Tag Archives: Burt Lancaster

The Sweet Smell of Success

Sweet Smell of Success
The Sweet Smell of Success

Format: Blu-ray

Release date: 30 March 2015

Distributor: Arrow Video

Director: Alexander Mackendrick

Writers: Clifford Odets, Ernest Lehman, Alexander Mackendrick

Cast: Burt Lancaster, Tony Curtis, Susan Harrison

USA 1957

96 mins

***** out of *****

Directed to perfection by Alexander Mackendrick and starring Burt Lancaster and Tony Curtis at the peak of their considerable powers as actors, The Sweet Smell of Success provides a stunning film noir portrait of the sleazy world of 50s press agents and gossip columnists in New York City. Written by Clifford Odets and Ernest Lehman, based on Lehman’s novella and featuring considerable uncredited rewrites by Mackendrick himself, the picture is blessed with one of the great screenplays of all time. In terms of story structure, characterization and dialogue, few American films can match it.

J.J. Hunsecker (Lancaster) is a Walter Winchell-like newspaperman of unparalleled power and popularity. The signs and billboards splashed everywhere on the Isle of Manhattan are adorned with an image of his trademark heavy-framed spectacles, accompanied by copy that proclaims him to be ‘The Eyes of Broadway’. Nothing, as the film proves, escapes the God-like gaze of Hunsecker. He makes and breaks politicians and show business personalities with a few deft strokes of his vitriolic pen.

He is, of course, fed many of his laudatory and/or scurrilous items by the bottom feeders of the business, the press agents who charge their clients a pretty penny to keep their names in the papers and in the most positive manner possible. The king of them all, the sleaziest benthos in all of New York is none other than Sidney Falco (Curtis). He’s equal parts detritivore and carnivore – a sea cucumber when he needs to be, and a stingray, which he mostly wants to be. He values his ability to keep his clients happy, score new clients and to curry favour with Hunsecker in hopes he’ll achieve the same level of success.

When Hunsecker’s little sister Susie (Susan Harrison) is courted by Steve Dallas (Martin Milner), an up-and-coming jazz musician, the innate snobbery of the omnipotent scribe kicks in, but even more compelling is his foul, incestuous obsession with her. He charges Sidney with digging up enough dirt on the young fellow in order to keep his sister in his own clutches and no other man’s.

Sidney’s complex machinations take up much of the film’s running time and are so on the edge of a kind of insanity, that the entire world Mackendrick, Odets and Lehman etch borders on the surreal. What Hunsecker wants is no mere separation twixt his sister and her lover.

‘I want that boy taken apart,’ he intones so quietly and malevolently.

There is no doubt that dialogue seems to drive much of the film’s drama. There have to be more immortal lines in the picture than many of the rest all put together.

‘Match me, Sidney,’ Hunsecker demands, seeking Falco’s compliance with his request for a cigarette light.

‘I make no brief for my bilious private life,’ Sidney slimily ejaculates upon the sleazy rival columnist Otis Elwell (David White), in order to make him believe he’s through with Hunsecker, ‘but he’s got the morals of a guinea pig and the scruples of a gangster’.

Every line is a gem and Hunsecker gets the lion’s share of them. One of the best is his descriptive invective hurled in Sidney’s direction:

‘I wouldn’t like to take a bite of you; you’re a cookie full of arsenic.’

The simplest and most evocative line occurs when Hunsecker considers a woman’s caterwauling laughter and the sight of a drunk being tossed from a 52nd St. bar. He literally salutes the grime and filth of New York, which we see through the gloriously grimy lens of James Wong Howe’s immortal black and white cinematography, as Hunsecker happily declares:

‘I love this dirty town.’

Dirty, indeed.

And yet, in spite of the almost non-stop dialogue, one of the more astonishing achievements of the picture is just how visual the storytelling is. Many key set pieces of verbal chicanery and manipulations can be watched with the sound completely off, and by simply observing, one is able to easily ascertain the goals of the characters.

Try it sometime.

Put on the sequence where Sidney tries to blackmail one character, then, upon failing that, attempts to dupe another with an approach he borrows from the man he’s tried to blackmail. ALL the actions and even many underlying motivations can be noted by what is SEEN, but NOT heard. After this, play the scene with sound and thrill to how the dramatic beats are there visually, and of course, enhanced delectably by the dialogue. I’ve done this with my filmmaking students who – NOT SURPRISINGLY – had never seen the film before. It works! It’s also proof positive how superb the writing is and most importantly, how breathtaking Mackendrick’s direction proved to be.

The Sweet Smell of Success is simply and purely, one of the best movies ever made.

Greg Klymkiw

The Arrow Blu-Ray release is accompanied by a bevy of sumptuous features. The best of them include Michael Brooke’s magnificent, virtually definitive essay in the attractive booklet and the great Dermot McQuarrie TV documentary Mackendrick: The Man Who Walked Away. The following are not to be sneezed at either: a restored HD presentation of a 4K digital transfer from original 35mm camera negative, the original uncompressed mono, optional English subtitles for those of us who wish to obsessively study the dialogue as the film unspools, an appreciation and scene commentary by Philip Kemp, the theatrical trailer, a gorgeous reversible sleeve with an original poster and new artwork by Chris Walker, as well as the aforementioned booklet, which also comes with Mackendrick’s own analysis of various script drafts.

