship of emotive despair to the proceedings. The death of JJ's relationship with Susie is worse than any physically violent assault or death, and a far more fitting punishment for this "big" man is shown the final shots, with JJ looking out at the city he once owned, helpless as his sister disappears into the crowded streets beyond JJ's control.

Also, speaking of happenstance, I scheduled this the day after Night and the City and it makes for a hell of a double-feature-- the cold-hearted city streets of two different continents, the helpless schemer who comes so close to achieving his goals before it all goes to hell, the fatalistic ending (well, that's noir for ya, but still), the vibrant portrayal of the back alleys and clubs and other dark corners of the inhospitable urban landscape, and so on. I could only nod my head in agreement when I read the comparison in the Criterion booklet!

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Re: Sweet Smell of Success (Alexander Mackendrick, 1957)

#80 Post by matrixschmatrix » Mon Oct 14, 2013 5:04 pm

When rewatching this, I was considering how different it might be if Dallas had been cast as something other than a big square of wet paper- for all that Susan declares herself weak and Dallas is willing to stand up to Hunsecker, it's difficult not to see him as a sort of Ralph Bellamy figure, a decent, square, dull man in a world in which decent, square, dull men are inevitably and hopelessly outmatched. Susan has some real insight into how JJ and his relationships with his fellow men work- she's one of the people who challenge Falco's conception of JJ's relationship to him, and she obviously knows JJ himself as well as or better than anybody- while Dallas just seems to be blundering into a chess match with nothing but checkers.

It's not hard to imagine a version of this movie in which Dallas is actually charismatic and strong, someone you can be excited to be around, but I think that would tip it away from sympathy with Falco, who seems savable in part because everyone else is so dreadful. It would also take away from the theme that Susan isn't so much leaving for another man, she's leaving to get away from JJ, and Dallas is the guy she's doing it with- by the end of the movie, it seems as though she'd be perfectly happy to leave him for nobody.

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Re: Sweet Smell of Success (Alexander Mackendrick, 1957)

#81 Post by domino harvey » Mon Oct 14, 2013 5:07 pm

matrixschmatrix wrote: It would also take away from the theme that Susan isn't so much leaving for another man, she's leaving to get away from JJ, and Dallas is the guy she's doing it with- by the end of the movie, it seems as though she'd be perfectly happy to leave him for nobody.
I think that's an apt reading, and I'll go one further: I've always assumed when she exits the apartment and the film that she's heading out on her own in total, ie not reconnecting with Steve. Pure conjecture, I suppose, but it seems like she's strong enough to not need the squarest jazz musician ever depicted anymore.

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Re: Sweet Smell of Success (Alexander Mackendrick, 1957)

#82 Post by Mr Sausage » Mon Oct 14, 2013 6:49 pm

domino harvey wrote:
matrixschmatrix wrote: It would also take away from the theme that Susan isn't so much leaving for another man, she's leaving to get away from JJ, and Dallas is the guy she's doing it with- by the end of the movie, it seems as though she'd be perfectly happy to leave him for nobody.
I think that's an apt reading, and I'll go one further: I've always assumed when she exits the apartment and the film that she's heading out on her own in total, ie not reconnecting with Steve. Pure conjecture, I suppose, but it seems like she's strong enough to not need the squarest jazz musician ever depicted anymore.
Well, when Hunsecker asks her "where are you going?", she says "I'm going to Steve." I don't see any reason to think she's lying.

I'm guessing that she's attracted to Steve precisely because he's such a wet rag. If you've spent all your life around clever, quick-talking people who use words as weapons and intelligence as a means to dissimulate, a plain, square, dull, blundering, forthright guy is going to seem pretty damn appealing.

