Monday, January 19, 2009

NOIR CITY #6: SUCCESS!




"The Sweet Smell of Success" by Ernest Lehman (1950)


Unlike most of the Noir City films, I have seen The Sweet Smell of Success multiple times and recommend it wholeheartedly. Such is my devotion to this noir I own both VHS and DVD copies despite the fact I have never owned a TV. As far as I'm concerned, this is the movie.

The source material ain't too bad either. Co-screen writer Ernest Lehman's novelette originally appeared in 1950 in Cosmopolitan (then a very much different magazine.) It opens with poor press agent Sidney Wallace listen to his mother kvetch about the seamy nature of her boy's chosen profession. Even his brother would rather work his way through college in a steam laundry than accept the cheerfully proffered proceeds of press agentry because there people "...work standing up--never on our knees."

Sidney doesn't disagree. He notes "...there was nothing I was not prepared to do, no level to which I would not descend..." to get his clients in the Winchell-like Harvey Hunsecker's column. In fact, he's just done a nice little favor for Hunsecker. To break up the romance of Hunsekcer's chihuahua-girl little sister Susan and crooner Steve Dallas, Sidney has placed a blind items accusing Dallas of marijuana usage and Communist sympathies in two other Broadway columns.

Dallas's career is derailed. Alas, Susan announces she's still going to marry him. A surprisingly sweaty Hunsecker is not pleased. With a few twinges of guilt, Sidney has to enact plan B, planting a few marijuana cigarettes in Steve's pocket and arranging a meet with a heavy handed member of New York's Finest. Listening to a drunk in a bar describe the results made even Sidney sick. But alas, it's all for naught. Sidney finds out, much like his cinematic counterpart, that little girls do learn many valuable lessons from their incest-minded big brothers.

It's a great little story, with cool atmosphere. Sidney describes one bar being:
...crowded with people like myself, who never went home if there was till someplace to go. Home is where the music stops, the floor show ends, the lights go on, and you are only you again.
Fans of the film will delight in many of the great subplots that made it to the screen almost unaltered, most notably Sidney's slimy way of "getting" the old comedian into Hunsecker's column. But Hunsecker himself is almost a shadow of the Lancaster character, who may pervade the novelette but has preciously little stage time. And those looking for dialog on the order of "You're dead. Go get yourself buried" or even "Match me, Sidney" are doomed to disappointment. The acid in the dialog was provided by pinko playwright Clifford Odets, who also apparently restructured the story to amplify the themes to infinity. The Sweet Smell of Success is that rarest of birds: a pretty good story that got made into a great picture.


I certainly am planning to see The Sweet Smell of Success for the umpteenth time on February 1st at the Castro.

2 comments:

aimeemarieeee said...

If I can find the book, I might try to read before the film shows. My one viewing...what a brutal story, as I remember. I'll be there though.

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