The Swimmer

The Swimmer

Format: DVD

Release date: 26 May 2003

Distributor: Sony Pictures Home Entertainment

Director: Frank Perry

Writers: Eleanor Perry

Based on the story by: John Cheever

Cast: Burt Lancaster, Janet Landgard, Janice Rule

USA 1968

95 mins

This article contains spoilers.

A Hollywood oddity from 1968, The Swimmer stars Burt Lancaster as an upper-class suburbanite who, standing by the side of his friends’ pool on a summer afternoon, decides to swim home through all of the neighbouring pools. Based on a 1964 short story by John Cheever, it was adapted by Eleanor Perry and directed by her husband Frank Perry, with one scene helmed by an uncredited Sydney Pollack, brought in by the befuddled producers. The latter had trouble grasping the symbolic nature of the tale: through the central conceit, The Swimmer is really about a man in the midst of a mental breakdown slowly forced to face the reality of what his life has become.

At first, Lancaster’s Ned appears happy and at ease among his wealthy friends. But as he progresses from pool to pool, more details about his life gradually emerge until the terrible truth about his situation is finally revealed in a heart-breaking finale. The progression from pool to pool is an allegory for Ned’s life, from youth to old age, and from success to failure. The possibilities of youth are evoked in the first scene through the recollection of blissful, carefree swimming in the mountains with his childhood friend. From there, he moves to a pool belonging to his teen love, which prompts wistful musing over what could have been. At the next house, he convinces a young girl who used to babysit for him to come along with him. At first, it is an exciting adventure, full of laughter and youthful physical exertion, until Ned falls, spraining his ankle, and upsets the girl by becoming inappropriately, intensely, protective. Limping through the rest of the film, a now weary and vulnerable-looking Ned meets antagonistic people who reveal the extent of his decline and fall.

As Ned’s change of social status becomes clearer, the world around him becomes increasingly hostile. Welcomed at the first houses he visits, he is called a gate-crasher when he arrives at the pool party of vulgar nouveaux riches neighbours he probably used to - maybe snobbishly - look down on, and he is eventually thrown out. As he tries to cross a busy road, cars beep and swerve aggressively around him. When he wants to swim in the communal swimming pool, he is initially turned away by the employee because he doesn’t have the 50 cents required, then humiliatingly made to wash his feet twice by the attendant, before attempting to cross an insanely busy pool in which he is assaulted by chaotic bodies, floating objects and loud noises. When he reaches the other side, he is confronted by disgruntled shop-keepers whose bills he hasn’t paid, and who reveal more unsettling truths about his family. It is that scene that makes you realise how bare he is. Lancaster spends the whole film wearing only a bathing trunk. Initially, it is a positive thing: Ned looks handsome, powerful, athletic. But gradually, it becomes a poignant image for the fact that he has lost everything: he has literally been stripped bare, physically, emotionally, financially, socially. Ned starts like the picture of success - an idle upper-class suburbanite whiling away a bright summer afternoon by the pool - and ends a failure shunned by all.

We are never told if Ned lost everything as a result of misfortune, or as a consequence of his own actions, although the scene with his beautiful ex-lover suggests he may have been at least partly responsible, his infidelity possibly one of the causes of his predicament. With scathing bitterness, Shirley recalls how he broke up with her because of ‘his duties as a father and a husband’. But when he puts sun cream on her back, she visibly responds to his touch. And when he shivers with cold she puts a towel around his shoulders. The spark is still there and Ned tries to reignite it, but Shirley angrily resists the pull of past love, the hurt obvious underneath the lies she tells him to push him away. As with the nouveaux riches or the shop-keepers, Ned is lost and confused, unable to comprehend why she rejects him so violently.

Ned is indeed incapable to face the reality of his life, and keeping on swimming through the pools until he gets home is a way of pretending things are still the way they used to be. In a key scene that is the heart of the film, Ned comes across a lonely little boy who sells lemonade on a wall outside his absent parents’ mansion. Ned wants to swim in their pool, but the parents have emptied it because the boy is not good at sports. As they sit by the empty pool, Ned tells the boy that it’s better not to be picked for a sports team because ‘it makes you free’, and it’s clear that he’s thinking about life in a more general - and typically American - way. He then decides that they will swim anyway and teaches the boy how to swim as if there was water in the pool. ‘If you make believe hard enough that something is true, then it is true for you,’ he tells the boy. What happens next shows that the boy is mature enough to understand the limits of make believe. Ned, on the other hand, remains pitifully self-deluded until he is faced with the crushing reality of his situation at the very end.

Like Walter Hill’s The Driver (1978), Jean-Pierre Melville’s The Samurai (1967) - which inspired The Driver - and Monte Hellman’s Two-Lane Blacktop (1971), The Swimmer reduces his main character to one single action/function. Confronted with the intolerable reality of living, the Swimmer, like the Samurai and the Driver(s), has a minimalist and mechanistic approach to life: the only way of coping is to keep repeating the same unique action over and over again. An action that is a physical projection onward, a constant need for movement: keep on driving, keep on swimming, keep moving forward to escape from the past, from one’s self, from life.

This article was first published on Darren Hayman’s Lido Music blog.

Virginie Sélavy