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Re: Sweet Smell of Success (Alexander Mackendrick, 1957)

#83 Post by movielocke » Mon Oct 14, 2013 6:52 pm

matrixschmatrix wrote:When rewatching this, I was considering how different it might be if Dallas had been cast as something other than a big square of wet paper- for all that Susan declares herself weak and Dallas is willing to stand up to Hunsecker, it's difficult not to see him as a sort of Ralph Bellamy figure, a decent, square, dull man in a world in which decent, square, dull men are inevitably and hopelessly outmatched. Susan has some real insight into how JJ and his relationships with his fellow men work- she's one of the people who challenge Falco's conception of JJ's relationship to him, and she obviously knows JJ himself as well as or better than anybody- while Dallas just seems to be blundering into a chess match with nothing but checkers.

It's not hard to imagine a version of this movie in which Dallas is actually charismatic and strong, someone you can be excited to be around, but I think that would tip it away from sympathy with Falco, who seems savable in part because everyone else is so dreadful. It would also take away from the theme that Susan isn't so much leaving for another man, she's leaving to get away from JJ, and Dallas is the guy she's doing it with- by the end of the movie, it seems as though she'd be perfectly happy to leave him for nobody.
A stronger Dallas, as you outline, would be a different plot because Hunsecker would use a different approach and different tools than Falco if that sort of Dallas were in the picture.

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Re: Sweet Smell of Success (Alexander Mackendrick, 1957)

#84 Post by domino harvey » Mon Oct 14, 2013 7:00 pm

Mr Sausage wrote:Well, when Hunsecker asks her "where are you going?", she says "I'm going to Steve." I don't see any reason to think she's lying.
Ha, I don't remember that line at all but I'm sure you're right. Funny how I seemingly disregarded it every time I've seen the film, as I distinctly remember always feeling like her break from JJ was a symbolic break from the patriarchal oppression he represented. To be fair, saying I'm going right into the arms of the man you tried so hard to separate from me is as good a "Fuck you" as you could direct to JJ, so I'm sticking with my reading in classic film student mode :P

It's interesting Harrison never had much of a career outside of this-- her best known role is likely as the ballerina in the infamous "Five Characters In Search of an Exit" episode of the Twilight Zone (and of course she was the hep "gang girl" in Key Witness, which I suspect not too many else besides me have witnessed!)

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Re: Sweet Smell of Success (Alexander Mackendrick, 1957)

#85 Post by Mr Sausage » Mon Oct 14, 2013 7:50 pm

Fair enough. Whether she goes to him or not is arbitrary, since the point is not that love triumphs. This is one of the few times (the only?) in a narrative using this particular story structure that the victory the lovers gain from circumventing the blocking figures is not that of being united at last. Hence the final scene involves only one of the two and ends with her being engulfed by the crowd, not singled out from it when she and her lover reunite. It's a testament to how rancid the story is that it can take the structure of a romantic comedy, hit all of the necessary structural points, and yet avoid every single uplifting beat that those structural points were tailor-made to produce. It's a comedy that ends not with the union of broken parts, a victory of reconciliation, but a debatable union that is simultaneously a rupture--a victory out of dissolution.

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Re: Sweet Smell of Success (Alexander Mackendrick, 1957)

#86 Post by Drucker » Mon Oct 14, 2013 9:45 pm

matrixschmatrix wrote:When rewatching this, I was considering how different it might be if Dallas had been cast as something other than a big square of wet paper- for all that Susan declares herself weak and Dallas is willing to stand up to Hunsecker, it's difficult not to see him as a sort of Ralph Bellamy figure, a decent, square, dull man in a world in which decent, square, dull men are inevitably and hopelessly outmatched. Susan has some real insight into how JJ and his relationships with his fellow men work- she's one of the people who challenge Falco's conception of JJ's relationship to him, and she obviously knows JJ himself as well as or better than anybody- while Dallas just seems to be blundering into a chess match with nothing but checkers.
I definitely think that Susie's attraction to Dallas is in part because he is the wet blanket. Dallas even kind of admits how much of a stiff he says when confronting JJ at the radio station (venue? theater?). He says something to the effect of "I don't have your fast tongue, but I love your sister!" Which perhaps would become a schmaltzy moment if he wasn't so effortlessly cut down by JJ. I think there's also a parallel in the relationships of Susie/Dallas and Sydney/his secretary. In both cases, the women know that their man is outmatched by JJ, and there is a genuine worry and fear in their voice when they know their man is about to do what amounts to battle with JJ.

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Re: Sweet Smell of Success (Alexander Mackendrick, 1957)

#87 Post by matrixschmatrix » Mon Oct 14, 2013 10:11 pm

Falco's secretary always reminds me painfully of Midge in Vertigo, and works as something to establish right away that Falco is capable of bottomless cruelty to anybody who actually likes him. It's funny that a movie that was apparently put together almost exclusively by a crew of womanizers (I don't know about Mackendrick, but the commentary makes it sound as though that was definitely true of the production team, Curtis, and especially Lancaster) winds up being a fairly subtle critique of patriarchy and misogyny, among other things.

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Re: Sweet Smell of Success (Alexander Mackendrick, 1957)

#88 Post by jindianajonz » Tue Oct 15, 2013 12:04 pm

matrixschmatrix wrote:I think the difference between the two men, and the reason that we as an audience are capable of sympathy and empathy for Falco, is that he seems like a potentially good man caught up in a wave of madness- he's capable of moral horror (though ultimately he doesn't let it get in his way), we see that he has genuine personal charm and magnetism (though he's constantly alienating everyone that he attracts with it), and he seems to kind of hate himself for what he kind of knows he's doing. Falco's a scrambler, too, and I think there's something tragic about someone who's bought into the American myth of success so hard that all the evidence before his eyes won't stop him thinking it will make him feel better about what he's doing.
I don't have much symphathy for Sidney at all. I am planning on rewatching the movie tonight and may be able to elaborate later, but my sense of him is that he has a few peculiar "boundaries" that he doesn't like to cross, but he also does so much with zeal and glee (such as taking advantage of the vaudeville comedian and prostituting the cigarette girl) that it is impossible for me to see his (not to rehash the Melville discussion) "moral code" as anything other as a lie he tells himself that helps him sleep at night. The fact that he is perfectly fine with taking advantage of these other innocents makes his feeble attempt at standing up to JJ to protect Susie seem almost arbitrary.

Interesting fact: The commentary states that there were at least a dozen or so different endings that were considered for the film, including one where it is revealed that Susie and Sydney had previously had a relationship (which also almost drove Susie to suicide). Although all evidence of this was cut out of the final film, it would have added some interesting parallels, with Sydney's desire to protect Susie and Sydney, who aspires to be JJ and acting as a JJ standin, is able to consumate the incestuous desire that JJ is hinted at having.
domino harvey wrote:
Mr Sausage wrote:Well, when Hunsecker asks her "where are you going?", she says "I'm going to Steve." I don't see any reason to think she's lying.
Ha, I don't remember that line at all but I'm sure you're right. Funny how I seemingly disregarded it every time I've seen the film
I just got a rather fitting mental image of Michael Bluth never seeming to hear references to the equally bland egg. I mean, Ann.

One other part of the disc that I'm hoping to get to is the documentary on cinematographer James Wong Howe. He is fantastic in this film. The commentary points out the great way he stages the characters in group shots (particularly the theater scene) and how he uses strong lights to make JJ's glasses cast inhuman shadows across his face, but one other scene that stood out for me was when we first meet JJ at the restaurant. After Sydney sits down next to him (which has it's own interesting story on the commentary) JJ leans into the camera in a way that makes Sydney appear to shrink into the background. The shot not only suggests the power difference between the two, with JJ almost pushing Sydney out of the frame by his mere presents, but the fact that JJ doesn't even bother to face Sydney implies that Sydney is barely worth his attention, and we also get hints of the "devil over the shoulder" look that the commentary speaks of in a variety of places later in the film. It also brought to mind the fascinating process that went into desiging the cover of the Criterion release. Great stuff.

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Re: Sweet Smell of Success (Alexander Mackendrick, 1957)

#89 Post by Mr Sausage » Thu Oct 17, 2013 4:53 pm

matrixschmatrix wrote:JJ's relationship with Sydney is vital to him in the same way a mob boss's would be with his lieutenants- without Sidney, or people like him, he has no means to exercise his will, and nobody to feed him dirt. I think the JJ we see probably could never have amassed the power we see him holding, as he's too inconstant and faithless to be worth doing favors for; only a nearly psychotically driven person like Sidney would continue believing his promises, and the Sidneys of the world can't last.
Thinking on it, I don't think this is true. A man like JJ doesn't merely get favours out of loyalty--he earns them with fear. To repurpose your mob analogy, JJ earns favours much the same way the mob earns protection money: by offering to forestall his own capacity for destruction. The best example of this is the cutting moment where JJ reveals to the politician that he knows exactly what the score is. He plays off his knowledge as a friendly warning about what others might say, but it's an implied threat. I imagine JJ approaches every relationship in terms of what he can get from the person. And his bribes amount to threats anyway: do well, you get column space; do bad, I'll freeze you out and your job will be forfeit. Or, in the politician's case, be a friend and my column will support you; don't, and everyone will know who you're sleeping with.

While JJ needs publicity agents, they need him far more as he holds the crucial seat of power: the ability to affect public opinion. So long as he has that, he'll have agents needing his favour, and therefore a constant, revolving source of people to get things out of.

I don't see anything in JJ that's inconsistant; I see a shrewd, ruthless manipulator of power politics who is just as capable as ever of capturing and maintaining power over others. His downfall, really, is two-fold: his obsessive, quasi-sexual desire to possess his sister completely, and his hubris. The wrong-headedness of the former is obvious. His hubris lies not merely in defeating his opponent, but in needing to grind him into the dirt as well, and all for the crime of criticizing the great JJ Hunsecker. His ego leads him into a tactical error, resulting in the the loss of the only decent, caring person in his life, whose benefit JJ implicitly felt. So it isn't a case of inconstancy or faithlessness, but sheer ego-mania (and disguised as patriotism at that, as if we needed any more reminders of the monstrous proportions of JJ's ego).

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Re: Sweet Smell of Success (Alexander Mackendrick, 1957)

#90 Post by Jonathan S » Fri Oct 25, 2013 9:27 am

Besides JJ’s apparently incestuous desire for his sister (I’d be unconvinced by a purely emotional vulnerability in relation to her), there’s surely also a repressed undercurrent of sado-masochistic homosexuality between him and Sidney, crystallised in the famously humiliating command, “Match me, Sidney.” The phrase has other resonances: they are “matched” like lovers, JJ is challenging Sidney to equal his status (and nastiness)… but also lighting a cigarette is traditionally what a gentleman would do for a lady. For all the masculinity of Lancaster’s movie persona, it’s not the only way he comes over as a bit “queeny” as JJ, in the sly, bitchy tradition of previous New York columnists like Waldo Lydecker and Addison de Witt. (Much later in life, Lancaster was desperate for the part of the camp Molina in Kiss of the Spider Woman.) Even Sidney seems less interested directly in women than in pimping them out to gain a favour; it’s all too apt that his bedroom is part of his office. (The close relationship between the two anticipates another NY movie, The Apartment.)

The impossibly pure young lovers are a hangover from Victorian melodrama and their movie successors, including horror films; they’re mainly there to be menaced by the far more interesting monsters on whom the narrative centres. They also of course provide moral contrast, and the film’s occasionally didactic outrage, mainly voiced by Steve, reminds me of early US television plays and series which often had a pronounced ethical angle. Playhouse 90 had started in 1956 with exposés of corruption like Rod Serling’s Requiem for a Heavyweight. To me, Sweet Smell of Success feels like a hybrid of the fading Hollywood film noir and the new dialogue-based TV dramas, made mainly by writers and directors from New York. (Apologies if Criterion cover any of these points in their edition but, as with most Film Club choices so far, I don't own that one!)

Mackendrick was surprisingly sniffy about Sweet Smell: “A piece of absolute hokum and melodrama… My worst film.”

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Re: 555 Sweet Smell of Success

#91 Post by Ovader » Fri Oct 17, 2014 12:48 am


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